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I've always loved cowboys. The way they look has a great deal to do with it. The sight of the Marlboro man on a billboard can give me a jolt of longing as I drive through traffic on my way to work. I imagine that the way some men respond to the sight of a woman in seamed stockings and garter belt is the way I feel when I see a man in chaps. The rough leather directs the eye up the legs to the place where the leather stops, just below the groin. The tight-fitting jeans, the boots with spurs, even the hat with its rakish, playful shape contribute to an image that I find deeply appealing.
It's an image that suggests ruggedness and wildness, cockiness, a sense of fun, and an intimate power over animals. Until the summer of 1993, however, I did not associate this image with a fine-tuned intelligence. I did not expect a cowboy to be articulate and well-read, I expected him to possess a crude, right-wing dumbness, so that for a woman with a certain education, a romance with a cowboy would be a misalliance.
I was intrigued, then, when I heard about cowboy poets. I was writing and producing a Western TV series, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, when one of the wranglers on the set showed me a poster for a cowboy poetry and music festival in Elko, Nevada.
The wrangler, Earl McCoy, had puffy jowls and a stomach that pooched out over his belt, but the cowboys on the poster were lean, muscular, perched on a fence rail with their Stetsons tipped down over their foreheads.
"These men write poetry?"
"Hell, yes," Earl said. "Good poetry."
"Where is Elko, Nevada?"
"About four hours east of Reno." That was four hours east ofnot much.
He gave me tapes of them singing and reciting their poems, and after listening to them, I knew I had to go. I talked my friend Jeanne Davis, a colleague on the show, into coming with me, and arranged to write an article about the festival so that if it proved a disaster, I wouldn't be wasting a weekend. The other producers on the show joked that I was going to Elko "to get laid by cowboys," and, of course, there was a seed of truth in this. I had an instinct something might happen in Elko but I did not put much stock in that instinct; I didn't pack any form of birth control.
Two weeks later, I stood in my closet trying to decide what to wear. Jeans, obviously, but I had Calvin Klein jeans, I would look like a city slicker but that was unavoidable. I washed my hair and let it dry, fluffing it with my fingers. My hair was curly and when I was younger I'd spent painful ho'urs trying to tame it, blow it dry, straighten it with an iron, or wind it on giant rollers with Dippity-Do, but now I left it natural.
Everything in my grooming routine was honed for efficiency and speed. I wore no makeup. I smoothed on skin moisturizer with sunblock, pulled on the jeans and a teal-colored shirt from Banana Republic and Italian shoe-boots and I was ready to walk out the door.
I drove my daughter, Sophie, who was eleven, and my son, Gabriel, ten, to their dad's house, opening the back of the station wagon to let Sophie out with her cat, Butterball. She was wearing a brown tank top, brown corduroy jeans, and brown nail polish with gold polka dots.
"Why can't I come with you?" she said.
"You know why. It's your Weekend with Dad."
"If it's all right with him, can I come?"
I hugged her. "I'll be back Sunday night. I'll bring you a present."
Gabriel was dragging his skateboard out of the car, along with a bagful of CDs. "Can I have money instead of a present?"
"I'll take a present then." He leaned forward and kissed my cheek. "Love you, Mom."
"I love you too." I watched them walk to the door and waited for it to open. "Don't forget your reading!"
When I pulled up to Jeanne's house, she was waiting on the sidewalk with two large tote bags. She'd once been a flight attendant and I knew that in those tote bags was everything we could possibly need: a travel alarm clock, three boxes of Band-Aids in three different sizes, containers of healthy Sun Chips, regular and barbecue flavor, herbal tea bags, and an electric coil to heat water for the tea.
"Why are we doing this?" I said.
"It'll be a hoot," she said, buckling her seat belt.
"We have no idea what we're going to find."
She switched on the radio to KZLA, the country-music station, to set the mood. "Earl goes every year."
Heads turned as we walked through the airport in Nevada to pick up our rental car. Jeanne was five feet ten, with that long, dazzling, bright blonde hair you find on women in Sweden, and I was equally tall with dark hair and neither of us wore a bra. We did not look as if we came from Elko.
We drove across town, passing the Red Lion Motel, which had two giant plastic steers in front, the Commercial Hotel, which had a white king polar bear rearing up over the door, numerous feed stores, and Brenda's Wedding Chapel, where you could get married with no blood test and no waiting.
When we arrived at the Elko Fairgrounds, however, we saw that the bleachers we'd expected to be filled with cowboys were packed instead with families-tourists wearing Bermuda shorts and carrying Big Gulp drinks. On the stage, a group of geriatric cowboys were singing "Tumbling Tumbleweed," and one broke....Cowboy. Copyright © by Sara Davidson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
What was happening? How could I be so driven, obsessed, besotted by sex? I was almost fifty, starting on the path toward what the literary lionesses -- Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir, Colette -- extolled as the third stage of a woman's life, 'Triumphantly post-sexual.'... Not me. I was not going gentle down that path and I was flummoxed.
Sara and Zack are wrong for each other in every way. A divorced mother of two, Sara is an author and television producer. Zack is a cowboy who barely finished high school and lives in a trailer in the Arizona desert. His greatest ambition is to make the best rawhide bridles in the West. But when a weekend fling turns into something more, it challenges every aspect of Sara's being: her relationship with her kids, work, social life, and most importantly, her understanding of the link between body and soul.
How can Sara reconcile the differences, both social and economic, between herself and Zack in order to embrace the love that becomes undeniable? Devoted to his art, Zack often finds himself strapped for cash, leaving Sara in the uncomfortable position of supporting him. Needless to say, this raises more than a few eyebrows among her family and friends. After all, what does it look like to the world that she is paying for a man 10 years her junior, a man with magic hands and an open soul that warm her like no other. More importantly, how can she explain this to herself?
In Cowboy, bestselling author Sara Davidson takes an unflinchingly honest look at the very real issues that women must face today as they search for love: the sacrifices, the risks, and the criticism they must bearfor dating men who are not society's idea of Mr. Right.
Questions for Discussion