By Sarah Pridgeon
When I was little, I had a hard time understanding the concept of cowboys. We didn’t have anything like them in England and yet they kept showing up on my television screen, with no real explanation as to what they were doing there.
My father harbors a life-long love of all things Wild West. During my formative years, he spent many a Sunday evening in front of the television, watching John Wayne and Clint Eastwood keep the peace in the face of feisty outlaws.
As a small child, I regarded these movies with confusion. Having not yet established a particularly wide or deep understanding of world history, I couldn’t place the visuals in any known context.
I was fairly sure we didn’t have any dust-covered regions nearby, unless you counted the beach, and I’d never seen anyone wearing a ten-gallon hat. We had farmers instead of cowboys, and their tweed caps were far less glamorous.
I’d met some very nice policemen, but they didn’t have fancy guns or stirrups and I hadn’t seen any of them face down a criminal while a tumbleweed rolled along the deserted street. Most of the policemen I’d met were bumbling and kindly and didn’t seem to do a whole lot of dangerous crime fighting. They strolled along the country roads in smiling pairs, facing very little wrongdoing and ill-equipped for the sort of situations I would trust a Wild West sheriff to sort out.
By way of context: so quiet is the beat of the country policemen I knew that, to this day, it remains legal in England for a pregnant woman to pee in a policeman’s hat. It’s always nice to have a last resort, I suppose.
I was quizzically watching events that seemed absolutely alien to my five-year-old’s existence. I could tell they took place in some sort of bygone era thanks to the flourishes and feathers on the dresses, but that didn’t seem to fit with my understanding of history.
Should these people not have been wearing bonnets and judging each other’s manners? Should the women not have been fainting to the ground at the slightest provocation? Where were the town criers and the royal family? And why were all the houses made of wood instead of brick?
I was also not yet aware that America is not in England. It came as a nasty shock when I discovered that the similar-sounding people on my television were from a country thousands of miles away. It’s so obvious to an adult that nobody thinks to point it out to a small person – I’ll warrant that, right now, there are thousands of toddlers on English soil who assume you are their next-door neighbor.
And so I spent several years thinking some serious gunplay was occurring in a nearby town I had yet to visit, where life was about cattle and cactuses and they drank an awful lot of whiskey they didn’t like the taste of.
This assumption was supported by the great distances that characters had to travel between towns. Fair enough, I thought, and my tiny mind began to search for clues to its location. I finally came to the conclusion that it was on the other side of the big sandy hill near our local supermarket – I’d never seen what was on the other side, but figured it must stretch a bit further than I’d thought.
I’m ashamed to admit that I was well into my teens before I put two and two together. There was a period during my bad-tempered pre-teen years when I had no interest in peering at cowboys over my dad’s shoulder and it was only when we covered American history at school that the lightbulb switched itself on.
It was a bit of a disappointment, to be honest. All that time I’d assumed that, somewhere out there, behind a hill across an unusually barren stretch of land, was the place where adventure happened. Where outlaws were brought down by the bravery of the sheriff and a simple moral code was followed by all.
I wasn’t to know that I would one day be living in that land. It took longer than I expected, and not just because it didn’t turn out to be behind the sand dune after all, but arrive here I finally did.
I was not the only one to regard my relocation with wide-eyed excitement, either. My father, who once played on the ruins of London’s WWII bombed-out buildings with toy guns and a pretend ten-gallon hat, has never quite let go of that fascination.
He was gleeful to finally be spending time in the Cowboy Country he’d spent a lifetime admiring from afar. During his visit, he may outwardly have appeared to be a perfectly normal English gentleman (if such a thing exists), but inwardly he was stalking the streets to the theme tune from Rawhide. My move to Wyoming imbued my dear dad with a mixture of pride and unabashed jealousy.
Since then, I have met a real sheriff, although he has yet to tell me that I’d better behave or he’ll run me out of town. I have danced with a cowboy in my wedding dress, walked in the footsteps of the Sundance Kid and witnessed the reality of a working ranch.
I have handled a shotgun and promptly put it back down and I’ve traveled long distances between towns. I have even dressed up as an old-time lady of the night with my very straight-laced aunt, all in the name of a good photograph.
It’s an exhilarating thing to suddenly be living in the movies, especially in a setting you once doubted the very existence of. I am left with just one question for the proper cowboys in this county: how long must I live here before I’m allowed to wear a real ten-gallon hat?