Where I’ve Been: A Writing Roundup

Photo by Penny Shaut. http://pennyshaut.com/

 Howdy folks! Quite a lot has happened since last summer’s cattle drive. I’ve moved, gotten married, adopted a cat (and a dog), and yes, I’ve been writing. Here is a quick rundown of links to recent articles and blog posts.

Roadtripping With the King James Bible

During my famous road trip of 2010, which was the instigation for this blog, I carried along a Victorian-era copy of the King James Bible. I wanted a book that had actually existed during the heyday of the American West, and after a lot of searching, I finally found one. I wrote about my “heirloom” for Manifold Greatness, a blog that correlates to an NEH-sponsored exhibition on the history and cultural impact of the King James Bible.

Buck Taylor, the Original Cowboy Hero 

The figure of Buck Taylor, one of the stars of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, continues to intrigue me long after I returned from the West. I did a quick post on Buck for my friend Ken Ackerman’s blog, Viral History.

The Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive

This piece originally appeared in the print edition of American Cowboy magazine. I spent five days driving cattle through the Nevada desert, listening to coyotes howl at night and keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes during the day. It was fantastic!

Food from the Age of Shakespeare

I like cooking and eating just as much as I enjoy history and pop culture. When I got a chance to blend the two in an article for Smithsonian, I couldn’t wait! This article chronicles my experiences preparing 17th-century recipes, which have no measurements, cooking times, or temperatures. Amazingly, they were edible.

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Dust and Saddle Leather

I returned yesterday from my stint as a modern-day cowpuncher. With 65 other aspirational cowboys, I spent 5 days moving a herd of steers through the High Sierra outside of Reno, NV.

Even with creature comforts like coldwater showers and hot meals, cowboying is tough. And despite the impression that cowboys are individualistic do-it-yourselfers, getting cows from Point A to Point B is a lesson in teamwork. On a cattle drive, each person has an assigned position and in order to keep the herd from devolving into chaos, everyone has to be in the right place at the right time. And since cows and horses tend to move–and cows are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to bolt out of the herd–constant adjustments are necessary. Brad, our trail boss, called this the “dynamic principle.” If there’s a gap in front of you, move up. If there’s a gap behind you, fall back. If the cows are moving too slowly, coordinate with the other riders to get behind them and use a combination of yells and your horse’s momentum to push ’em up. And if a cow gets loose, ride it down, get your horse between it and the open range, and drive it back into the herd.

On this drive, Part 1 of success relied on paying attention and using teamwork. Part 2 came from the horses. A horse can make or break its rider’s efficiency. We used trail horses, not trained cow ponies. And yes, there is a difference.

Trail horses tend to do what they are used to, i.e. walk behind each other as if on a leisurely pleasure ride. Cow ponies, on the other hand, are the offensive tacklers of cattle drives.

They’re fast. They know how to block. They’ll even use their teeth to nip at ornery steers and hustle them along.

I rode three horses over the course of the drive. Chino, whose habit of kicking whatever horse happened to be behind us meant I spent most of my time correcting his behavior, much like the mother of a screaming toddler. There was Gunsmoke, tall and comfortable to ride but so slow that if a cow got past us, it would likely be in the next county before he could be urged into more than a trot. And Cookie. Dark and fast, Cookie was no professional cow pony, but he wasn’t afraid to run and the best moments of the drive occurred while we were moving a breakaway steer back into the herd and then galloping to catch up. He made me look good, and for that I am grateful.

This is the hierarchy of cattle drives. The cows first, your horse second, and yourself last. Horses got water even when we didn’t. And our pace was set not by any schedule of human devising, but by the speed of the slowest-walking cow.

As far as the rest of it–falling asleep in my tent, hearing coyotes howling, waking up before the sun when the moon was bright enough to cast shadows–that was just like the movies. I’m not a cowboy. But I played one, once.

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Behind Cowboys and Soldiers

So I’ve spent the last three nights camped out near Bozeman, MT. Montana was the American end of the old cattle trails up from Texas, and those routes have been the basis for my northward drive over the past week. Along the way I’ve been diving into the past backwards, reading accounts written by the men themselves of life along the trail.

There’s a cowboy diary in Oklahoma City I picked up in the first week of the trip. Jack Bailey trailed a herd from Texas to Kansas in 1868, journaling in a battered notebook along the way. The cover is half worn away, but the pages still bear his strong, angled handwriting in brown ink that is still clear to read. I imagine him writing as the cattle are bedded down, or in odd spots along the trail (he records writing by a lakeshore at night, or under a tree ahead of the herd, or at the counter of the drugstore in Emporia, KS.)

I had read the diary twice through in a printed edition before seeing the original in the flesh, but the seeing the handwriting is like hearing someone talking. There is now a voice to the words. Jack dates each entry and includes the day of the week as well – sometimes he draws little curlicues and dots around the Ts on Tuesdays and Thursdays. No print edition could have told me that.

In Cody, WY I leafed through the old photos and papers at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center on the hunt for William Levi “Buck” Taylor. Taylor had been a star performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (the British Prime Minister dropped by to say hello during the show’s 1887 tour stop in London) and he had an international reputation as “the King of the Cowboys.”

Despite the fame, the long intervening years have caused his trail to go cold. Newspaper reports after he left the show suggest that all was not well. There were stories of an elopement with a young lady from Baltimore, assaults, a Buck Taylor impersonator. Letters home from another Wild West performer fail to mention Taylor’s name. His story is a hazy one, half-wrapped in legend and sensationalism. I found little that could be definitively traced to him, aside from period photographs and Wild West Show programs. Nothing that he had touched.

That night, I moved back to the present to watch rodeo cowboys. The Cody Nite Rodeo happens every evening throughout June, July, and August and gives a slice of Americana so thick it seems almost caricatured. After the opening prayer and national anthem, Bill Idol’s “White Wedding” kicked on over the speakers. I watched as men rode and roped and bucked steers and tied calves. Women and girls did barrel-racing and a few brave ladies did give the calf roping a try. Part of this trip was undertaken to find my limits, and I found some at the Cody Nite Rodeo. There’s no way I could do what they do.

Cowboys aren’t the only archetypes out here. Driving south and east out of Montana today I stopped by the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. On June 25, 1876 George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Calvary were decimated by an alliance of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. To my disappointment, the battle site was crowded. I had hoped to walk alone and collect my thoughts on what this clash had meant then and why we are still drawn to it today. It seemed a hopeless mess from the start: the officers of the frontier Army could not coordinate their attack, the Cheyennes and Sioux were fighting with everything they had, and neither side was willing to accept a partial victory. It was all or nothing.

From my vantage point of the 21st century, there is no glory in America’s decision to purchase the success of one civilization through the death of others. Custer had it coming.

And although I pass judgment on his actions, I feel sympathy for his fate. Standing on the ridge, facing the small hilltop where Custer and a handful of soldiers made their famous Last Stand, there is a shallow ravine to the right. The ravine is filled with clusters of white gravestones. They mark where the soldiers fell, some in groups, a few cut down alone. Those headstones march up along to the hilltop in a white trail, completing the run these men did not make in life.

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