Writers, especially us human-interest types that lean towards the first person, walk a fine line. Most of the cattle drive staff, including the trail boss, Brad, and the cattle boss, Randy, knew that I was “on assignment.” Whether I wanted to out myself to my fellow participants remained largely at my own discretion. But since I needed to interview them, I figured the cat would be out of the bag eventually and it would be best to tell what I was doing up front.
The end result was that I did the drive with a split personality. From 7am (or whatever earlier hour the day got started) until the time we got into camp, I was just one of many wannabe wranglers, hustling cows along and doing my best not to make any trouble. On good days, I felt as if I was actually being helpful.
But once we hit camp, I switched from cowboy to journalist. I wiped the dust off as best I could, changed out of my filthy Carhartt jeans, and grabbed my notebook. Taking interviews the old-fashioned way, pen and paper in hand, seemed more fitting than typing something on my laptop (although that was packed away in my duffel bag, just in case.) Most people were happy to talk. A few got extra-inquisitive and kept asking me about the story while we were out with the herd, trying to keep 300 steers “on task.” Those were the moments when I wished there was something called journalistic immunity. I wanted to keep the story for myself and tell it when I was ready. I didn’t want to answer questions while it was still gestating, drifting around half-baked in my brain that already felt overloaded taking in some many new experiences.
The drive did not give me any profound moments. I didn’t have brilliant insights, or reach a Zen-like state by discovering my place in the universe. I was there to do a job, and my visions began and ended with that. I was there to ride a horse and punch cows, and following that, I was to write.
As a result, pragmatism found its way into my luggage as well. I brought 39.5 lbs of gear out with me, including my tent, sleeping bag, and clothes. None of it was makeup. (Ok, I had a little face powder, but with SPF 15, it served a practical function.) I did not come West to play pretty. My legitimacy on this trip rested on whether or not I could rise to the occasion. I figured after I mastered those priorities, then I could worry about glamming it up on some future venture. I didn’t want superficial stuff to get in the way of immersing myself in the experience, whatever that might entail. I didn’t want to be a fake, the female equivalent of a man who is “all hat and no cattle.”
In the end, I’m not sure if my attempts at authenticity made the trip any more or less genuine. As I mentioned, I didn’t experience the profound. But I did experience satisfaction. There is a simple contentment in taking risks and finishing a job. And that I found in spades.
Note: The Toby Keith bumper sticker was affixed to one of the chairs in the dining tent. I had to take a picture!