Excerpt from the text by Gretel Ehrlich
There is a fundamental need in all of us to move out from under tyrannies, whether political, emotional, or economic, imposed from the outside or from within. We have to eat and breathe; we have to make peace with ourselves and society. The western frontier was a physical answer to the need for space. It represented what Wallace Stegner called “a geography of hope.” The Horse Whisperer, filmed on location in Montana, draws directly on this “geography of hope” as it tells the story of the healing of a young girl, her family, and a broken horse. The West’s breaks and draws, dry gulches, hanging alpine lakes, red-walled mesas, towering cirques, strings of cottonwoods following streams roaring out of the mountains, still carry with them the possibility of a fresh start and a path toward basic sanity. The West was once described as “a place of great breathing.” Its open spaces, both real and metaphorical, are essential to life itself.
In The Log of a Cowboy, written in 1902, a foreman gave this advice to the young men on their first day trailing cattle from Texas to Montana: “Boys, the secret of trailing cattle is never to let your herd know that they are under restraint.”
The West was once wide enough to move trail herds that way. Cowboys could string out a bunch of cattle farther than the eye could see, and keep going that way for five months without hitting a single strand of barbed wire. It was also a place where a man or woman could move out from under the conventional orthodoxies of thought, shedding oppressions and falsehoods–all those dictatorships of the soul–and set about breathing in fresh air.
Liberation, as that Texas foreman understood a hundred years ago, is not a single geographical point on a map but a pact agreed upon, an internal tension between discipline and chaos, because that’s the only way freedom can occur. Yet to ride a good horse behind a herd of cattle at dawn at the beginning of summer in the high country can go a long way in showing us the way to this state of mind; to live in a community where you are judged on how ardently you pitch in, how willing you are to get the work done with patience and respect, how easily you can laugh at yourself–that is what living in the West can be.
There are no more frontiers. But there is still a West. You can find it on the map and run your finger down its eastern edge: in the North Dakota grasslands on both sides of the Little Missouri River where Theodore Roosevelt ranched between 1884 and 1886; the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Sand Hills of western Nebraska, the Flint Hills of western Kansas–still unplowed and rich in native prairie grasses–and slicing down through Oklahoma’s panhandle into the hill country of Texas. Sweeping west from there are the rich grasslands of southern Arizona and New Mexico, and arid mountains where black panthers still roam; then up the Rocky Mountain cordillera that begins in Durango, Mexico, and stretches far north into Alberta and the Northwest Territories.
Great sweeping plains fan out to the east from the Rockies, and on the west side of the Continental Divide, range after range of mountains lie down and flatten out into great basins, then are gathered up again–as if a big hand were grabbing and pulling the land back into peaks–all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
Henry David Thoreau once remarked that he wished his neighbors were wilder. He would have loved the West, because even in its current subdivided, eviscerated state, it still has great pockets of wild lands and a feral exuberance that cannot be restrained; vestiges of the West’s former freedoms still inspire, still work on the tired mind as a healing balm.
The view from most western ranches goes for at least a hundred miles. Because of the vast landscape we’ve inherited, Americans, especially westerners, are prone to loneliness. The nearest neighbor may be ten or twenty miles away, and town fifty or a hundred miles–a bend in the road with a bar, a half-stocked grocery store, a gas pump, and nothing more. Living well on a ranch is the art of making do.
The cowboy’s life has stood for the achievements of individual humans, grasses, sun, and animals, not masses of humans the machine. Living on a ranch, undisciplined needs are curbed; it’s a place not only for renewal but for invention: ranchers are frugal–they make what they need, cook the foods they long for, entertain themselves with storytelling, dances, pack trips, cookouts, or just plain howling with the coyotes.
To understand this place, wherever it is–north or south, desert or alpine, sand hills or rock faces–you have to put in some time. A ranch is not a plaything to be purchased like a car or visited only when the weather is good. Rural life demands and engenders constancy: land is time; time is metered out in snowfall, wind, drought, floods, and blizzards. Rewards come only to those who stay through all the seasons. That means every day, all day, because there are no shortcuts to intimacy.