Photo Credit: peterrobbinsart.com
By: Bob Welch
The American Cowboy is an icon. Not only in the sense that the cowboy is revered, but also in the sense that the men and women who ride horses, wear boots, hats, and denim represent the uniquely American idea of freedom.
The nature of a cowboy’s work is the driving force behind the mythology. Mostly outdoors, physically taxing, free-roaming, and often dangerous, the actual lifestyle of a cowboy (especially an open range era cowboy) is a siren song for those who crave wilderness, adventure, and independence. What’s more, the culture of the open range days developed its own, unwritten code. The basic tenets of that code, such as fair-dealing, always assisting folks in need, a person’s right to privacy, and swift punishment for transgressors are attractive in any age.
Those qualities came to be represented by an iconic look. That look, of course, is rooted in practicality. Boots were made to protect feet from snakes and stickers—yet be safe enough to not become hung up in the stirrups of a bucking horse. Hats served as shade from sun, cover from rain, and even horse training tools on occasion.
Historically speaking, the open range cowboy’s time ended as ranches began to be fenced up. But just about that same time, the new invention of mass media was taking off. Whether it was dime novels, b-movies, or the earliest television shows, the cowboy was among the most popular characters. And ever since, the American West has remained a strong part of pop culture. Whether it was John Wayne defining the public idea of cowboy heroism in his blockbusters of the 1950s, the Urban Cowboy craze of the 1970s, country music’s renaissance in the 1990s, or today’s suddenly surging Yee Haw Agenda, the cowboy just doesn’t fade away.
Real working cowboys, I think, would contend that they don’t need pop culture to preserve their heritage. In fact, they might rail against the absurd portrayals therein if they were the kind inclined to do that sort of thing. No, for the cowboy there’s really no time to advocate for their heritage in the public square because they are too busy living it—not just wearing it.
Cowboys of today don’t differ too much from the original. At their core, they’re utilizing some of the world’s most harsh and unforgiving ecosystems to convert rain, sun, and soil into a safe, nutritious, and affordable protein the entire world can enjoy.
Now, you don’t have to ride a horse or own a cow to wear boots and a hat. That’s not the point. But when you do don the vestiges of cowboy culture, remember it’s not just swashbuckling freedom, danger, and adventure that those duds represent. It’s a spirit of service to our fellow man, filling a need and feeding a hunger.