HE'S BEEN to Magdalena and Tucumcari and Elko and Tonopah, too. Elko, now there's a cowboy town. Sits out there on the high, neon, Nevada desert like a reptilian mirage. You just come on it. Nothing but Greyhounds and the wind blowing through -- and the wind doesn't stop.
Beyond the big-paned window Holsteins are winding in oozy motion. To his right is an old floor lamp, with weak wattage and a dusty shade and a curlicue iron stem. It's the kind of lamp you could get at a fire sale for a dollar. It's the kind of lamp Walker Evans would have gladly gotten a picture of in an Okie farmhouse during the Depression.
His name is William Albert Allard, and his is the last cowboy song. He is more a cowboy of the heart and mind than the real riding, roping, Western thing. Bill Allard is a photographer, once from Minnesota, now of rural Virginia, and what he has been doing on and off this last decade and a half is going out West to document buckaroos in their own paradise.
He has shot them in Truth or Consequences, N.M. (T or C, they call it), and he has shot them in Winnemucca, Nev. ("The Line," is what they call the string of whorehouses down the street from the Gem Bar, behind the auto body), but mostly he's shot them as they truly are. Bill Allard has photographed men lost in the reverie of Western spaces. He has caught them around lonely campfires, on barstools, in rodeo arenas as they "bucked off" wild-looking animals. That's how cowboys invariably say it: buck off. "How'd you do?" one rodeo rider will ask another. "Aw, bucked off."
The result of Allard's work is now a Christmas art book called "Vanishing Breed." Only the title is ordinary. If Walker Evans were alive and working in color, these might be his pictures.
He has men holding catsup-smeared tin plates, drinking coffee from tin cans, staring into infinities. Sad little neon signs (B-A-R) light up coal-dark nights. He has shot hookers and boy marshals and a cowboy with a dog in his saddle. Some of Allard's pictures have an eerie, almost 19th-century tintype look.
Bill Allard, who is 45 and getting a divorce and, like a cowboy, rooting around for his next dollar, lives a couple of hours south of Washington, down past sleeping Civil War fields named Chancellorsville and the Wilderness. Once, he lived in Silver Spring. And hated every minute of it.
It is brittle-bright down here this afternoon, and in the distance blue-green, whale-humped mountains look inviting and feminine. In another billion years or so, the Rockies will look this soft and rounded. But the beauty of this place can be a mask for ugliness, for histories of violence.
"Yes, I can remember coming out of Minnesota when I was 26, and seeing this country for the first time, and just wondering what kind of bloodshed these valleys must have known once," he says. He is talking about the blood that ran in creeks between 1861 and 1865, that flowed between brothers, North and South.
The phone rings. It is a fancy gizmo phone, odd-shaped and new-fangled. The cowboy photographer reaches for it in a lurch, the way a tenderfoot bulldogger might throw himself off a horse. "Hey, yeah, howareya, can I get back to you, gimme a number, Steve," he says, picking up a felt-tip pen on the little wooden desk in front of him.
He cradles the phone in his ear, and makes a fist with his left hand, and then writes a phone number in that crook of skin between thumb and index finger. Three or four other phone numbers are already there; putting notes and numbers on your hand is an old cowboy trick.
"Sure," he says, "I've watched guys count cattle that way, when you're weaning, when the cows are coming through the chute. I remember one cowboy used to write the numbers on his palm: four lines and a slash, four lines and a slash. I can't write on my palms, though. They sweat too much."
Who'd ever want to be a cowboy, anyway? Has anything ever paid less for so much lousy work? They're our greatest legend and maybe our biggest lie, cowboys are -- at least in the way we've done them up, in Hollywood and 19th-century St. Looey photo parlors and elsewhere. No other American myth -- not Elvis or the Kennedys or James Dean or Howard Hughes or Marilyn Monroe -- can touch the man who went Westering a century ago. Westering was always the grandest American dream. But sometimes the dream got sad as Palm Sunday, the legend as tinny as an old rodeo buckle.
"I think Montana is still the best of what we've got left," says Allard. "It's hard to describe the feeling I get when I go in there. It's a feeling of being home. I don't know, though. I got a friend in Montana who claims the whole damn state is going to end up a double-wide trailer park. It's easy to misinterpret that space, to squander it."
The West vanished, all right, but it keeps coming back in new skins and masks. It haunts us "with a mythology of disappearance," says author Tom McGuane, who lives in Montana. McGuane wrote the eloquent foreword to Allard's book. The West is like fire, McGuane writes. "Hollywood, calf skin tables, and depreciation schedules can't kill it."
Maybe the trick to being a 20th-century cowboy, as McGuane hints, is to have a sense of glory and whimsy not entirely diminished. Here is some glory and whimsy not entirely diminished. It is something that was thumbtacked on a bulletin board at the Calgary Stampede up in Alberta four or five years ago. It was a kind of "classified" scribbled on a yellow scrap of paper. It said:
Wanted: 1 Cattle Queen (Single) with Good Teeth, Strong Back, Obedient, with 640 Acre Ranch and Contented Cows that Don't Scream the Place Down Before 10 a.m.
Cowboy stories are supposed to be profane and embellished and ridiculously nailed-over. This is an example:
A vagabond journalist, who had not yet taken a job at The Washington Post, was once sitting in a saloon in Lubbock, Tex., drinking long-necked Pearls and trying to feel Texan. Nature called and the fellow wobbled up off his stool. He listed toward the men's room. He went past a pool table, atop of which, fixed with incredible concentration, was a cowboy in a yellow slicker and a big Texas hat. He was about to stroke a shot into the corner pocket. At the critical second, the man from the East bumped his stick.
"Son," the cowboy said, half-turning, drawing it out, "I got a mind to knock a whistling fart outta you."
In "Vanishing Breed," squeezed in amid his page after page of lush photographs, Allard has told a cowboy story or two -- like the time it started to snow, and the dog whimpered to be let in, and the windowpanes got all ugly and threatening. Allard asked a weathered cowboy named Jim Martin how he thought the weather might be by morning.
"Deep and still," Martin said.
"What's that mean?" Allard said.
"Deep as your ass and still snowing."
Bill Allard is a thick man with a gruff, blunt friendliness. There is something explosive, something quietly coiled in him. Today he is wearing jeans and a denim shirt and he is sitting in a corner between two windows, leg crossed, cleaning a pipe. There is a piece of turquoise on one finger. His glasses are on a string around his neck. His elegant setter, Wind River Sally, lies somnolent at his feet. Sally has been feeling poorly lately.
His glass coffee cup has the McDonald's golden arches on it.
He doesn't own this house; he moved in here a year ago when he and his wife of 25 years split up. It is a fine old wooden house, creaky like a ship, mitered and mortared and tight. It dates from 1751, and after the War Between the States, a Confederate general moved in. The house sits on a ridge, below a country estate, and when the wind blows, it blows like a sonofabitch. The wind isn't blowing today.
"Nothing's better than being ignorant," Allard says. He is grabbing at houseflies and describing how he got his first photo job, at National Geographic, in 1964. He was a kid out of Minneapolis then with a portfolio of student work, already married, two children, and a nowhere job as a lineman on his re'sume'. At J.C. Penney, he bought a $29.95 suit with two pair of trousers.
"The man at the Geographic said, 'How do you feel about color?' 'Doesn't bother me a bit,' I said. Which was technically true since I had never shot in color in my life. He offered me a summer job at $95 a week." Basically, it was blind stupid luck, what Allard calls "serendipity." Cowboys rely on serendipity, too, to find a lost cow or duck a storm, only they don't call it by these fancy mail-order words.
He stayed on staff at Geographic for three years, until 1967. But, like a cowboy, he got restless, he wanted to go someplace else, he wanted to "get out there and mix it up" in some of the public issues of the day. So he worked out a free-lance agreement with Geographic, borrowed $4,500, bought his own cameras, and set about trying to get assignments with Look and Life. His first free-lance job was shooting the Basque country of France and Spain for his old employer. He turned 30 up in the mountains of France and didn't miss D.C. a lick.
He got down South to shoot some civil rights stuff for Life and Fortune. "But I didn't end up getting a lot published." He did some commercial work, including the Marlboro Man for the cigarette company. "There again my impulsiveness ended that." He had a different view of macho. He had this idea about shooting the Marlboro Man with some flowers in view.
He kept free-lancing for Geographic, shooting around the world, in Mexico and Peru and other places, becoming one of the magazine's best-known photographers. Then about a year ago, at an annual Geographic seminar of writers and photographers, he "unloaded" at Gilbert Grosvenor, president of the National Geographic Society. He was ticked off at the treatment he felt his Peruvian pictures were getting, and before he could stop himself, he shot out: "Gil, I'll trade a first-class ticket to anyplace in the world for some first-class professionalism among my colleagues." They've hardly spoken to him since over there, Allard says.
As Waylon Jennings wails it: Cowboys ain't easy to love, and they're harder to hold.
"The fact that we haven't talked to him has nothing to do with that," says Robert Gilka, the magazine's senior assistant editor in charge of photography. "What made it tough is that he did it in front of a collected group. And he wasn't even on staff. He's a helluva shooter, though." Gilka hired Allard 18 years ago. For his part, Allard regrets his intemperance in front of the Society president--though not the message.
"This is the worst year I've had in 15 years of free-lancing. I'm about to set off on my second assignment of 1982. [To shoot Andre' Previn and the Pittsburgh Symphony for Geo Magazine.] I'm such a rotten businessman." He shakes his head. "It's been a pretty emotional time. That thing with Grosvenor happened, and then there's the divorce, and then, too, I've had to try to get over my older brother's death. He killed himself in May."
But cowboys have a knack for surviving, for getting to the next town. He'll get out West again, maybe in the spring.
Although he wouldn't begin to put himself in their league, Allard says he has done okay on a horse--and carrying cameras to boot. "There's just no damn good way to do it. I've tried taking pieces of elastic. I've tried . . ." He gives up, disgusted to recall.
"I've gone on drives and tried to help out. I remember riding this little buckskin gelding once. He immediately decided he was going to show me the whole damn state of New Mexico. I had one camera around my neck and the other on my shoulder. The one on my neck was flying out in front of me. It could have decapitated me."
Did the boys laugh at you?
"Oh, Johnny laughed a little."
What is it essentially about a cowboy, he is asked. Or maybe the real question is what is it about cowboys that draws you to them? He studies it. He might as well be asked to describe the universe in a sentence. But he will try.
"First of all, it's space. Shaking his head, still disbelieving. Space that I could never adequately show in even the best of my pictures. Then it's the smells. It's the air. It's the history, if you have any conscious awareness . . ."
He scratches his head. "There's got to be something about a cowboy's life. Hell, there's no monetary gain. But what they've got, at least for the time they're out there, is independence. Yeah, that's the big thing. They've got independence." CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 3, "Idaho, 1975"; "Montana, 1979" both from "Vanishing Breed," Copyright (c) 1982, William Albert Allard. Allard.