Boots on the ground aren’t the same as boots in the stirrup. I was reminded of this on a recent trail ride in Montana where a part-time rodeo clown/dude ranch hostler led us off into the trees with a warning about the full-grown bear that had scattered trail horses and clawed a tent the day before. “What happens if we see one,” I asked. Clown Dude shrugged and grinned. “Then it’s every man for himself.”
So it’s been awhile since I sat a saddle and I don’t remember it being so hard—a bit like balancing a kayak in a moving stream. The trail wound around trees and recrossed a stream while my horse tried to nip the horse in front. “Keep away or you’ll have a fight on your hands,” Clown Dude warned after the first clash. “But stay bunched up.”
The two-hour ride seemed quite zen-like as I contemplated the possibility of bear at any turn. In retrospect, the ride turned out to be exhilarating, but I seriously don’t think Clown Dude cared one way or another. Another bear story would go down like aged whiskey on Saturday night for his rodeo pals. What made the day special was having my skills called to high alert. The trail through the trees was similar to ones I’ve ridden on a trail bike, but factoring in some horse attitude, an extra four feet of height and a novice perch made everything a rush.
Challenge is the stuff of life. The pioneers knew it. The astronauts knew it. Maybe Clown Dude, Monty, knew it too, and let me cinch my own saddle, so to speak.
Another great moment happened on the vacation. My daughters and their families were with us at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming. We wandered down to the kiosk with the Western Writers ofAmerica display. My granddaughter keyed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name in the search bar. I followed with Willa Cather. Someone searched for Craig Johnson. We were crowded around the interactive display when I entered my own name and watched my photo and bio pop up.
You know the saying, There was a moment? My family stood there contemplating what they were seeing. “That’s so cool,” I heard a son-in-law mutter. My daughter snapped a photo of me next to my display. I swear to God, I can die now. My life is complete.
Almost as good, Boy in theDarkness, my historical western novella set in the Wyoming plains released as #1 on Amazon new releases for Children’s Historical Western. Too cool—even though it’s not a children’s book at all. My family joined me in the happy dance.
On the way home we stopped for breakfast at a little café with a lot of cars parked outside. Took a seat near two tables waiting for their food while the harried waitress tried to keep up. The cook was putting out a plate every ten minutes. I had time to chat with locals and to photograph the cowboy hats hanging in a row around the room to honor deceased local ranchers. Five tables and an hour later the waitress brought our oversized plate of thick sourdough toast. I started around the room, offering cowboy toast to everyone still waiting. The waitress flashed me a surprised look, but I didn’t much care. The tension in the room melted as people spread jelly on their toast.
When we finished eating, the waitress passed us our bill with a note that the tab had been taken care of. If you’re ever in Lander, Wyoming, stop in at the Maverick. Great hat collection and a decent omelette if you’re not in a hurry. And take your kids on a tour of the West. It’s their heritage. Maybe encourage them to read a western historical