“What did the cowboy say to his pencil?... DRAW, pardner.” Ho ho ho. There are probably as many stupid clichés and jokes about cowboys as offbeat jokes about blondes or lawyers. But isn't it true that in the Wild West, everyone walks into the saloon wearing a cowboy hat, boots and spurs every night with their six-shooter hitched to their side and then proceed to pour about 20 shots of whisky down their throat while an Indian is outside stealing their damned horse?
Since my boyfriend is American, I am able spend several wonderful months in the United States every year. And that is in the cowboy state of Wyoming. Right smack dab in the middle of the Wild West. That is why I would like to take this opportunity to shed some light on our idea about an area, which was written about by Karl May, filmed about by Clint Eastwood, and ballyhooed by, among many others, Django Unchained. Does everyone really run around with a pistol and lasso? Do they really ride their horses to Walmart and in the evening does everyone actually sip whiskey in a star-studded bar? I am about to reveal Five Truths about the land of the cowboys—and not just for Europeans. For reflection and smiles. My life in the Wild West of Wyoming.
There are places in this world that have been quite spoiled by the film industry. The Wild West is one of them. Because most Westerns either refer to a long-gone time or try to profit with clichés.
First, the word "Cowboy" means nothing more than "Herdsman". Yes, completely uncool—it sounds like a shepherd tending a flock of sheep in the story of Mary and Joseph. But that is the way it is.
The heyday of the cowboy dates from before 1860 to just after 1880. Because literally millions of cows roamed Texas at the time, it took a lot of people to ride herd on the stock. Of the cowboys at that time, almost a quarter were African Americans, who were no longer slaves, but also had neither work nor possessions. So much for the stereo-typical lasso swinging white man. And unlike the portrayal on the silver screen, the job was not a wild adventure, it was pure physical labor with more than 12 hours a day on horseback, doing fence and other ranch repairs, and of course, dealing with of all kinds of dangers from thieves and murderers. Back then maybe I would rather be a tax adviser.
Today, modern rancher workers are the most comparable to the cowboys of yesteryear. In Germany we would probably call them farmers – but pssst, the real rancher finds the term “farmer” to be an insult. For tourists, there are events such as rodeos where the ranch youth try to relive the old cowboy era. The neighborly attitudes of the people here and the architecture of the buildings are also reminiscent of the era of the cowboys.
► Yes, the Wild West still has a few "cowboys." They come in two basic varieties. The first is the “workin’ cowboy” who still mends fences and participates in roundups and cattle drives, but drives a pickup truck and spends time on an ATV. Then there is the rodeo cowboy who wants to demonstrate his or her skills of the Old West to admiring fans. The lasso swinging dude on horseback is more of a mindset or a tourist attraction. Or a relic of movies. They exist, but in a greatly changed way.
In Wyoming, the right to own a gun is considered a fundamental human right. The state constitution states: "The right of the citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the state shall not be denied.”
Rifles, shotguns, and pistols are freely available for sale, they do not require a possession certificate, they require no permit and they do not necessarily have to be registered anywhere. Sounds pretty crazy to the common German who already thinks that shouting "Shit!" in a church is almost as bad as undergoing a nuclear attack.
By the way, all the weapons stuff only applies if you are an American citizen or have a green card (permanent residence permit). This means that I, as a German, cannot just visit the gun shop and buy the next best glittered pink assault rifle that I see on the shelf. But I might be able to buy one at a gun show or from a private seller.
On average, about 110 people die from guns in Wyoming each year, which has a population of just over 500,000. About 90 percent are suicides, 10 percent are murders. I leave it uncommented at this point, but it does make you think.
► Yes, in the Wild West, a lot of people have guns. But no, there are almost never any shootings. I honestly have not heard a single shot here and it's so safe in the town that you don't have to lock the doors at night. Maybe also because everybody knows that everybody has a gun.
There are truly many horses in Wyoming. But there are also many cows, bison, deer, moose, mountain lions and bears. And squirrels. Squirrels are important. I love squirrels. But I digress.
For the 500,000 people, Wyoming has 1.3 million cows and 99,000 horses. 6,000 horses are wild horses. According to the Federal Bureau of Land Management, the population should remain limited to 3,000, which is why half of the horses are rounded up each year and shipped to other states for grazing. Horse lasagne, cough, cough…
Many hiking trails in the mountains were originally developed as horse trails. People here love riding a horse along a path. Just for fun. There are also many hunters who go search for game with horses during hunting season.
The classic cowboy riding to the saloon on horseback, on the other hand, no longer really exists. The Americans love their motor vehicles, which in Wyoming usually exists in the form of a pick-up truck, which I think there is also an overpopulation problem. The average people drive themselves to the letterbox around the corner. Something exotic like pedestrians are rarely seen.
► Yes, in the Wild West, a few people and tourists sometimes still ride a horse for fun in their free time. Otherwise, the horses under the bonnet have clearly taken over the landscape.
The saloon. A mystical place. A place where you sit on your bar stool late in the evening, gulping down whiskey after whiskey, with your gun on the counter, ready to debate politics and sports if you are not already too sloshed.
Surprise: The term “saloon” does not even come from the Wild West. The Americans stole it from the French and Germans, who used the word “salon” in the 18th century.
Even in the Wild West, a saloon was not just a pub either, but could range from simple wooden sheds to swanky public house with a theater stage. Why do I talk about this in the past? Quite simply because most saloons disappeared during the American Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933 during which alcohol was totally banned. Yes, forbidden. Completely. And you think we have a dictatorship because we must wear a mask in Walmart while we drag three boxes of Budweiser out of the store.
No matter now. The actual saloon as we imagine it no longer exists in the Wild West, with very few exceptions. There are some true saloons here, but most “saloons” are tourist attractions. But even in the Wild West, you will find the avocado hipster cafes, Thai grills, and steakhouses, as everywhere else.
► No, not all folks in the West go to the saloon every night and get drunk. Of course, there are many bars where you can put down half a quart of 150 proof vodka. But most people here watch Netflix while sitting on the sofa in the evening. Welcome to the 21st century!
Prairie is, in simple terms, just grassland without trees. And we have a lot of that here. Just as much as mountains and seemingly infinite vistas. Here you can walk for hours without seeing a house or a single soul. It is more likely to slip on cow dung than on the slimy talk of your fellow human beings.
And because there are almost no buildings dotting the horizon here and hardly any artificial light polluting the night sky, we have magnificent sunsets and fabulous starry night skies. In addition, the place where my boyfriend and I live has over 300 days of sunshine each year. Before anyone gets too jealous: In October we had a snowstorm and a temperature of minus 6 degrees Fahrenheit. Sunny does not always mean warm. Be warned.
So, if you bring thirty jackets, ski underwear (long underpants we call "Long Johns"), hat and winter boots up to the chin, you can defy the frequent strong winds out here and view the most fabulous panoramas in the sky.
► Yes, there are insanely many romantic and colorful sunsets over the prairie in the Wild West.
The Wild West—so many rumors, so many clichés. Much of the legend is still true or comes from an actual past. However, the wild west was far from the glamorous and wistful era as it is shown in cinema.
For the most part, we live here in the 21st century just like people in New York, Berlin or Tokyo. Sometimes the mobile data disappear when you are too far out or you step into horse poop on a hiking trail. But that is almost all the wildness that goes on here, my second home, Cowboyland Wyoming.
You can find more about the western wilderness and the beautiful country in my post I'm out! Swap crazy World for vast Wilderness.