COMING HOME: How I define a cowgirl
This week I’m packing up my guitar, my husband and all the boots I can fit in my car and heading west to Elko, Nev., where I’ve been asked to participate in the “National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.”
I’m happy to have been invited to an event that celebrates cowboy culture and works to keep it alive with music, art, poetry and classes on saddle making, Dutch oven cooking and two-stepping.
Now, I know nothing about making cinches and little about how to boil a potato in a cast iron skillet, but I can catch and saddle my own horse and bring those cows home again. That’s a tradition that’s been successfully passed down at this ranch.
And, oh, I can two-step. I went to country school.
Anyway, as I pack my bags and gather my songs, I can’t help but wonder if this girl from the edge of the Badlands will fit the anticipated “cowgirl mold” that organizers and audience members are expecting.
In fact, just the other day in an interview, I was asked, straight-up, to define the term
I saw her then; her salt-and-pepper hair cut short and tucked under one of those free caps you get from the feed store. I saw her mindlessly pull it from the entryway wall of that little farmhouse on her way out the door and down to the barnyard on a warm autumn afternoon.
I saw her scuffed boots pulled up over a pair of outdated jeans that hugged her wide hips. I saw her tan hands tucking in her worn flannel as she pulled open the door of the tack room and got to work catching that old sorrel mare, brushing the burs from her mane and the dust off her back before throwing the saddle up and swinging her leg over, sitting tall and natural up there in that barnyard full of gates and corrals that needed to be repaired, but had to wait because she was bringing the cows home from the hills today alongside her husband and her son.
I smelled the salty seasoning of the roast beef coming from the open window of the kitchen where she set it to warm up in the Crock-Pot, ready for sandwiches when the crew got home.
Then I heard her in the winter, this time in a wool cap with a ball on the top, leather gloves and a fleece-lined jacket yelling “Come Boss! Come Boss!” from behind the wheel of the old blue Ford while her husband tossed out grain to a line of black cattle making tracks in the crunchy snow.
My grandmother lived within the same 10-mile radius of hay fields, cow pastures, creek bottoms and clay buttes almost her entire life – a life that wasn’t nearly long enough.
The daughter of Norwegian immigrants, she married a man who grew up down the road, and they built a life based on taking care of the land and one another.
She was a teacher, a rancher, a mother, a church lady, a big sister, president of the Cattle Women and the neighborhood barber.
And although she didn’t write songs about it, photograph it, paint it, wear a big fancy hat or sparkling chaps; to me, my grandmother was the epitome of a cowgirl.
A beautiful cowgirl in a free feed cap who always had the coffee on.
If she were here, I expect that she would tell you that to make a living here was far from glamorous, but the summer sunsets, the children and the way a ripe wild plum tasted in her mouth after a long ride made for a beautiful life.
And maybe that’s all there is to it, maybe that’s how you define her. Capable. Passionate. Grounded in love for work, family and place mixed in with all that makes a woman a force to be reckoned with.
And maybe I’m not there yet, but I’ve learned from the best. So I’ll tell you all about it in the songs I’m taking with me, and we’ll talk about it more over steak and a two-step. I’ll be grateful for the chance.
Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. Readers can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.