By Rachel Kovaciny
With the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, I go to the grocery store every week with a bright red bandanna drawn up over my mouth and nose and a black cowboy hat perched atop my head. Because I’m the kind of person who owns such things and wearing them makes me feel a little more cheerful. And because when I see small kids at the store, it makes them smile and point and have something to think or talk about that’s funny and interesting.
It’s no secret that I love the Old West. If you visit my house, a silhouette of cowboys riding above the world “welcome” will greet you. My living room boasts many framed photos of movie cowboys, plus a metal sign that instructs cowboys to leave their guns at the bar. (This probably explains why I find Nerf guns on my kitchen island from time to time.) The main floor bathroom has a decorative border around the walls that’s all cowboys herding cows across streams, endlessly.
Even if you never visit my home, you just have to drop by my author webpage, my blogs, or even Google my name, and you’ll soon see I’m so dedicated to loving the Old West, I write books set there. I read books and watch movies set there. I write a monthly history column about the real Old West for the Prairie Times. Some days, it seems like I eat, sleep, dream, and breathe cowboys. Which is just how I like it.
Why do I like that? What draws me to those twentyish years of American history when, from roughly 1865 to 1885, cowboys prodded cattle from ranch to rail yard with regularity? When lawmen and bad men were sometimes the same men at different times in their life? When all a pioneer needed to make a new, better home for themselves was determination, hope, patience, time, and an awful lot of hard work?
It started with my dad showing me a lot of cowboy movies and shows when I was growing up. I inhaled a steady diet of Five Mile Creek, The Rifleman, Bonanza and Big Valley, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, James Garner and Steve McQueen. And Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, which my mom also enjoyed. Those were the mainstays of my childhood and adolescence. I could always count on a cowboy show to cheer me up or keep me interested or just plain pass my time pleasantly.
Somewhere along the line, I started reading books about the history of the west, too. Biographies, mostly, of people like Wild Bill Hickock and Bat Masterson and any others our small-town public library might hold. I moved on to the giant Time-Life books with titles like The Gunfighters and The Townsmen, which I now collect.I took horse-riding lessons; I daydreamed about cowboys; I felt thrilled to the ends of my twin braids the day I got to stand inside a real Pony Express station. Standing where the everyday heroes I’d read so much about had also stood was almost too good for me to think about for more than a few seconds at a time.
What draws me to that era is not the hats or the horses or the six-shooters or the stagecoaches. It’s the people. It’s the idea that people no different from myself decided hey, we can have a better life if we move out west. We can have our own land, or more land, or better land. We can find a better job, or any job at all. We can find gold. We can find peace and quiet. The West became our nation’s metaphor for opportunity and for hope. The story of the Old West is the story we all want for ourselves, one with struggles and hardships, but one that ultimately results in a better life, a better self, a better world.
That’s why I love to learn about the Old West, and it’s why I write westerns. I write each one to contribute one more story of hope and opportunity to our national pantheon. Because goodness knows that in a world where, right now, I have to wear a bandanna and a cowboy hat just to go get groceries, we need all the opportunities for hope we can get.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s western fairy tale retelling novels “Cloaked” and “Dancing & Doughnuts” are now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com