Saturday, April 07, 2007

Someday We'll All Have Perfect Names

Story By Timothy Anderson. Photo's by Don Curtis

This year marks the 20th anniversary of my writing essays for the gay community. During all that time, especially via my former trucking career, I’ve been fortunate to meet many fascinating people. In 1992, I crossed paths with one such remarkable individual, a stir crazy, handsome, closeted cowboy who not only left a deep impression on me but who also became a life long friend. I eventually wrote about this man in a 1998 essay entitled “Cody.”

Cody’s story was not an easy read back then. His history still isn’t neatly bundled in happily-ever-after. Rather his experience is a study in rough around the edges. Unlike many of the seemingly instant coming out stories I’ve read in various places, Cody’s narrative extends over a decade and is full of raw contradiction, tentative first steps, countered with frantic, if not bold, almost explosive leaps of faith. An isolated, rural man, his is a hit-and-miss life. He dreams of a partnership that might not exist while worrying at the same time that a “perfect for him” relationship might just come his way. Cody’s story is the story of many rural gays in the Intermountain West. Theirs is a history that is just beginning to be told. This one comes to you in three parts.

Cody’s letters mostly arrive without warning. Random. Glorious. Haunting. Written in fits and starts, narrating history uneasily replicated in this day and age. His tough luck experience ratio speaks louder than any phrasing. The constant struggle between the usefulness and uselessness of words is his juggling act. When thoughts are on the table, words pin a person down and create boundaries and definition- often the Achilles heel of the free spirited. So it’s possible when reading one of his letters to read contradiction and harmony in the same sentence.

It’s always been that way over the 15 years I’ve known Cody. Of all the people I’ve written about, none has come close to equaling the response that a story I wrote about Cody inspired in readers. Independence, love of freedom and courage are a natural draw. Yet the romantic wildness that draws readers toward him is also by definition, the same untamed spirit that is difficult to contain and satiate. Men like Cody, living by a code of “Don’t Fence Me In”, speak the dialect of “Wide Open Spaces”. Often they are far easier to read from a distance than they are to partner or cul de sac.

The Cody’s of the Front Range and the American Outback exist outside of definition’s convenience. Defying the social codes of the in-between landscapes that pass for rural and frontier census categories, their lives hardly mirror those of their exiled urban counterparts. They’ve always lived in the silent spaces, battling loneliness and the temptations of easier lives. Weighing the benefits of rural spaces paired against the glorified opportunities and group acceptance provided by pride parades, puffy lofts, and high cost credentials that could have followed their names.

Yet Cody is educated and traveled. He’s worn many hats. Trucker, Western Artist. Sometimes former Roughstock Rider, sometimes unintentional current one. Depending on the most recent injury list, his resume also includes rancher, caretaker, horse trainer, soul mender and jerry rigging mechanic. He’s been with men; been with women; loved both.

Born on a Northern Idaho ranch, Cody spent part of his teenage years back east. Somewhere in all that transient mix, the cowboy began wrestling with sexual orientation. Joining the military, he eventually became charged with overseeing 39 agencies on base. After being stationed overseas, for all his trouble dedicating his life to Uncle Sam, he still got sucked into an anti-gay witch hunt. A letter was intercepted and everything about his personal life became the subject of an investigation. The scars from that ordeal still sting- his version of don’t ask, don’t tell was his way long before it became standard operating procedure.

When I first met Cody, he was in the service, still riding rodeo bulls, saddlebroncs and competition bareback-both in and out of the military. Later, after an honorable discharge, he began years of working on ranches throughout the Intermountain west, often for wealthy, mostly absent owners. Men who liked the idea of owning space but not getting their fingernails dirty.

If life experience is a possible literary platform, his version of independence will launch a reader just about anywhere. His earnest kitchen table journals represent a unique discourse with the universe. Written in HBO Deadwood-speak starkness, his dialect ruffles the spaces between conflict, certainty and serenity. Sometimes he writes of the road, postcards from a place of perpetual motion. Trucking runs ran already late before you got started-A dance that incorporates the infinite place of movement and stillness in life. Sometimes, he journals about the art of straddling age 45. Battling the tug-of-war between putting down roots and the draw of nomadic travels, he recognizes that both can have the strongest hold on a man.

“Ended up running out to Gunnison, Colorado Wednesday when I left out. Quit just outside of Telluride that night. Camped out there along the road. The stars were something else! I thought I was in heaven for a minute or two. Dark, dark, high elevation night sky. Steep, steep mountains up there. Makes ya dizzy just looking up. With the river running alongside the road there, it just rocked me to sleep. Like a big old baby! Trucking works good for me right now. I was up and about way before the town of Telluride. So I walked around in the early morning ghost town, that mix of past, present and future, I suppose. Waiting for the hardware store to open so I could unload. Then I ran Montrose, Hotchkins, and Clifford, Colorado. Grabbed some chow in Cameo, fueled up and headed back toward home. Now, I’m just hanging here at the fort. Me and Jack Daniels just taking a break.”

From his kitchen table, as he sits and sorts out the world, maybe he’ll read Cormac McArthy’s “The Crossing” by candlelight. That fading velvet Western wallpaper to his back, stick pinned with pictures of horses, cowboys, and people that he’s loved. Maybe there’ll be music playing. Sting. Gary Allen. Or Marty Robbins and the soundtrack from “All the Pretty Horses”. There’ll be the dogs wanting in. The dogs wanting out. Maybe this letter’s written as his encouragement to bring on midnight. Or, written as a heartfelt salute to the copper red sunrise inching over the plains and lighting the Rockies.

Some letters get composed in the middle of his taking a break from working the latest charity horses. Or maybe he’s just quit trying to wear out the bad-appled, bad-habited horses: The one’s that against his better judgment he took on and tried to save. Maybe there are still chores to be done, or he’s putting off a grocery run forty miles back into town. Maybe he’ll have nothing on the agenda but his thoughts.

“Some nights it’s kinda’ fun to go back to those days, for a minute or two. I pass by Pasco and Polo Ranch from a distance every so often. I can recall times it felt like I’d died and went to heaven there. Other times were pure hell. Still makes me ache to look back. Growing pangs? I try to sort out and hold on to the best images. I miss the other ranch hands. The land. The horses, especially. But not the working conditions. Now, things are going just fine and I’m starting to get a feel for the road again. It’s good to see old familiar places. Boy, it’s amazing how many stories and events play through my heart and soul. I’ve covered some ground-lived, died, gave and tried. So here I am plowing along and I think dang I should have been more worn and torn than I am. When it’s all said and done I’ve been richly blessed overall.”

Revisiting Cody’s story, nearly a decade after I wrote the first story seemed especially fitting as February 2007 marked the first anniversary of the hyped Oscar run of the movie Brokeback Mountain. The controversial movie, based upon an acclaimed fictional short story by Annie Proulx, won film award after film award. Brokeback Mountain turned the Oscars upside down, leaving audiences unsettled and smelling of homophobic controversy. A year later, the film remains just as earthshaking, as evidenced by its countless interpretations on Youtube. From Eastern Europe, to Australia, to Asia, “that independent arty cowboy movie” still taps something universal and deep inside moviegoers.

Cody saw Brokeback Mountain in Colorado Springs with another cowboy. They entered the theater apart, found one another again once inside the theater. After the credits rolled, the two men also left the theater apart, meeting back up in the parking lot. “It just worked out that way. For some reason we just naturally split up after looking around the parking lot. We came out of the theater in different directions too. Not that anyone was going to do anything to us, but we just separated. My favorite part of the movie was the shirt part. It’s a good story and I’ve read and reread it. But once the movie got things stirred up, I got kinda’ tired of hearing about it.”

Yet the movie has also inspired many of Cody’s more recent western art pieces. Several of these works are identifiable scenes from the movie. The story continued to resonate with him long after his first read of Jack and Ennis and long before the picture hit the local theater.

I can still see him, 15 years ago, staring at the edge of change. Looking over a landscape perched on the edge of a front range, interstate highway. Terrain that was best described as part high plains, part foothills, but all hard luck country. I’ve often thought either Jack or Ennis could have been him. Especially with Cody’s intimate understanding of the point where mountainous Wyoming and Colorado turn to no man’s land and that the same definition could encompass just about any Wyoming bar stool on a Saturday night.

In reading Proulx’s story nearly a decade after meeting Cody, it seemed the author had crossed paths with my friend. Had she encountered Cody during some full moon whoop it up off base in Cheyenne? Or had she seen him standing at the brink of last call in some cowboy bar, perched on the edge of no return, in Rawlins? In interviews Proulx said the story originated watching an old cowhand hungrily watching young renegades playing pool. Nevertheless there was a time when “Cody” could have been Jack or Ennis-depending on the day, the hour, or the adult beverage.

Yet through all the years, throughout his wanderings, I’ve witnessed a slow but steady transition, almost as if Cody was going to take his time before settling into any one skin. That awakening also included a quiet settling of his sexual orientation. “I’d say I used to be bisexual but I said that because I’d been with more men than women. I’d say now that yeah, I’m gay. But I don’t even like that word. I am not embarrassed by sexuality, or my sexuality. I know who I am and I am honest with myself. I know my name. But I am not going to be waving any flags. I’m a more private person.

I finally went to the gay rodeo in Denver. It was better than I thought it would be but when someone approached me, I told them they didn’t want none of this. There’s a lot of times when I think that being in the closet is easier than dealing with all the scene, the terms. “Eye candy.” “Wolf.” When I start to hear that stuff it turns me off and I feel out of place. The over compensation, the way everything is overdone. I don’t think it’s necessary and here I‘ve done all the walk the walk and talk the talk.

I’m still not that sexually active and sex is not how I center myself. I think that any body with a creative imagination needs alone time or restoration time. You have to take in. You can’t always be giving or be over stimulated. I’m just out of practice when it comes to dealing with people and I spend a lot of time alone. I don’t get lonely, but in the back of my mind there is always a longing for being with someone that could get that about me and not fight it. Yet, I‘m used to being by myself. I still like my own company and I think you just hit that dimension where it’s hard to get back out it. Maybe it’s a cowboy thing because I know that everybody is not like that. I might be more of a loner than most people. It’s like sacred ground out here. I rarely have anyone out.”

Cody talks of horse training fiascos and winces, remembering come-to-Jesus moments, post bucking chute, easy on the bravado. His recollections are understated, if not broken and stark. He can just as easily switch toward misplaced truck driving nirvana or speculate about a near miss heart thing gone unclaimed. A smile exchanged with the tall hatted fella standing on the other side of the fuel island in town or the men from years back who held his gaze a little too long at that Cheyenne two stepping bar. He recoils at the Internet born love struck stalkers, then talks of maybe setting out to make some new introductions, but then again remembers shutting doors when the face didn’t look like the picture.

There are mentions of the cussed truck repairs gone south in the same paragraph as the people who’ve recently caught his eye. The married men he knows who are hitched but still available. Sometimes those accounts usually trail off into an examination of something deeper. Relating on love longed for and lost can sidestep into the retelling of a bad horse wreck or his attempt to rescue some concentration camp bound BLM horse. Or what starts out as a literary exercise in horse training 101 might end up reading like a conversation with Gandhi or the Dahl Lama about the human condition. If the moon is right, the comets are near, or the wind is spitting flurries down from the high county, an old soul stands ready on deck, complete with his ride ticket written in the philosophy of horse training and humanity’s expectations of the four legged set and of each other.

Cody’s been around horses since he was born, is a self taught equestrian, a man who rode before he could walk. “I thought I knew what I was doing until I started training horses for the public. Spoiled people with their spoiled rotten horses, I don’t know what to do with either. It’s always tough when your working with a horse and it’s finally working for you good and then you got to turn it back to the owner and the owner don’t know what they’re doing. You may see a way to help them but it’s up to them. It’s not that I don’t have compassion, but people will sure take you there in a hurry, they will take you right into their little hell if you let them. I’ve been asked to help out at these rescue farms for unwanted or abused horses that are more like concentration camps. They might be well intentioned, but they don’t get that some horses will kill you. A horse has no conscience sense of whether you live or die. Unfortunately the better the reputation you get, the more horses you get like that and I am not interested in getting hurt any more.”

“Some people, they adopt these Mustangs and think they are doing the world a favor and that any horse can be trained. But by the time they spend the money and pay for their injuries and their hospital bills, they could have had a nice little trained horse. Sometimes I’m praying for a miracle while amazed at the same time that lightning hasn’t struck that horse yet. Everybody watches the Horse Whisperer and they think they want to live that movie. I never wanted to live that movie, yet I’ve still ended up with horses that were loco and broncy as hell. Even though I’ve been around horses all my life, I’d never seen anything like this until I put my name in the phone book. I’ve learned that the more a horse owner starts preaching about their animal, the more guarded I need to get. I think, “What are you overcompensating for?”

“A year or maybe two years ago, I was working with this spastic, rescued, half Arab, half demon horse for a lady. It was my fault for not having this horse bitted up, trying to be “gentle” and “pat parelli” or some shit. I ended up in a wreck, face first into some steel panels. Tore up my eyes, nose, and got a mouth full of gravel type deal. Human torpedo. Then the brain dead horse ran me over. Turns out- the horse was more intelligent than I was that day. I did send that horse home. Same stamp it came with. No ego involved. I just couldn’t care less at that point. I’ve started weeding out the dinks a lot more carefully in the last few rounds. I just closed the gate, or opened the gate as it may be. I’d had enough for awhile.

A Sample of the artistic talents of "Cody" drawn from his life experiences.

Just as some equine owners seem addicted to overcompensation, the comparatively recent Colorado Springs invasion of religious televangelists hasn’t escaped Cody. “I was raised very traditional Christian. That’s changed for me. It puts you in a box real quick. I thank the stars, universe, Jesus, and I definitely believe in one god. I can’t read a bible and not think that one way is better than another, otherwise no one would be saved…But there’s a big Christian thing in Colorado Springs and that’s the last place I want to be. I ask God for guidance and protection, and I still pray. I’d definitely never deny God and I won’t be blasphemous. I just want to be honest with myself, and at peace. The farther you get away from yourself, either with drugs or religion, the less peace you have. I think every day is a new day, and a new blessing. There is a duality that we have to experience yet I’ve realized that I don’t have a clear definition of God. Not sure a puny human has the right or the ability to define something that far above.

I’ve been blessed with a place, dreams, horses, memorable events and good health. I’d stay here as a first choice, mainly because it’s away. Peaceful. My dogs only know here. My two red heelers are seven years old, well behaved and well balanced, beautiful companions. I love my dogs, yet I’m willing to make changes if they lead to a better dynamic.”

As the media frenzy from Brokeback Mountain’s run at the Oscars fade, the stories of all the men and women who live less than stereotypical lives resonate with a magnetic quality. Living on the frontier of gay identity and charting a course far from reinforcements may not be for everyone. But for Cody, his life is still going just as it’s meant to be. “I believe the Great Mystery already has a plan, or purpose. It’s just a matter of staying in tune. Trusting isn’t my best feature at times because I do know what humanity can become but I have a feeling God is working in our lives all the time. The Universe is a big place and I’m kinda’ glad for that myself. Things here are just a glimpse of what I consider eternal. I never quit on the fact that someday we’ll all have perfect names.”

Further embracing this sentiment Cody offers, “I wouldn’t want to end up like either of those fella’s in Brokeback. I think that’s why the movie was so big because of how unsettling, unresolved, unfinished it felt. I know my history. I know my name. From here out, you can use it.” And so it is with my friend Don Curtis, a cowboy who these days is finally ready to embrace his non-fiction name to go with his non-fiction life.

This version of "Someday We'll All Have Perfect Names" first appeared in March 2007, published by Stonewall News Northwest in three parts. There the story appeared under the title "Cody". Stonewall News Northwest can by found here:

The original 1998 story “Cody” can be found here:


Ken B. said...

Enjoyed this greatly. Most regular visitors to your site will probably remember "Cody". I know I did.

lifescolorfulbrushstrokes said...

Timbo what a great post. You really have a great narrative style.

I found your comments interesting about your sexual drive and your comfortableness with being alone. funny thing Timbo...I understand. I fell in that description for the longest time, even when I perceived myself as a straight man. today, I am a little more outgoing and finding the need to open up a spell. Life can get a bit stale if you don't add some friends and social interaction every now and then. Hope all is well Mr. Northerner! Haven't heard from you in a spell...then again I've been wrapped up myself in school work until a week ago. It's all over. Just waiting to see if I passed that last class needed fro my second bachlors degree. Life can finally move on for me.

Ten Lakes Realty said...

Hello. I really like your words. Thanks for sharing "you" online. I feel that way too, as when you said you need creative space alone to take it all in. Funny I found your site with a search on Eureka Montana. I am a woman, I too really liked Big Eden. And I am very glad that folks like you are here in cyberspace.

brightheart said...

Hey Tim, the link at the bottom for the printed posting doesn't work for me.