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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.

We rode through the cows on the first evening I was there, which in retrospect I realise was contrived for my benefit. We never did it again unless something had escaped (which was at least twice a week, to be fair). Gary complemented my spurs, the ones Russell won roping in the 1980s, and the note of surprise in his voice made me prouder than the words he said. I texted Russell immediately.

Gary’s not a man to waste a perfectly good cow-watching silence on idle chit-chat, but he did mention that he’d always wanted to go to Argentina. So, one evening we watched my little film about the Argentinian Rodeo instead of the NFR, then he wanted to watch the trekking in the Andes film, Donna asked about the Uruguay film, and they both wanted to see what horsemanship was like in Spain. Donna already knew the story, but Gary never read the blog before or since. When the screen finally faded to black, Gary sat back in his chair and took off his glasses. He rubbed them with his shirt, and then, without saying a word, he looked at me as if for the very first time. He considered me for a moment. Then he looked away, and put his glasses back on; nodding gently with his brow half-furrowed. I’d like Gary and Russell to meet one day. They’d approve of each other’s well-ironed shirts; the only ones in the mid-west that don’t have a white tobacco ring worn into the breast pocket. That’s the only aspect of the old school that these two gentlemen have willingly let go, while others hold on. In a world of chewing tobacco and hand-made knives, it’s easy to forget that Colorado is home to the cannabis vape pen too. In Arkansas, you can’t even buy alcohol on a Sunday. In Colorado, Spring Sundays are branding days, and I never did get used to seeing the few vape pens that appeared afterwards. It was never my bosses. Too recently-legalised for the old, and too taboo for the young, it was the thirty-somethings that surreptitiously sucked on them; not quite hiding, but not in plain sight, either.

It must have been at one of my first brandings that I complemented a guy on his rope. I hadn’t actually seen him use it but it looked very new and I was just trying to make friends. Apparently that means something different in cowboy language. We ended up flanking together – I handled the back end of the calf while he got the front – and when I looked up to ask if the calf had had all its shots, I could swear he had a little twinkle in his eye, the would-be embarrassed smile of a boy with intentions. I must say, for all the cowboys who read this, attempting to flirt whilst something is literally being castrated in front of you doesn’t exactly bode well, does it?

By the time I left Colorado, I had learnt to rope, to flank, to brand, to inject, to ear-tag, and to castrate. “Bloody hell, Ali,” said Arthur, my best friend back home, wincing at the thought of bull-fries, “Remind me not to piss you off.” I moved up to a country of green grass and red cows, and stayed there for long enough that the black cows of Colorado ranches began to look like silhouettes against the light of my memory. My lips still chapped from the Colorado drought, I sent photos of fat water droplets standing on lush grass back to Gary and Donna. “Man that sure is purdy,” said Gary. I was in Montana now, working with bucking horses again, but this time the lockdown was waning and there was finally the prospect of a rodeo on the horizon.

Sankey Pro Rodeo is one of the oldest stock contractors there is. The secret to their success is a horse called Custer. Custer wasn’t ‘one of the greats’ in the arena, so when Ike Sankey (co-founder) bought him in 1974, “Everybody told me what a dumbass I was, buying him at that price.” Ike chuckles, “That was the smartest thing I’ve ever done in my life.” Custer’s buck may not have been the best in the world, but his offspring were extraordinary: at the NFR in 1996, almost 30 of the bucking horses were his descendants, and half of those belonged to the Sankeys. By that time, the man that sold Custer had begun to regret it, and Ike had stopped bronc riding altogether. He went to the NFR four times, aged 18-22, but one day he found himself on the back of a bucking horse in Fort Worth, “and I’m sitting on this bronc with my hand running the rigging, eating a hot dog, thinking about what I’ve got to do at home the next morning. And I thought, shit, this ain’t my focus.” “Hang on – you were eating a hotdog on the bucking horse?” “Well, I was hungry.”

Ike’s like that. He’s straight-talking, but not always straight-faced, and whatever he says, goes. That’s how you find yourself agreeing to be in a hide race, or singing the national anthem solo, before you even know what you’ve agreed to. But he’s kind – he’s not seeing what you’re made of; it feels as if he already knows, and he wants you to step up and show it. A great deal happened in the coming weeks that I never expected. Ike Sankey taught me to fish, Zeke Thurston helped me get the grandson’s hook out of my finger, an Amish girl taught me to crack a bull-whip, I saw snow in May, and I spent the night of my 22nd birthday lost on a foggy Indian Reservation, singing Destiny’s Child with three whiskey-soaked cowboys from the ranch crew. And, I carried the flag at my very first American rodeo.

Alice Whaley by Mary Peters Photography

With the flag in hand and star-spangled eagles on my hat and my tasselled chaps, you’d almost have mistaken me for an American (provided I didn't speak). I even changed out my boots for some borrowed cowgirl ones. I was far more nervous than the situation warranted, but when you gallop past a line of cowboys with their hats over their hearts, you can’t think about the nerves. I could only smile. Still, no horse is going to let your first time go that smoothly. During the prayer, it’s just me and my horse in the centre of the arena, and he cranes his head around to sniff at my boot. An opportune breath of wind lifts the corner of the flag, and my horse wiffles out his big, curious lips and grabs it. Oh no, no, no. I tap his nose with my toe but that only makes him take a bigger bite of flag. Shit. What looks worse: a horse chewing the flag, or a girl castigating the horse during a prayer?

It seemed like a lot of people had their eyes closed so I gave the reins a subtle yank which was so subtle that my horse only looked at me and kept chewing. The prayer was still going on, and knowing I was not allowed to get the giggles only made things worse. I pulled my solemnest face and did my best to resolve the situation. It turns out fewer people had their eyes closed than I thought.

Alice Whaley by Mary Peters Photography

Girls and beer aren’t normally allowed behind the bucking chutes. Both are considered ‘too distracting’, but this wasn’t a normal rodeo, so off I went. No one was around to introduce me, but somehow, when you don’t know anyone, you’ve got nothing to lose. Far scarier was my second rodeo, when suddenly the new cowboys felt like strangers because I actually did have friends, and they weren’t there. We muddled along just fine anyway, and by the end of it they’d taught me Indian Leg Wrestling, and I’d taught them Uruguayan Wrestling (I lost at both), and Tanner Buttner told me that I couldn’t say I’d been to a rodeo unless I’d shotgunned a beer, so I learnt to do that too. The spectators were long gone, but a cowboy’s ‘car bar’ stays open long after the final chute has shut: there’s always a lukewarm beer in a pickup somewhere.

I loved it. I don’t know whether it’s a compliment to rodeo or to brandings to say I that both had me smiling equally hard. Rodeos are a better spectacle, but brandings are more hands-on, and we were never short of great horses and horsemen at either. And, the best thing about all of this? The thrill of my first rodeo is still ahead of me. At the Sankey Drive-In we bucked horses. I’ve yet to see ropers, calf wrestlers, bull riders, barrel racers, and rodeo clowns. I want to see American Bull-Fighting, and compare it to the Spanish toreadors I worked with. I want to see the horses buck in the spotlight that they were born for. Before all this, I didn’t even know it existed, and now I’ve got one goal: I’m going to the NFR.

I didn’t realise that I wanted to go home until the airline wouldn’t let me board the plane out of Montana. I was truly stuck in the States, scarily past the end of my visa, and now I’m finally home. The fields don't smell like sagebrush here and the cars seem awfully small, but the house has a certain steadiness that I didn’t know I’d missed. We’d planned not to hug when I got back – a ridiculous idea when it came to seeing my most loved ones again. My family say I’ve got taller since I left. They’re exactly as they’ve always been, living in motions so familiar that I've never seen them before. You don’t notice the rhythm of the household until you find yourself out of time. But, I stumble upon my old habits where I left them, and find that they still fit.

Goodbye, America. It has been a pleasure and an honour to know you.

“Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice”, writes E. M. Forster in A Room With a View. I read it in my trailer in Arkansas and, for once, Forster and I disagree. Falling in love with the Wild West couldn’t have been easier. The difficulty is in putting it all into words.

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