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Goodbye Americana

Updated: Jul 18, 2020

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I slotted into the States like bread into a toaster. Life was snugger and warmer than it’s ever been, and for the most part problems were practical, not existential, for a change. The trouble with toasters is that it’s always a shock when the bread pops out, even though you know it’s coming.

Flag photo by Mary Peters Photography

Three states and three lives later, I’m back home, and every time I hear ‘Happy Independence Day’ from across the pond I wonder what exactly it is I’ve left behind. I knew I’d miss being a cowboy. Nothing beats riding through the Arkansan pine trees, the Coloradan desert, and the Montanan mountains, gathering your bucking stock or your Angus cows. Every now and again I find myself thinking about bull number 440’s kind eyes at Hi Lo Pro Rodeo, and the inquisitive ears of Sankey Pro Rodeo’s stallion, ‘The Brute’.

I’ve breathed wet air, dry air, and fresh air, and - even when my shirt is stuck to my back or my thighs are frozen through my chinks - country people know that there’s nothing’ll make you not ‘ride the stock’. It’s different from trail riding. Knowing that you have a job to do makes you sit up a little straighter, lean into the wind a little harder and brace yourself with more determination than you knew you had. Except, my job isn’t quite like a cowboy’s. For a rancher, going home early is betraying the animals. For me, it’s betraying the ranchers. I promised to live as a cowboy so I could tell their story properly, but they’re tougher than I am. In Colorado, Gary sometimes slipped off into the frosty air to feed the bulls while the rest of us finished our morning coffee, and while I took an afternoon every week to write, he and Donna would sweat through their hat-bands without question or complaint, just like the other six days a week. Ranching’s hard, but it’s one hell of a life

Lifestyle and landscape are the cover girls of culture, but most of all, coming home, the change is in the laughter. Cowboys tell stories and pull pranks like no one else I’ve ever known. They’ll act out all the parts and voices of every reckless tale; the good ones even impersonate the horses. The stories were a joy from the start. The pranks took more getting used to.

I arrived in Arkansas very English, and I was thrown into the deep end of American humour before my first day at Hi Lo Pro Rodeo had even begun. My new colleague, Russell, and I were driving to the ranch, when he pulls into a Drive-Thru, grinning. “Just go along with it, ok? Oh man this is gonna be so darn funny.”

“Hey Robert,” he says to the guy in the window, “You know how you was sayin’ I oughtta find myself a woman? Well guess what. I done got myself a mail-order bride. This is Ali. She’s from England.”

Robert and I are both stunned. I stumble a brief “Hello”, and Robert blinks at my accent, “Well, I’ll be damned,” he says.

Russell’s grinning harder than ever at his joke’s success, about full to bursting with suppressed giggles while he explains how he found me in a magazine. Robert’s still speechless. His eyes flick between us quizzically. He doesn’t want to believe Russell, but equally he doesn’t want to offend the bride, and he can’t actually think of another reason for a twenty-something English girl to be sitting in Russell’s truck so he’s still speechless. Russell finishes his tale and I’m ready for the big reveal, but Robert’s face starts sliding past the back window and there isn’t time for another word. Russell’s beside himself.

“Haw we had him didn’t we!”

We did. Weeks later, I pull up to a different Drive-Thru in the same ranch truck: six wheels with big Hi Lo Pro Rodeo branding on the doors. I thank the check-out girl and after her cursory, “Oh my god I love your accent”, I can see her putting two and two together, “Are you, um, Russell’s, er, overseas wife?”

Turns out facemasks and plexi-glass screens do nothing against the spread of gossip. So much for my reputation as a respectable writer.

Even people who didn’t know me as a mail-order bride did double-takes at traffic lights. After work, I’d let my hair down and put my glasses on, and drive to the library to write for the afternoon. Men in cars smaller than mine would notice the truck first, then me, and then their faces would get all twisted up while they figured out how to feel about it. Then the light turned green. In Colorado or Montana, nobody would think twice about a blonde 21-year-old driving a six-wheeler, but Magnolia, Arkansas, is a little different – there’s a small university, and nobody wears cowboy hats except us. One time, Russell leant down to take off his spurs before we went into Walmart.

“I don’t want people to stare,” he said.

It was Russell that suggested giving me a gun.

“What am I going to do with a gun?” says the English girl, who has shot maybe twice in her life – and missed the clay pigeon both times.

I was moving out of Russell’s spare room and into a trailer in the woods, alone.

“What if there’s a kai-oat (coyote), or a snake?” says Russell.

“I’ll leave it alone!”

Russell just harrumphed and left me to it.

The woods were very quiet that night. I wouldn’t have been scared of howling coyotes, but the only sound was the slow, rhythmic whisper of legs through leaves. Four legs sounded like two, and flickers in the hallway light became shadows in the doorway. I remembered the real silhouette in my doorway in Uruguay, and all the men at traffic lights, and how word travels fast in this small town, and how there’s only so much locking you can do to a trailer. I grabbed my pen-knife and lay holding it under my pillow. At some point the light under my door stopped being bright and I knew it was morning.

I was glad to find Russell and Earl feeding the bulls.

“Alright. I’ll take the gun.”

After that, trailer life was pleasant. I forgot that I was sleeping with a .22 calibre pistol under my bed. Russell kept a fat roan called Little Red nearby, and I was free to ride him in the evenings. We were alone together on the yellow woodland tracks, with nothing but the nodding-donkey oil-pumps and each other for company. I got used to the western saddle, and Little Red got used to me. Gently loping across the sun-mottled grass, the low rays caught and turned golden in the fur around his pricked ears. Sometimes we’d spot a couple of whitetail deer, but nothing compared to the herds of whitetails, mulies, elk and antelope in Montana. I saw my first ever racoon climbing up the ladder to a deer stand, making a home of his hunters’ winter hideout.

For me, Arkansas didn’t mean learning about horsemanship. I learnt what a bronc is in the pasture, and I saw our horses bucking in the NFR re-runs every night, but what stayed with me from Arkansas was a pair of prize roping spurs and a little book called The Cowboy Bible. Not ‘La Biblia Gaucha’, like Carlos gave me in Uruguay, but the real Christian Bible, for cowboys. Never one to name the cosmic force myself, I read it out of curiosity in my trailer, in the self-proclaimed ‘Bible Belt’, and learnt a great deal more about cowboys than I thought I would. Bronc riders often kneel or cross themselves before they ride: “I can do all things through Christ” (Philipians 4:13). The preacher of the Cowboy Church in Magnolia reminded us over Facebook Live on a Sunday, “Some boast in chariots and some in horses, but we will boast in the name of the Lord, our God.” (Psalm 20:7). Such resonant humility seems an unlikely anchor beneath the bright lights and blaring sponsors at every pro rodeo, but it’s an antidote, the missing piece that explains everything. A cowboy I know is about to make the National Finals; he has every reason to be proud of himself, but his humility reaches all the way to his heart because he truly believes, “I am second.”

And yet, the same guy is the cheekiest bastard you’ve every met. That’s the thing with the States, it’s work hard, play hard; joke hard, pray hard. It’s a nation of extremes, as Sir Francis Head wrote in 1846; “The heavens of America appear infinitely higher, the sky is bluer, the air is fresher, the cold is intenser, the moon looks larger, the stars are brighter the thunder is louder, the lightning is vivider, the wind is stronger, the rain is heavier, the mountains are higher, the rivers longer, the forests bigger, the plains broader.”

When I studied Sir Francis Head’s portrayal of America at University, I laughed. Now I know it to be true. I’ll never forget waking up in Colorado to so much blue and yellow that the clouds met the sand on a horizon far farther away that I thought possible. And, as if the inhabitants have swallowed a piece of those huge heavens, the laughs in America are louder, the beers are colder, the opinions are stronger, and the characters are larger than life. I spent one night in America scared of that shadowy extreme that I had been warned about, but, by the light of day, it was only the leg-pulling, back-slapping, storytelling side of the coin that made itself known to me. If Arkansas was peace and greenery, the High Plains Desert of Colorado brought me the opposite. There wasn’t time to trail ride for the fun of it, and I never did learn the names of the sparse plants struggling through the dry sand – we were too busy feeding, sorting, gathering, and, above all, branding. I beamed at our cattle in the knowledge that I had put the ‘cow’ in cowboy at last. Back then, I didn’t know that plenty of bronc riders ranch for a living. I thought cattle farmers were cowboys and bronc riders were wannabes. I was still blinded by the bright lights of the pro rodeo, and I couldn’t see past the branded pearl-snap shirts to the down-to-earth cowboys underneath.

I found the job in Colorado through Instagram, of all things. I had asked everyone I knew in Arkansas if they knew any real cowboys: men that work cows on horseback. “No,” they said vaguely, “I don’t think anyone really does that anymore.”

(The Coloradans laugh when I tell them this story, “Are they blind down in Arkansas?”) “Well,” I thought, “I know at least one ranch like that still exists ‘cause they follow me on Instagram.” So, I messaged ‘Scarred Leather’ cold, and was met with warmth. I was surprised and relieved to find myself talking to a woman when I picked up the phone. Every other job so far had been with known people, with friends of friends of friends; I never knew what to expect from a job, except that my bosses would be good people. I didn’t have that guarantee with Colorado. So, I thought, if you’re going to go and live with a stranger from the internet, at least let it be a girl, right? Sending that message was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Donna drove all the way to Amarillo, Texas, to come and pick me up, and we, everything, life, just clicked. She’s university educated and has spent enough time away from her country roots to appreciate coming back to them, so she knows where I’m coming from. Her brother-in-law Gary runs the ranch. He was definitely suspicious of me at first. It wasn’t because I’m a girl; to his mind, if you’re a hand, you’re a hand. The thing is, you’ve got to prove it.