My white girlfriend and her unfailingly kind family gifted me, one Christmas, a certificate for a full-body massage at a fancy hotel in the Bay Area. Situated on a hill, overlooking stately mansions that housed the monied founders and luminaries of a storied California university, the hotel looked less like a place for travelers and more like a secluded white castle. Metaphorically and figuratively. It was all wooden turrets and spires, pointed roofs and vast curved windows, so high up that it could only be seen from below, an immense intermediary between you and the sky.
I had been there before. As a young student in a poetry class, barely 21, I was assigned to accompany a visiting professor to her lodging after her lecture. We climbed the hill to the entrance while she chatted merrily. She was an eccentric and effervescent black woman, a small tornado of flowing fabrics, long scarves, and costume jewelry, with acrylic nails that clicked as she clasped her hands together, swinging from outlandish cluelessness ("What city are we in again?") to brutal precision ("You seem like someone that doesn’t really have a mother").
"This place used to be off-limits to us," she said as we made our way through the carpeted hallway. I said nothing. "Niggers," she clarified after a moment, to no one in particular, but loud enough for everyone behind every door to hear.
"That’s why I always stay here," she continued. "Fuck them. That’s what I say."
“It was as if I was describing a ghost sighting.”
Nearly a decade later, I returned to the hotel for a second time as a guest of two friends, invited with our kids to use the pool. Watching from a deck chair as my brown-skinned children splashed about in the water awakened in me a primal anxiety that I hid underneath small talk with our hosts. The kids were screaming and singing, pushing one another off a pink floatie, wet hair clinging to their little faces, their laughter echoing off the water and the canyons. I was thinking about the time in 1964 when a white Florida hotel manager poured acid in his pool after it was occupied by anti-segregationists. I first saw a photograph of it when I was about 15 and I still think about it a lot. Mostly because I know, intimately, the abyssal cruelty under the placid resolve on the manager’s face. White men have looked at me that very same way when they were hurting me. Beating me back. That look is the icy conviction of a man who has determined it is time to return things to their natural order.
Now, many years later, I was to return to the white castle for a simple massage, letting my body, now flabby and flawed with age, be touched by a stranger. I was aware that the whole notion made me feel nervous, but I made a conscious decision to ignore that discomfort. This would be good, I decided. I was going to treat myself.
But then the day of the appointment came and went. I simply forgot. I was cleaning. I was writing. I was sleeping. I put it on the wrong day in my calendar somehow; I had, somehow, the wrong weekend in my mind.
My girlfriend was upset. We spent a few days apart. I took a stab at explaining to her what the whole thing brought up for me, things I was discovering even as I spoke. I told her about the creepiness. The white castle. The pool and the shadowy foreboding I felt deep in my stomach whenever I came close to this luxury resort. But the more I talked about it, the sillier I felt. It was as if I was describing a ghost sighting. There’s something there. You can’t see it. You can’t feel it. But it’s there. It’s evil. And so, like, that’s why I totally spaced on that massage you and your family got me.
It started to feel as though I were making it all up. And that’s the thing about racism in 2017. For many, it’s psychological. There’s no way to prove it’s there and a million ways to prove it is not. This is what makes its very existence a low-grade, persistent torture.
My girlfriend listened well. Kindly. With understanding. But eventually I just dipped into my credit cards to reimburse her. It seemed easier than trying to make a white woman see the same ghosts I did.
She also was the one who first told me, during a road trip through California, about the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. She casually mentioned it, and I immediately applied for and was granted a press pass. I thought it would be great to be around poets and cowboys for a little while, that the words I would hear would make me a better writer.
I had an image of cowboy poets as something very close to how I saw myself. Not culturally, but spiritually. People who find beauty in the simplest things. People who like to wander. People who become overwhelmed with feeling and need to write it out. People who feel most safe where there is nothing to contain them. People who like to be alone.
In my own life, the closest thing I’d ever had to a ranch was the San Fernando Valley. A hot, unforgiving, and unforgiven desert of concrete, wide boulevards and low-slung strip malls and warehouses extending far into a blazing orange horizon. Desperate to escape the tiny stucco apartment I shared with my mother, I spent my adolescence wandering these cement plains, Public Enemy and N.W.A spinning outlaw ballads in my ears. We were nomadic, moving from town to town, hood to hood, apartment to apartment, wherever the evictions and Section 8 vouchers took us, forever in search of roots we would never have.
I first heard the ambling, soulful country music of Ray Charles from my Aunt Gertrude’s old stereo system. He sang of heartache and desolation. Wailing songs like "I Can’t Stop Loving You" and "Crying Time" seemed made for me. I always felt like I was carrying a chest full of tears in my body, looking for the slightest reason to erupt. Sometimes I turned Fishbone up to dangerous volumes while I skated down blocks a mile long. Sometimes I sat on bus benches, watching cars stream by for the entire afternoon until the sky grew dark and the mere passage of time and the depth of sensitivity began to feel like a drug.
That was many years ago. As an adult I would like to think I have long since given up the morbidity of romance, the obsessive and gluttonous consumption of my own feelings. But maybe I was excited about the idea of a room full of cowboy poets because there was a part of me that wanted to get some of that back.
We arrived to Elko in the night, pulling into the Quality Inn parking lot where hotel staff were out shoveling snow, the lone sedan among a dozen pickup trucks. We were desperate to get out and stretch our legs. But as we began to untangle ourselves and our belongings from the seats, I noticed a creeping uneasiness that would afflict me throughout the weekend. I didn’t know what I expected or feared. Maybe a few lingering stares, maybe someone with hostile feelings toward black people would be visibly dismayed to have to see one here, all the way out in a high desert Nevada ranching town. I didn’t expect anything to actually happen. I just felt a nameless fear.
A few people looked up as we walked past; someone asked about the dog we had brought with us. Others — clearly in town for the poetry festival, decked out in stiff Western wear, ten-gallon hats and bolo ties — smiled broadly as we passed through the lobby. We settled into a small second-floor room with a window seat that overlooked a trailer park and an industrial gas supplier, and behind that a gradual slope of snowy mountaintops dissolving into the sky.
The next morning, I watched as the start times for the early events I had planned on attending passed over me like shadows. We ate continental breakfast in the lobby while an older couple yelled small talk at one another across the table. I went back to the room, presumably to schedule out my day, but instead lost myself in a lengthy Facebook debate about the nature of free speech. It was midmorning and I still hadn’t checked in with the press office.
I tried to make sense of the map and schedule of events, spread out over several locations in town, but for some reason I couldn’t focus. It occurred to me that while I really wanted to be here, I kind of didn’t want to be here. I would have been excited to be a fly on the wall, hearing the music, listening to the poets, taking in the ranching tales. But I didn’t want to be me here. I didn’t want to be a black writer from Oakland walking through a room full of cowboys.
Somehow identifying that made it all seem less daunting. I chalked my ill feelings up to garden-variety race anxiety and tossed them aside.
“There was a heartfelt appreciation for the journey each person had taken to be here — not just the distance, but the expedition itself.”
I found my way to the press room nestled away in a second-floor room at the Elko Convention Center. There I met Darcy Minter and Lora Minter (no relation), who handle the press and logistics for the event. They were endlessly welcoming and kind, and helped me make arrangements to interview Dom Flemons, a roots and Western musician from North Carolina, and one of two black performers in Elko that weekend. The other was his bassist.
This was the 33rd year of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and the Minters took pains to explain how every performer, poet, and panelist had to have a verified connection to actual ranching. No Hollywood poseurs would be found on the stages at Elko. That was for other, lesser cowboy poet weekends. The event in Elko was the original and the authentic.
I wandered through the lobby of the convention center, a cavernous building organized around a 1,000-seat auditorium and a village of smaller meeting rooms off of the main lobby. The scene was lively, a good couple hundred folks milling about dressed in their finest Western attire — a sea of silk fringes, woven ponchos, and turquoise bolo ties. Friends greeted each other, hugging and laughing, blocking the flow of traffic. In my basic jeans, t-shirt, and cap, I had the sense of being at someone else’s family reunion. A small team of impeccably dressed kids — identical cowboy hats, crisp white button-down Western shirts, and high-waisted Wrangler jeans, girls with blonde hair pulled into single braids — had set up a boot-shine booth. A vending section stood to one side hawking all manner of Western bric-a-brac; nearby, more expensive items, including original art, jewelry, and accessories, sat awaiting a silent auction.
I ducked into an open mic where I heard a few amateur poets spinning comedic verses about stray cows and practical jokes among ranchers. They were mostly old, grizzled men, gamely playing up their cowpoke aesthetic with handlebar mustaches and crusty aged hats. The poems were fine. The camaraderie was excellent. All of those who shared introduced themselves first, told a little about their ranches, where they hailed from, how their ramblings had brought them to this moment. In the earnest nods and unwavering focus of the audience, there was a heartfelt appreciation for the journey each person had taken to be here — not just the distance, but the expedition itself. Off of the ranches, with their great emptiness and solitude, and into the unexpected warmth of a fluorescent-lit conference room, where their quiet musings on long days and nights of isolation found recognition among the company of their far-flung fellows.
Later that day I returned to the hotel, where my girlfriend had been cooped up working on her book. We grabbed lunch at a diner and then drove far beyond the edge of town where the warehouses and casinos disappeared. The boundlessness of the land seemed to hold us together. We spoke little, but when we did it was about death and fear, love and childhood. I pulled over to traipse through the immaculate snow and take photographs of discarded train cars and broken signs, and I thought I saw her leaning back in her seat, staring longingly into the expanse.
“As they talked I felt myself settling in, and the painted backdrop depicting a long prairie and a mournful moon began to look nearly real.”
In the evening I returned to the festival, to a dark room at the Western Folklife Center that contained a raised stage where a small cadre of Native youth were showing sparse and beautiful films they had made about their homes. Tales of people trying to survive on an earth that had once welcomed them, but in a country intent on destroying them. I stood in the back, afraid for some reason to impose myself on the crowd by shuffling through it to find a seat.
Soon I was watching a group of white ranchers on the same stage, spinning tales of their lives in ten-gallon hats. They performed in a round robin, now a song from one, now a poem from another. As they talked I felt myself settling in, and the painted backdrop depicting a long prairie and a mournful moon began to look nearly real. I took a seat on the floor and closed my eyes.
A rancher and poet named Gail Steiger was speaking. His grandfather, Gail Gardner, was one of the original cowboy poets. Steiger told of Gardner’s journey out to the American West, his brief stint at Dartmouth College — where he tried and failed to fashion himself into a regular, non-ranching man — and his return to Prescott, Arizona, to seek a living among the cows and dry grasses. Like most cowboy poets, Gardner simply began by making up stories and verses to pass the time on his long and slow days of labor. Soon he was reciting them to folks in town, and his first poem, " Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail," became a folklore classic.
"They was on their way, goin' back to camp
A-packin' that awful load,
When who should they meet but the Devil himself
Come a-traipsin' down the road.
He says, 'You ornery cowboy skunks
You better go hunt for your holes,
'Cause I've come up from Hell's rim rock
Just to gather in your souls.'"
Gardner did not know how far his work had spread among cowboys until the tale started coming back to him, badly butchered and usually carrying the introduction "An old cowboy told my daddy this tale ..." Steiger recited the poem and his manner was striking and gentle. Reflective and honest.
My girlfriend was in a flow with her book and asked for a few more uninterrupted hours, so I retreated to a smoky casino near the highway, ate the largest steak I’ve ever seen, and watched a family — mother, father, daughter — perform country ballads accompanied by a keyboard and a drum machine. They were outrageously talented, wailing forlorn serenades into the wide terrain of slot machines and cigarettes. The dance floor remained nearly empty save for one elderly couple who swayed slowly in time to the music, her head bent and buried, almost mournfully, in the crook of his leathery neck.
“Songs like this have a way of unfolding in a layered harmony, with simple verse structures that become more and more beautiful with each repetition, like the petals of a flower unfolding in concentric rings.”
Early the next morning I headed over to the Northeastern Nevada Museum for another film festival, this one featuring the work of Oregon rancher and writer Whit Deschner. Deschner makes dry, quirky, personal docs recounting small stories — the time he adopted two ewes and they took over his life, the time two ranchers started a prank war that nearly ended in death — and big ones, like the time he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at just 43 years old. None of them have more than 5,000 views on YouTube, and Deschner’s work can seem provincial. But that morning, in the small theater, before my coffee had even set my blood in motion, I felt I was in the hands of a gifted and empathic storyteller. Still, I felt overly conspicuous in the back. Acutely aware of my aloneness, I struck up conversation with no one.
Still feeling softened and tender from these stories, I headed back to the Convention Center auditorium for a show called "The Roots of Cowboy Music." Featured on the bill were the Canadian ensemble Cowboy Celtic, who serenaded the assembled crowd with the Michael Martin Murphey ballad " Summer Ranges," the chorus echoing into the house and lulling everyone into prayerful silence.
"I wish that summers could last forever / The cold winds never would reach our door / I wish old partners could ride forever / On summer ranges forever more ..."
Dom Flemons performed the cowboy traditional " Goodbye Old Paint" as a disconsolate field holler that called to mind the slave anthems turned gospel songs I used to hear from my auntie’s record player on cold Sunday mornings. Songs like this have a way of unfolding in a layered harmony, with simple verse structures that become more and more beautiful with each repetition, like the petals of a flower unfolding in concentric rings. I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat, feeling something in me melt. Legend has it that a black cowhand named Charley Willis taught this song to another black cowboy named Jess Morris, who registered the composition with the Library of Congress by mail in the early 1940s (John Lomax would make an audio recording of Morris’s performance in 1942).
In Flemons’s sure hands, the lonesome chorale became broad and bracing. In the silence after each call he lofted into the theater, the notes would echo and rain down on all of our ears. By the time all of the performers gathered for an all-star sing-along of "Home on the Range," I was, despite myself, near tears. For me it was a call back to my earliest memories. When I was a very small child I used to wander around the house, holding a plastic horse and singing that song to myself, turning its winding melody over and over in my head.
I stepped out for some cold fresh air and reentered the convention center to find I was one of the only people left in the foyer. Another show had started and the throngs had disappeared into various panels and performances. I suddenly became aware of the presence of a bear of a man seated on a bench behind me. When I turned to look, his gaze was already fixed on me. He wore stiff faded jeans and a white Western shirt tucked into an ornate silver-and-turquoise belt, a brown blazer with suede accents, and an almost comically large Stetson with a brown-and-white feather tucked into one corner. His long hair was pulled into a stringy ponytail and his nose was bulbous and slightly pockmarked. He had the bearing of a king who for some reason was temporarily out of thrones to sit on.
"Hello," he said quietly.
I mumbled a greeting back, somewhat caught off guard by the abruptness of his appearance, and scurried up to the press room to meet with Flemons and his bassist/fiddler sidekick, Brian Farrow, absentmindedly thinking that here was the first person all weekend to have opened a conversation with me.
“Tracing the roots of cowboy music is like unfolding a string puzzle.”
Upstairs, Flemons, Farrow, and I talked like long-lost friends. I told them about my own fascination with country music and roots, how the ballads of George Jones and Ralph Stanley called to me early on, even as I posed as a hip-hop kid in ’90s Los Angeles.
Flemons told me his own story. Growing up in Arizona, he became interested in guitar in high school. He began hanging out at a folk festival near his home, and fell in love with the jagged and delicate literature of cowboy poets. This led him to seek out as many black musicians playing old-timey and roots music as he could find; before long, he had stumbled upon Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly, the guitarist/singer/songwriter considered by most historians to be the original nexus point of blues, bluegrass, Dixieland, and country-and-western. Creating a seminal jumping-off point in a litany of American musical traditions, Lead Belly recorded " When I Was a Cowboy" for archivist Alan Lomax in 1933, when Lomax visited the Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana to find and archive African-American folk songs. Lead Belly was serving time on an attempted murder charge for stabbing a white man during a brawl.
As Flemons dove deeper into the history, he began to play banjo ( itself an African instrument) and harmonica. Tracing the roots of cowboy music is like unfolding a string puzzle. You find that African music led to bluegrass when it married with Scotch-Irish folk songs. Jazz is rooted in the same spot, but followed the sunlight in a different direction, merging with — and in some cases lampooning — the stately American brass marches of John Philip Sousa and the Confederate army bands that wandered the South after the Civil War.
“The names of long-dead musicians were rattling in my brain.”
Meanwhile, blues as we know it comprised only a minority of the music played by African-Americans, in the ’20s and ’30s, but because the Lomax recordings focused almost entirely on blues, that’s what became synonymous with the black South. Musicians traveled from town to town, for work or family, happening upon the work of other players and influencing or being influenced by them. Arnold Shultz was a black Kentucky guitar picker who traveled to New Orleans every summer in the 1910s, learning new chords and constructions from Dixieland ensembles there. He then went on to teach what he knew to Bill Monroe, Chet Atkins, and Ike Everly, father of The Everly Brothers.
For his part, Farrow, now barely in his twenties, hails from the black section of Omaha, Nebraska, home to a much different musical tradition. His favorite album growing up was The Chronic; his family played Bone Thugs-N-Harmony at funerals, his father blasting it loud enough for the neighborhood to hear and for his young son to develop tinnitus at an early age.
Brian picked up the guitar in middle school and started exploring rock, which led him first to bass, then to upright bass, then fiddle, each new instrument driving him to research the kinds of music in which it is played. He followed the trail through jazz, learning to imitate Ron Carter’s prodigious bass work from the serpentine Miles Davis classic Nefertiti.
Then he heard the Carolina Chocolate Drops, of which Flemons was a member. The Durham, North Carolina–based folk band earned a Grammy for their 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig, but are perhaps most noted for their raucous redux of 2001’s R&B revenge anthem " Hit ’Em Up Style."
"I was flabbergasted when I found out about the Chocolate Drops," Farrow says, "because I just didn't believe they were a black band until I saw videos. That really put things together in a sort of oral way for me."
The young bassist reached out to Flemons. The two struck up a friendship and eventually started playing together.
We talked about how black cowboys came west after the Civil War, and how many of them, aging out of the profession, transferred their skills into service as Pullman porters. How those same porters formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, American’s first majority-black union and the first since the end of slavery to successfully negotiate for better wages and working conditions for black workers. BSCP established its headquarters in West Oakland at the end of the national rail lines, and the children that those men fathered and raised would take their fathers’ and grandfathers’ lessons in organizing as they formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
Once Flemons and Farrow left, one of the festival organizers, who had been listening in, shook her head in wonderment.
"Wow …" she said. "I had no idea."
I was feeling relaxed and euphoric. Even giddy. The names of long-dead musicians were rattling in my brain. I made a vow to pick up my guitar as soon as I got home, to learn and play for my girlfriend songs that Dom Flemons had told me about.
Late that afternoon, I sat with Gail Steiger. A career rancher and Western poet, Steiger is, in a sense, one of the godfathers of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Our conversation was slow and meandering. He told me about how his grandfather and father worked herding sheep and cows on land his family snapped up in the early 1900s as part of the Homestead Act. We talked politics and spirituality. The science of land management. The nomadic herding methods that can save millions of acres of grasslands. The reach of humanity to other planets. Steiger is a practical environmentalist. "We can’t foul up our own nest," he says. It’s a position he evolved to after he began to talk more closely with environmentalists who’d targeted his ranch for closure during Arizona’s fierce " Cow-free by ’93" days.
I asked him what’s the best thing about getting to work on a ranch.
"It’s just every day you have a chance to discover what a miracle it is. What a gift it is to come and live on this planet. There is life that grows up out of the ground. And all this other life comes from that. Whatever you decide our origins — God, or Allah, or the Big Bang, I don’t know, but it’s a miracle."
As our hour wore on, we talked more slowly, more quietly. We were not talking about music or cowboys, really, but about life. How does one find one’s place on the planet? How does one find a home? How does one find happiness?
On this last point he had a humble certainty.
"Happiness comes," he told me, "from belonging to a community, and making something of value for that community."
It was then that I started to understand what this weekend was about for so many. When Gail was a young rancher in the late 1980s, the industry was besieged by an environmental movement that put all of cattle ranching on the defensive. Herds were fouling creeks, overgrazing was threatening the ecosystem. Gail began to feel isolated and cornered. The world was turning away from the only thing his family had known for generations.
“It was like, here's a community, you found a community you never knew was out there.”
It was around this time that Western folklorists began to capture and organize the poetry and ballads written and shared by men like Gail’s grandfather. Old and broken ranchers accustomed to boring their wives and families with their rambling yarns were asked to come around to schools and parks and share their oral tradition. Not long after, a gathering of what was now being called "cowboy poets" assembled in Elko.
One of the early festivals was dedicated to Gail Gardner, Steiger's grandfather. By that time, Gardner was 95 years old and too frail to make the trip. Steiger made a video of him performing "Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail" and played it at the conference. What happened next stunned him.
"I look out there in the audience and there's all these people, they're singing the words — they know the words! It was a revelation for me. I had no clue that the song had traveled around the way as far as it had, you know."
Steiger began to realize that his life, and the life of his family, was not just limited to their Prescott ranch.
"This thing was just packed with ranch people. And it was just a revelation to come up here and find out there's a bunch of other people just like me who like to work on ranches and write songs and poems about that. And they're not afraid to say ‘I'm right!’ out loud in front of God and everybody, and it was fun. It was like, here's a community, you found a community you never knew was out there."
To hear Steiger talk about it, ranching — "cowboying," as he called it — is the most natural and beautiful thing in the world. Simple and spiritual. Honest and pure. This view explains why so many people make their pilgrimage to Elko every year, carrying guitars and banjos, fiddles and musical saws, dressed in white hats and turquoise, boots and fringe. They are in love with a lovely thing. It gives them a sense of place, a sense of belonging. It is a celebration of culture. It is, in many ways, a family reunion.
And for me, as always, I just see ghosts.
“We do it because we’re answering a call buried somewhere in our blood and bones.”
I think about the American government sending armies to wipe out the nations that had thrived here for millennia, warring with them for generations, committing atrocities that most Americans have never heard about in order to clear out the West so that rough-hewn men, gallant cowboys and lion-hearted ranchers, could homestead their land and claim their stake. Grow their cattle and bequeath land to their families. So they could watch life raising itself from the earth and contemplate the miracle of it all as they gazed into the heavens. And compose terse and delicate verses about how marvelous it all is.
I thought I had come to Elko to wallow in the melancholy of the cowboy poet, but really, it was just another chance to see if I could belong in my own country. And the results were inconclusive. When I walked through that lobby, nodding awkward hellos to people whose glances lingered just a little longer on me than maybe they would have otherwise, I felt foreign.
But when I sat with Flemons and Farrow and we traced the roots of cowboy music all the way back to our great-grandparents and the songs they sang, songs that they had probably learned from their parents, who would have been born into slavery, I didn’t just feel like I had a right to be here. I felt like I belonged here. Like this was my home as much as it was anyone else’s. I was reminded that people like me don’t pick up guitars and scratch out anguished rambling songs because we want to be white. We do it because we’re answering a call buried somewhere in our blood and bones. This is the music we made. This is the land we made.
It is 2017. Four hundred years into our national experiment and we are still fighting about who, precisely, is an American. For these centuries we were told there was nothing more American than a cowboy, and that a cowboy must, by law, be a white man — just like the sheriff, the mayor, the postmaster, and the pastor. Everyone who isn’t white is an ancillary character in the mythos of the American West.
If America, a land that holds our souls captive in her very DNA, is not our nation, then what on earth is?
Black people are American people. But despite the centuries of our labor, of our blood sodden into the soil of this country, we still must fight to be considered part of American identity, of the way America sees herself. This especially matters in a time in which there is talk in the highest administrative office in the land of "putting America first." Who is America, exactly? Deep in my consciousness I still don’t know that the definition of this country safely includes me. It’s as though the barriers to American identity are impenetrable but also nearly invisible. Thinly wired, like electric fences that keep cattle on the range, the herd encircled and roped by a scant team of bold and wiry white men who are finding their freedom, finding their gods.
After my talk with Steiger, I drove back to the hotel to pick up my traveling companion. She had made great headway on her book and was willing to accompany me to an afternoon performance of cowboy love songs. We slipped into a darkened theater between ballads. I was happy that she was here, but sad that she hadn’t been with me all weekend. That she didn’t get to sit by my side and hear the songs about ponies named Paint and old friends who parted on the winter plains.
We drove back to California through the high desert in relative silence, listening to a podcast about the Manson murders and occasionally holding hands. We saw llamas in a parking lot and the mountains revealed more and more of themselves around every bend. Occasionally we’d emerge from a narrow pass onto a wide open road where we could gaze out on a vast and boundless plateau. The sky spread unendingly and the clouds and sun were making audacious patterns, strips of glowing embers and shimmering veils that caused me to mutter once or twice to myself, How is that possible? while tears welled in my chest and threatened to burst forth in a flood. It was night by the time we arrived home.
As it happens, that was our last road trip together. We ended things soon afterward. Suddenly and for reasons that seemed obvious at the time but will most likely be further and more deeply revealed with the passage of months and years. Maybe because it’s too hard for two people to stay together when they aren’t being haunted by the same ghosts.
I heard from a friend that there is an exhibit on black cowboys at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and even a Black Cowboy Festival every May in Rembert, South Carolina. I think, next time, I’ll go to that one too.
On the drive home I realized, while flipping absently through the brochure, that the tall man sitting alone who had said hello to me was Henry Real Bird, a Crow Nation rancher who had served as Montana’s Poet Laureate from 2009 to 2011. I kicked myself for not slowing down, not talking more with him. Not spending the entire weekend listening to him instead of the noise and ghosts in my head.
A few evenings ago, as I fell into and out of a tumultuous and somewhat grief-stricken sleep, this line from his poem "Night and Day" rattled around in the emptiness of my brain.
"As I ride out into the wide open spaces
Where a cloud and her shadow
Are the main characters
Lost somewhere deep in my memories,
Night is with day."
Not long afterward, I got to return to the white castle high in the California hills on another assignment, this time to have lunch with a black NBA player and talk about a writing project. His 7-foot frame towered above all the furniture, his head nearly reaching the top of every doorway, and guests tried to surreptitiously film him as we walked through the lobby. On the restaurant patio, overlooking the cerulean San Francisco Bay, beneath the midday sun that now beat upon us unhindered, he stretched his great legs out under the table and slurped his roasted oysters and shrimp salad as though he felt he had every right on God’s earth to be there. And on that day, since I was with him, I guess I felt that I did too.