The cowboy way 

Chasm between expectation and reality drives memoir

The last time I rode a horse was on one of the tourist rides that Tom Groneberg describes guiding in his collection of linked essays, The Secret Life of Cowboys. I was in Jackson Hole for a family reunion when my little cousins convinced me to go on an afternoon horseback trip. Sinister elementary school types that they were, they made the ride sound like a casual affair. I envisioned a 30-minute jaunt around a pasture, or maybe even a few circles around a corral on a half-dead pony named Honey.

Instead, I found myself on a six-hour trek, and within an hour my knees and back were shot. I grew convinced that my horse (Storm? Thunderbolt? Mephistopheles?) possessed a sixth sense, some kind of animal intuition, and that it was waiting to hurl me into one of the snake-filled canyons whose scenery I was ostensibly enjoying.

Yet I endured the remainder of the ride, managing, with semi-heroic restraint, to avoid asking, “How many more miles?” every five minutes. When the ordeal was finally over, I somehow dismounted without injury. My horse’s eyes, which to me seemed freakishly large, (Charlie Manson large—too much pupil) flickered with contempt as she (or he, who knows?) bowed for a snack of oats. Or maybe they didn’t. The point is, the whole experience made me vow never to ride again. Rugged cowboy, I am not.

So it was with trepidation that I began reading Groneberg’s account, in which a young Midwesterner heads out West to pursue a dream of authenticity and break away from television, beer and a corporate future. Here we go, I thought, figuring the battle lines were going to be drawn right away. Tourists, Easterners, and city folk would be black-socked tenderfoots with neon fannypacks and whiny kids who wished they were home with their video games and their sugary snacks. The cowboys would be strong and silent, hiding their hearts of gold behind gruff pronouncements about tack and rope, and the landscape of the West, with its scrubbed expanses and bloody history, would serve as a metaphor for the hard-won nature of honest truths, etc.

I felt, reading the first section of Groneberg’s book, that there was some cause for concern on this account. For one thing, a masculine, Hemingwayesque aversion to contractions looms large: “You are going to be riding Powdered Sugar today,” says Groneberg’s boss to a skittish client. I’m wary of reading about silent men and their mysterious dignity, so you’ll forgive me if I’m being unfair, but this concern does have a critical component. My question was this: If the West had so much allure, and the life the author left behind was so bland in comparison, where was the tension going to come from to propel the reader along? In other words, what was it that Tom Groneberg had to lose by leaving his past behind and heading out West?

Plenty, it turns out. Making my way through the book, I began to reconsider the way I was reading, and I found myself starting to think of The Secret Life of Cowboys as the story of a love affair. As a young man, Groneberg battles with the very dichotomy I’ve mentioned, romantically idealizing cowboys and attempting to become one of their number. He’s head over heels in love with the West and the cowboy way. As he ages and gets more acclimated, however, his love affair, like all love affairs, is forced to contend with reality.

Reality Groneberg can do, and the impositions of reality provide this account with some much-needed tension. As the book progresses, Groneberg works a variety of jobs that culminate in the acquisition, with his wife, of a working ranch outside Miles City. Throughout this process, Groneberg starts to notice things about the landscape that escaped him in his first summer. Take, for example, the following passage, describing a calf he’s just thrown into a “dead bed” of discarded ranch objects: “I stare down at the cow, her neck bent at an unnatural angle, nose caught in the middle of a discarded truck tire. The calf, its insides exposed to the world, has landed on a pile of greasy rags, old work shirts and jeans.” If Groneberg possesses Hemingway’s aversion to contractions, numerous passages such as this one show that he also possesses that writer’s gift for rendering memorable descriptions in clear, concise prose.

By the time Groneberg acquires his own ranch—an act that, to continue the love metaphor, surely constitutes an exchange of vows—he has earned the reader’s sympathy, and watching him do battle with the land and the exhaustion of ranch life makes for moving and entertaining reading. Groneberg is forthcoming about his failures and shortcomings. At a community calf branding, he fails at wrestling a calf to the ground in the presence of all his neighbors. In dogged pursuit of cowboy authenticity—and at the age of 30—Groneberg sets out to become a saddle bronc contestant at the Bucking Horse Sale, despite being mature enough to understand what he’s getting himself into. As his animals die during an especially harsh Montana winter, he temporarily loses his capacity to love horses. The narrative picks up as it turns into a classic confrontation between expectation and actuality, and watching this confrontation play out provides the book with its narrative thrust.

Over the course of The Secret Life of Cowboys, Groneberg manages to build a working marriage with both the cowboy ideal and the West itself. If you’re among those who have spent more time on the couch than in the saddle, you might find this account initially off-putting in its earnest quest for cowboy authenticity. If you stick with it, though, by the book’s conclusion you may well be surprised by the grace of the dismount.

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