So I have made the $2500 a month ranch mortgage payments now for the major part of 20 years. Now, during that whole 20 years, I've been wearing a series of ratty baseball caps. Most of them say something on them, maybe "Carhartt" or "These Colors Don't Run" or "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Waylon Jennings," and all of them have a ring of sweat salt that vaguely resembles the contours of a distant mountain range.
Now, all the time that I've been wearing these hats, I've been dreaming of other hats. Big hats with wide brims. Cowboy hats.
You see, I've been wearing these baseball hats instead of cowboy hats because I worry that I'm not cowboy enough to wear a cowboy hat.
I feel much the same way, except with a little less emotional investment, about deerstalkers and homburgs; I wouldn't wear them because I'm not Sherlock Holmes or Dean Martin.
Come to think of it, I'm not a baseball player either. But somehow, if you did the math, I bet that most of the people wearing a baseball cap right now couldn't catch a ball if you dropped one into their cupped hands. I know I couldn't. Plus I'd rather watch paint dry than watch baseball. In fact, I'd rather watch almost anything dry than watch baseball - coffee, toothpaste, cereal milk, gasoline, candle wax, ice cream, A1 Sauce, you name it. I don't like baseball.
But I do like cowboys and have always wanted to be one myself. And after 20 years of raising cattle and almost 71 years of boyhood, I think I finally really am a cowboy.
I am, after all a Montana-bred and Montana-raised, cow owning, boot-footed, diesel-driving man. If that doesn't grant me the right to wear a cowboy hat, then you can go to Hell or North Dakota, whichever suits you best.
(Unless that offends you, in which case I'm really truly sorry, please keep reading! I love you! And I hardly ever say that to anyone, not even my family!)
I recently noticed a car hailing from California in the parking lot of Walmart in Great Falls not too long ago. The family were all of them, Mom, Dad, and two little rustlers, adorned in brand new Stetsons. White ones at that!
They wore their hats and screamed at each other, while in the parking lot, about some private argument to which I was not privy - perhaps whether to have tofu or rice cakes for lunch. Tofu, the man's daughter might have been saying! Tofu because its grain-free! But you know soy gives me gas, the father might have replied.
Frankly, I admire their chutzpah. I can't help but thinking that them dressing up like cowboys would be like me dressing up like Harry Potter.
Here's where I have to admit that I've tried to do the cowboy hat thing earlier in my career and was rebuffed.
The memory still haunts me: in a certain western-wear store one might find throughout our fair state, I found an attractive western hat. I placed it on my head, admiring myself in the big mirrors, and sought the attention of my wife. She burst out laughing.
I hung it back on the rack, restored my ratty baseball cap to my head, and continued to browse the store, pretending all the while that my wife's reaction didn't hurt my feelings. But that was a lie; I nursed my pain like a baby at my breast.
This time, I'm leaving the wife at home. This is man's work, anyway.
And so I set my jaw to getting that hat at last.
As an aside, tradition has it that only good guys get to wear white and or shades of grey. For me, with my wide streak of nefarious villainry, the color is going to be - must be - black. In truth, I ate a grape in the grocery store without paying for it just last week.
But what style of hat?
There are a bewildering amount of hat styles, the only limit being the square footage of the haberdashery peddling them.
There are, in no particular order, The Cattleman, The Gus (I presume named after the Lonesome Dove character), The Pinched Front, The Montanan, (I am drawn to that name.) The Gambler, The Brick, The Amish, The Derby, The Open Crown, The Fedora, The High Hat, The Stove Pipe, The Pecos, The Dakota, The Biggs, The Boss.
Then each of these styles themselves turns out to have an even more bewildering variety of variations. You've got to get all saddled up and ready to pick your perfect crease, then your brim style, and your crown combination.
Finally, nearing the mirror rack will allow one to look at oneself from every possible angle simultaneously. The final thing to do is pick how many gallons you need the hat to hold for watering your horse. I think.
In fact, I think you ought to consult your horse on your choice of hat in general. Better than your wife, anyway.
So I selected a made-in-America, Serratelli Hat Company, 6X Beaver, Cattleman Crease, Pecos Brim style, 4 1/2 inch base to crown, (4-1/2 gallon) hat with a real cowboy look. If I look at myself in the mirror just right (i.e., drunk and squinting), I almost look like Kevin Costner.
Of course, the cowboy hat needs to be broken in, sweated in, shaped by wind and rain and fence fixing, blown off in the corral, stomped on, and so forth, but maybe it didn't look too bad after all.
That evening, with some trepidation, I took it out of the box and showed it to my wife. She said, "well let's see." She placed it on my head and, to my surprise, said, "I like it."
The ultimate test, however, would be what Bunny, my horse, thinks. Bunny is my most erudite horse, sophisticated and continental, and her sense of style has proven heretofore unerring.
I walked out to the corral, donned the hat, and did a little pirouette for her.
"What do you think?"
Bunny narrowed the big globes of her eyes and assessed the sight before her.
"What do you think, girl? Don't hold back, now."
Now she raised her head and examined me along the length of her formidable nose.
"Come on, girl. Am I cowboy enough or not?"
Then she nodded, nickering what I took to be assent, as a sweet wave of relief washed over me.
No cowboy could possibly remain a cowboy if his horse doesn't believe he's one.
Wives can be convinced, but horses won't listen to reason.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.