Here’s a photograph of my great-grandfather Maurice Wolfe and his wife, Sarah McAndrew. (My grandfather Ray is the one directly behind his mother.) Maurice was the first in his family of Irishmen to have been born in Iowa, and he claimed to have left the state for awhile to ride with the Texas Rangers. Was Maurice full of shit? If Sarah were still alive, I’d ask her. I doubt he could have gotten much past her.
It has never struck me as particularly important, though, whether his story is true. It is told. It is part of the family, and so part of an essay I wrote a few years ago:
This is what I’m thinking about: that day of leaving, over a hundred years ago, when my great-grandfather saddled up and left behind the open and fertile fields of his Iowa farm and traveled south for the even more vast and barren expanses of Texas. I imagine there must have been butterflies in his stomach, like I’ve felt now and again. The sort that come with nervousness, dissatisfaction, the sudden need to escape. They might have been the same butterflies his father had felt when he left Kerry for another life, in many respects a harder life, in Iowa.
And I admit that sometimes I’m forced to remind myself it’s all just a story: one of Uncle Dan’s stories, one of my own stories—and Maurice Wolfe probably never rode with the Texas Rangers or even so much as roped a cow. It’s a grudging admission on my part because there’s something that feels perfectly natural about hoping for a cowboy in my past. Cowboys are a way of double-checking my credentials, my manhood, my red, white, and blue. Claiming cowboy in my pedigree is like being descended from one of the Pilgrims. It means that more than you, I’m from here. My papers are in order. I can ride tall and spit with pride, wear my blue jeans, listen to Hank Williams, and watch football on TV. What’s ironic, though, is that the myth of the cowboy is really about being nowhere. About being from nowhere.
The cowboy started out herding steer along the Western trails shortly after the end of the Civil War. His job description was as simple as this: move the animals from here to there. “For me, a cowboy is a man who tends cows,” driver R. J. Poteet tells his pokes in James Michener’s Centennial. “All day, every day. Those cows yonder are the reason you’re here. And gettin’ up north in one piece is your only responsibility.” Somewhere in the choke-dust of the trail, though, the cowboy seemed to get lost and enter the open plain of myth. He became the nameless drifter in Owen Wister’s 1902 novel, The Virginian: the “slim young giant more beautiful than pictures” who, in his soft hat and dull-scarlet handkerchief, had traveled “many miles from somewhere across the vast horizon.” He lost not just his name, his purpose, his individuality, but his destination, what before had defined his very existence. He had come from the horizon and that’s where he was headed.
Joseph Campbell wrote that the narrative of the classic hero myth adheres to the cycle of departure, fulfillment, and return. This is the basic story outline followed by Prometheus, Odysseus, and Don Quixote, Western culture’s blue-ribbon exemplars of spiritual transformation. In each of their tales, they quest for a new place; but the place to find, the reader understands, is not in the world, but within yourself. This is the American cowboy: like John Wayne in the final frames of The Searchers, he is a solitary figure walking away from the camera into the desert. He is always roaming, always dreaming, always looking for the borderline. Fulfillment, according to this story, only comes with departure, and yet never really comes with arrival. It is somehow gained in the searching.
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