By Robert Wolf
Decorah, IA, USA
I’m standing in the post office in Nara Visa, New Mexico, the last business in town. Nara Visa’s wreckage is apparent from the highway that cuts through this collection of crumbling adobe houses, dilapidated stores, and abandoned café and truck stop.
Eighty years ago Nara Visa was a regional center for cattle shipping. Ranchers within a fifty-mile radius drove their herds to the rail yard where they were loaded on cattle cars and shipped to slaughterhouses. Now the days of the cowboy who lived on a ranch and worked full time are over. Today most cowboys do day work—a day here and a day there.
Standing nearby me at the postal counter is a young man in a Texas style hat (the sides of the brim are molded to curve up), clean jeans and shirt, with a drooping mustache on his upper lip and a wad of snuff beneath his lower lip. The flesh beneath the lower lip protrudes. He is trying to look and act like a cowboy, but his movements and speech are self-conscious.
Without asking his name I know at once who he is: the son of the postal clerk whom I met at the annual Nara Visa Cowboy Gathering about six years ago. I know he is her son because back around five years ago she had told a group of us eating dinner about his ambition. She didn’t want him to pursue it. Why? I asked. She pointed first to my close friend sitting beside me—Clyde Shepherd, an old-time cowboy and ranch manager—and then pointed to his walker.
Now the clerk’s son is living his dream, but the dream of the cowboy is over, as far as steady work goes. Aside from the largest ranches, most cattle operations cannot afford full-time cowboys—or find it more profitable not to hire any.
Like the farmer and the commercial fisherman, the cowboy is a vanishing breed. But it is precisely the vanishing breeds that have held my attention since I first read about them as a kid. I identified these and other iconic workers as the most representative of Americans. In my young mind, despite their outward differences of speech and other cultural markings, they best expressed what was fundamentally American.
By the time I was sixteen, I was sure there was such a thing as the American soul. My imagination had been fired by American regionalist writings and paintings, and by the hoboing and cross-country treks of people like Carl Sandburg and Jack Kerouac. I determined to go in search of the American soul and look for it, not among businessmen and their wives (I had plenty of exposure to them growing up) but among farmers, ranchers, welders, fishermen, auto mechanics—the working people of America. And not all working people, but those rooted in regional cultures. I suppose I understood intuitively that my search would focus on areas that had been relatively untouched by modernization.
This was a romantic quest, a young person’s quest. Not only did I want to travel, I wanted to work every job in the country, live in every town, have conversations with everyone. And so at sixteen, cramped and stifled by my suburban Connecticut community, I defied my parents ran off and hitchhiked to Ohio to visit my paternal grandparents.
Over the years I continued to travel—driving, hitchhiking, hopping freights, riding buses—back and forth across country. At age 68, I have lived in ten states and had lengthy sojourns in others. I have had far more jobs than most people.
Since the summer I hitchhiked to Ohio, I have kept my antennae tuned to the country’s cultural backwaters, to cultural survivals from the past. In these backwaters—Hispanic villages, Iowa farms, Texas Panhandle and Tennessee Delta towns—I have found most of my close friends, the people with whom I am most simpatico. To the striving urbanite, I imagine, my friends are merely irrelevancies in the hustling world. Even most of my friend’s children do not want to live as their parents did: they want high-paying jobs in tumultuous American cities: they want what everyone else seems to want—the latest technological gadgets, fast cars or SUVs. The list goes on.
This would-be cowboy in Nara Visa is an exception among the children of my friends who grew up in vanishing regional cultures, primarily because the young man’s culture fostered his dream, and also because his isolation offered him few opportunities. If his parents had left Nara Visa and moved to Amarillo, he might have become a car mechanic or welder.
My search for distinctly American meanings took me to people and experiences that as a youth I had only read about or seen in the cinema. Over the years, I lived on a ranch off and on for four years, taught college composition, wrote features for a big city daily, did office temp work, taught biology in a Brooklyn inner-city school, clerked in a big box store, and more. Each job brought me into contact with very different kinds of people, not just different races and ethnic groups. In the days when I wanted to be a writer but failed to work at the art, a famous writer who knew my ambition told me that someday my experiences would pay off.
Even now, over thirty years since my conversations with the writer, I continue traveling the country, stopping for a week or a month in a city or isolated village. I feel most alive when I am on the move, meeting new folk. I have a need to share these experiences, and as a fractured nation we need to hear one another’s voices. For if fragmentation is the force driving our society—and I believe it is—then we need to grasp the common humanity that lies beneath the attitudes and ignorance that divide us. I now see my work with Free River Press—getting Americans from all walks of life and from many parts of the country into writing workshops and publishing their stories—as a modest means of working for that goal.