First published February 25, 2020 in The Museum of Americana, Volume 20
The mountains of Connecticut are worn down.
Eroded is the proper word: The sharp edges sanded, rasped and buffed by wind and water and time, their tectonic origins scoured away by microrills, brooks, streams and rivers and deposited into mudflats, sandbanks, deltas and submarine sedimentary layers waiting to be thrust up by seismic bursts and begin again.
I understand the geology well enough; but the outcome is that they appear worn out, spent, drained, weary. A fit place for me now.
A long time ago, I worked on a ranch within view of mountains that were still un-humbled: California’s Sierra Nevada, etched by glaciers into sharp crests and palisades bespeaking undiminished youth and vigor.
It was an apt arena for early tests of manhood. The ranch’s chief cowboy taught me to stay in the saddle on a horse that greeted each day by lowering its head, forelegs splayed, its hindquarters hammering the air, bucking and pivoting for a minute or two before docilely settling into a day’s work.
On a weekend, I watched that cowboy ride a bareback bull in a local rodeo for the requisite eight seconds. He let me borrow a yearling steer to get the hang of it. Twice out of the chute was enough to persuade me that other forms of exercise were less likely to break limbs or skulls. But I had done it, and was unblemished.
I went back to horses: There was in our string a buckskin gelding with no apparent mean streak. I began riding him bareback, learned to rein him with just a halter instead of bridle-and-bit, and finally took him on hour-long rides into the desert wearing nothing myself but moccasins and a breechcloth, our destination a jagged outcrop named Crystal Peak from which coyotes sang most nights.
This won the attention of our second cowboy, a Paiute, who used a braided leather riata with which he claimed to have dragged a mountain lion to death. He had me put my boots and denim back on, and taught me to use a conventional hemp lariat. One of us lassoed a steer or cow by the head; the other snared its hind feet. Our mounts needed little training to back away, stretching cattle out to complaisance while we doctored barbed-wire wounds or performed other veterinary chores.
Happily, those acquired skills entitled me to stay mounted during the annual roundup when young calves were inducted into the herd. A earthbound cohort performed the ugly rituals: branding hips with a red-hot iron, slicing distinctive notches in ears as another means of field identification, and carving off any pendant masculinity. The end-of-the-day feast of Rocky Mountain oysters was probably tastiest for those who had observed those ministrations from the aloof perspective of a saddle.
I returned to college after a time, learned enough to pursue more sedentary livelihoods, and moved back east to the land of rounded mountains. But I like to remember the rougher edges.