Part of me always wanted to be a cowgirl. It might be why I collected model horses as a kid. Why I buy vintage boots on eBay. Why I watch shows like “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.” regardless of their believability or accuracy. So when I took a job teaching a summer writing class on a ranch in New Mexico, I pictured myself in a wild west adventure. I had visions of Tombstone and True Grit—part of me really expected to see tumbleweeds, mustangs, and the lean silhouette of cowboys riding along the tops of the mesas. When I got there, I learned that the ranch was no longer a working ranch—but they did still offer trail rides for people like me, who wanted to inject a little Southwest romanticism into their lives.
I should note here that it had been at least ten years since I’d been on a horse. But the desert was calling, and it was persistent. So my friend and I took the morning off and saddled up with a man who was a cross between the Marlboro man and Buffalo Bill. He had a fringed jacket and a cigar, and gave me a boost onto a palomino named Trigger. “As long as you know the front end from the back end of one of these,” he said, “I think you’ll be okay.”
We soon learned our wrangler was an actor. He’d been in more movies than we could count—he told us about working with people I’d dreamed of turning my books into feature films, the royalties from which might finally get me that new car or that regular haircut. We talked about Pretty Woman, the hero’s journey, Billy the Kid, and Georgia O’Keeffe. This place was so rich in history, and insight, and creativity, that it made me wonder how it might change me–if I managed to stay on the horse.
We rode past the cabin where they filmed “City Slickers,” down into an arroyo, and up by the mesa that O’Keeffe painted over and over again. Then our wrangler took off into a gallop and we followed. A pounding filled my ears—it might have been my heart banging against my ribs. It might have been Trigger’s hooves pounding the earth. “Why have I not been doing this every day of my life?” I thought. “What have I been doing with my time?” I held my hat as we rumbled through the scrub brush and prayed Trigger had more grace than I typically do. I had visions of that scene from “The Man from Snowy River”—the one where the hero rides the horse down the side of the mountain that appears to be a 90% grade—and I remembered that when I quit my teaching job, I gave up my life insurance. I never got around to writing that will, either. Not that my possessions amount to all that much, but still. I like to think that all my stuff wouldn’t be sold on eBay.
We turned by a cluster of juniper trees, their limbs stretching out like the claws of some mythical beast. The last time a horse tried to lose me in a tree, I ended up with a black eye—but I stayed on. I was a willful child. So when it became evident that Trigger was going through the tree, I leaned to the side, then ducked to avoid being clotheslined. It’s hard doing the limbo on horseback, and no amount of yoga can help you defy the laws of physics. I was never any good at physics, and I was no match for the juniper. Its stray limb snagged my shirt like a hooligan in a hockey brawl. When I emerged from the trees, I looked like one of the Clash.
My friend said, “At least it wasn’t a cactus.”
The wrangler laughed, said, “Are you decent? You need a saddle blanket?”
My shoulder burned, my shirt hung in shreds. But I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face.
Battles were won and lost here. O’Keefe painted here. Lucas filmed here. Hell, they might have even filmed the moon landing here. And I lost my shirt here.
“I think you’re an official cowgirl now,” he said, and I felt like, at least for a minute, maybe I was. I won’t be wrangling cattle, and I probably won’t be cast in the next wild west movie. But I’ll sew up my favorite blue shirt and smile when I wear it, thinking of the mesas that captured the hearts of so many writers, and painters, and filmmakers before me—that place that made my heart clatter in my chest. That place where the afternoon light turns the sand gold and the rocks red. That place where you can still see the silhouettes of cowboys and mustangs dotted along the ridgeline, if you tip the brim of your hat down to block the sun.