We weren't buckle bunnies, but we were chasing cowboys. All along, our good guy was right there in front of us.
She was a good old girl who wore vests, jeans and Roper boots, and thought it was high time we experienced one of the West’s last greatest adventures.
She had worked as a reporter in Cheyenne for several years, and knew the city like the back of her hand. A big-hearted blonde from the Midwest, she didn’t suffer fools gladly. Her motto was, “Ride hard and shoot straight,” and she never missed. She asked tough questions, and was one of the best deadline writers I’d ever seen. She covered stories that really mattered in the West, and worked hard to build relationships with politicians, environmentalists, and industry insiders. Her work paid off when she broke stories, and delivered compelling exposés on environmental threats, corporate greed, and political hypocrisies. She was Nellie Bly and Ida Tarbell rolled into one little, curvaceous firebrand.
“Come on, girls. Don’t you wanna see all those lanky cowboys in tight Wranglers?” Sheila taunted Julie and me. “Do you gals even know what a buckle bunny is?”
Julie and I looked at each other quizzically, knowing Sheila had a leg up on us when it came to Western couture and cowboy mating rituals. Compared to Sheila, Julie and I were posers, two wannabe cubs who hadn’t paid enough dues to work in the same newsroom. Somehow it didn’t matter. Despite our divergent paths to the same place, we became good friends, pulled together by our common experience of working in one of the toughest newsrooms in the West.
We were surrounded by grizzled male reporters who despised the very thought of working alongside women and “minorities,” and displayed their derision openly and in many insidious, subversive ways. When you slipped into paranoia, they mocked that. As women, we didn’t just have to be as good as they were; we had to be as good or better while dealing with their sexist, bigoted bullshit.
One night our worst suspicions were confirmed when we found a handout of vile vagina jokes in a back-room filing cabinet. I’d never seen such anti-woman vitriol, and I wondered if the boys, all married to long-suffering wives, were nursing bad cases of repressed homosexuality or if they merely hated their mothers for pushing their sorry asses kicking and screaming into this stinking world. The v-jay-jay jokes focused on the depth, texture, hues, layers, feel and smell of the female genitalia in the most sordid language imaginable. I wondered whether we should have created our own list with descriptors such as “flaccid, wrinkled, sweaty, jock-itchy phalli,” “moldy scrotums” and “sex, lies and size.”
Knowing our male colleagues had reduced us down to our most intimate body part didn’t inspire confidence, or the esprit de corps critical to working as a team on a busy, daily news desk. After finding that spreadsheet of sexist nomenclature, we looked at the old guys with a lot of suspicion, and their war stories about dictating perfectly inverted pyramids from the field while covering wars, natural disasters, and plane crashes didn’t inspire or impress us as much.
Our worst suspicions were confirmed when we found a handout of vile vagina jokes in a back-room filing cabinet. The V-jay-jay jokes focused on the depth, texture, hues, layers, feel and smell of the female genitalia in the most sordid language imaginable.
Luckily, there were a few friendly voices we could always count on. Jimmy Sakaguchi, a young, good-looking Hawaiian who worked in our satellite office in Cheyenne, was one of them. He always had a cheerful, optimistic attitude when he called Denver to alert us to breaking news in Wyoming. I had vague recollections of him walking into our newsroom for a come-to-Jesus meeting with our hard-bitten bureau chief.
Back in the day, Denver was considered a happy ending for reporters who wanted to be “put out to pasture.” A few of the men working in our newsroom had covered war, famine and conflict in Africa, Europe and beyond, and were content with writing about avalanches and snowstorms if it meant they could ski on weekends, and put their kids in good suburban schools. Some of the men were embittered lifers whose careers hadn't lived up to their expectations. They kept rough drafts of novels in drawers, and told stories about editors who had fallen into drunken stupors atop desks while working the night shift. Most of them couldn't wait to retire. They loathed our bureau chief, and did their best to quash the dreams of younger recruits. The wire service was a bootcamp for journalists, and they were a ragtag bunch of disgruntled veterans.
We all worked in a gloomy newsroom in a dank brick building dating back to the 1800s that would have depressed anyone. Longtime employees welcomed newcomers to “the snake pit,” and claimed that dysfunction seeped through the building’s old brick-and-mortar walls like blackdamp in a coal mine. The day Jimmy walked into our bureau he wore a tailored, double-breasted suit, and his black hair was slicked back. He flashed a brilliant white smile at everyone. Poor Jimmy, I thought. He doesn’t know what he’s walked into.
By the time Sheila suggested we drive north to Wyoming for Cheyenne Frontier Days, one of the biggest rodeos on earth, Julie and I were ready, even if it meant running headlong into buckaroos who might or might not treat us like ladies. We didn’t care. We wanted to meet real cowboys.
My grandfather had jumped onto boxcars as a young man to ride north to the “equal rights” state, where he worked as a sheepherder and ranch hand. I had Western credentials, but I’d never really been around authentic Anglo cowboys. The closest I’d gotten were the celluloid rustlers in “Midnight Cowboy,” “Bonanza” and “Dallas.” The only cowboys I’d ever seen in person were vaqueros in mariachi suits who sat on Spanish stallions as they sang rancheras and waved their giant sombreros at the Colorado State Fair.
Wyoming sounded liberating. It had been the first U.S. state to grant women the right to vote, and by 1920, when women gained suffrage nationwide, Wyoming women had been voting for a half-century. Wyoming seemed wide open, wild and pioneering, the perfect place to vamoose to with two girlfriends.
We drove north in Sheila’s compact. Julie was driving, I was riding shotgun, and Sheila was lying in the back seat. She’d just gotten off her shift, and wanted to kick back and relax for a few hours. It was July and hotter than hell, and I don’t remember us having air-conditioning. Julie, a young reporter from New England, was still getting familiar with the arid West, and I glanced over and smiled at her big sunglasses and dainty white hands on the steering wheel. Her window was down, and her coppery brown hair whipped around her pretty face.
She was such a good sport. Sheila and I were a good 10 years older than she, but you’d never know it because Julie treated us like contemporaries. Her parents had sent her to an exclusive, liberal arts college back East, and Julie was making the most of it. She was related to one of the “Boys on the Bus,” the group of male journalists who had covered the 1972 presidential election, and she had inherited an uncanny talent for turning a good story on a tight deadline.
So there we were: a Scots-Irish girl with Western charm, an affable Jewish girl from New England, and me, a late-blooming Latina with an exotic past.
“OK, what’s a buckle bunny?” Julie asked as she drove north, straining her neck to look at Sheila’s face in her rearview mirror with a lopsided grin on her face.
I turned around to look at Sheila’s smiling face, half hidden beneath an arm flung over her eyes. “Cowboy groupies,” she said. “You know, wrestlers win belts, cowboys win buckles. The bigger the buckle, the better the cowboy.”
“Ah,” Julie and I intoned together, lightbulbs flashing in our bobbing heads.
“If we’re lucky, we might run into some of those big buckles tonight,” Sheila said playfully before turning her backside to us with a quick thrust.
Cheyenne is just over the border in Wyoming, and the trip took us two hours. We pulled into a truck stop in late afternoon to tank up and buy paper cups of watered-down coffee. Then we drove around the city, which seemed like a cleaner, tighter-knit version of Denver. We parked, and walked around for awhile, admiring the nice homes and tidy gardens. People waved to us from porches and lawn chairs. They were all so friendly and welcoming.
Slowly, I noticed the distinct absence of brown or black faces, and felt conspicuous with my dark hair, dark eyes, and olive skin. Even Julie, with her brown hair and eyes and a skin tone that was duskier than Sheila’s fair skin, felt exotic. We walked briskly to our media outlet's satellite office to meet the men we’d gotten to know over the phone. There was Tim, the charming news editor, and Tom, a quiet, sweet hulk of a reporter. They greeted us cheerfully as they monitored the wires. We'd hoped to see Jimmy, but he was at the rodeo covering chuckwagon races and other riding events. We headed to the arena.
We pulled up, and the chuckwagon races were already in action. We watched as four-horse teams pulled wagons around in circles, kicking up a massive dust cloud and spurring uproarious cheers from the crowd. Then we walked across the dirt parking lot to the media room, and found Jimmy. He was dressed in blue jeans, cowboy boots, a plaid shirt, and a white straw cowboy hat. Sheila walked up to him as he recorded rodeo statistics, and introduced herself. Jimmy flashed us a huge smile and shook our hands. He seemed genuinely pleased to see us. I hadn’t expected him to be so young and handsome up close.
I could tell he had a nice physique under his cowboy duds, and he had flawless, buttery-brown skin. As an Asian man, he looked out of place, yet perfectly in sync with his environment. Maybe he just had a good attitude and a good work ethic, but I could tell he was trying to make the best of where he’d ended up as a journalist. Recently, he'd written a story about cowboys having to understand “bull psychology” to be successful bullriders. The story had made it onto the national wires, and drew widespread praise from editors across the country.
Jimmy was so good-natured and charming that we wanted to be around him, and promised to meet him at a local brewpub later in the evening. We said our goodbyes, and headed for Sheila’s car.
“Now where to?” I asked as the three of us walked toward the exit.
Before Sheila could answer, we practically walked into three tall blondes in tight jeans, white shirts, boots and cowboy hats. We curved around them to avoid a collision. As we passed each other, we stared across the cultural divide warily. The air crackled with cattiness, and even Julie, our New England debutante, looked like she wanted to kick somebody’s ass. We’d just arrived in Cheyenne, and already we were feeling surly and spoiling for a fight. They passed us loftily, casting uppity looks our way, and we were probably a mirror image.
As Julie, Sheila and I walked out of the building, we burst into laughter at the absurdity of our near miss with those tall cowgirls. And that’s when we saw it. It was his bus. We stopped dead in our tracks. The words were right there in big block letters on the bus's scrolling sign: George Strait. We looked at each other wide-eyed. We were going to meet the man deemed the most perfect cowboy on earth. We started walking toward the bus, but it started to roll. We froze in the parking lot, then ran to Sheila’s car after she squealed, “Let’s follow him!”
We drove around Cheyenne chasing George Strait's big, bad tour bus, but we never caught up to it. We began to doubt the legendary country-western singer was really on the bus. Maybe he was resting at a five-star hotel with an acoustic guitar and his beautiful wife at his side, picking romantic ballads as they sipped wine? Perhaps he'd already flown out of town and was on his way back to his ranch in San Marcos, Texas? Worst yet, maybe he was on the bus, and didn't want to be caught by three delirious women in a compact car.
“Did you see him in ‘Pure Country’?” I asked wistfully from the backseat while we waited at a red light at a deserted intersection. “He’s so handsome. If cowboys look like him, I want to be a cowgirl. I'll learn how to ride, I swear.”
Our enthusiasm waned as the bus disappeared into the night.
“We should probably go find Jimmy,” Julie said, always the considerate one. “We promised we’d meet him after he was done filing his stories and box scores.”
We liked Jimmy, but we knew we’d spend the night talking shop with him if we met him for microbrews. Our cowboy adventure would end with a fizzle and not a bang if we spent the rest of the night talking about deadlines and ledes, and bitching about our newsroom detractors.
“OK,” Sheila said, turning her steering wheel toward downtown Cheyenne. “But there’s one more place you have to see before we call it a night.”
We walked into the Hitchin’ Post, and were engulfed by the tallest humans on earth. Maybe it was the big-heeled cowboy boots, but all of the dudes and their buckle bunnies and rodeo queens towered over us. They seemed like a long lost race of giants who had found each other after centuries apart. The din around us was a mixture of booming laughter, foot-stomping music, and unmitigated twang. Our kind, short city slickers, religious minorities, and women of undetermined breeding and social standing, didn’t belong there.
Even so, we pushed our way to the gigantic brass bar to order drinks with paper umbrellas and Maraschino cherries. Loud country-western music played, and amazonian couples scooted to the large parquet floor to dance the two-step. We wandered around with our cocktails, but our heads were never higher than the enormous belt buckles all around us. I gazed into engraved images of riders on bucking broncos, intricate Western curlicues, and PRCA insignia. I’d wandered into Indian villages in South America, but this? This was a true anthropological experience.
I’d always felt diminutive as a Latina, but in Cheyenne, I felt Munchkinian. All of the cowgirls had long legs “up to there,” and big bleached blond hair under their hats. They glanced cooly at us like giraffes with big eyes and long eyelashes as we ponied up alongside them. The three of us were petite, curvaceous and friendly. They were statuesque, slim and wary of outsiders.
Maybe it was the big-heeled boots they were wearing, but all of the cowboys and their buckle bunnies and rodeo queens towered over us.
It didn’t take long before we spotted the women we’d nearly collided with earlier in the evening. They stood amid a group of cowboys, secure in their sexual power, knowing we could never compete with them for the affections of their menfolk. Yes. That’s the only way to describe those stalky dudes: menfolk. They were a perfect match for the womenfolk. We didn’t belong there. So we got the hell out before someone stepped on us, and wiped us off their boots.
We hightailed it to the brewpub to find Jimmy. He wasn't there, so we called the bureau. He walked in eventually, with his hat in his hands, looking dejected and upset.
“Where were you guys?” he asked reproachfully with a frown on his face. “I waited here for you for a long time, and you never came.”
Sheila, Julie and I stared helplessly at him and each other. We had no explanation that was worth sharing. Rather than spending the evening with big-hearted Jimmy, we’d narrowly avoided a cat fight with cowgirls, chased George Strait's tour bus through town, and experienced abject rejection at a cowboy meat market.
Leaning to one side with his hat in one hand, and the other on his hip, Jimmy looked like an honest-to-goodness cowboy. I stared at the imprint his hat had left on his shiny, dark hair, and noticed dark circles around his eyes. We’d been jerks. We should have met him at the brewpub hours ago. We’d made a promise, and hadn’t kept it. Jimmy turned away, and walked out of the brewpub before we could stop him. We'd hurt his feelings.
We drove back to Denver in silence. A few weeks later, Jimmy, who was scarcely out of his 20s, dropped dead of a heart attack. We never found out exactly what led to his untimely death. After that, we felt terrible about not keeping our date with him. We’d missed the chance to spend the evening with a good guy, the kind of guy who had qualities attributed to real cowboys: kindness, friendliness, courteousness, and a strong work ethic.
Without even knowing it, we’d already met our perfect cowboy, and he was gone.
© Story by Deborah Méndez Wilson. All rights reserved. Photo: Wikepedia image.
Editor's note: The annual Cheyenne Frontier Days will take place July 20-29, 2012, and will feature performances by Brad Paisley, Merle Haggard, Reba McEntire, Journey, Pat Benatar, Hank Williams Jr., and Blake Shelton.