Monday, April 21, 2014

Erin Zwiener on the False Glint of Fool’s Gold and Cliché

On the False Glint of Fool’s Gold and Cliché


“Maybe romantic is going out to Wyoming and roping a wild bronco. But after you get out of the hospital, you have to feed the son of a bitch. He bites and kicks and doesn’t take kindly to the saddle, and after you get out of the hospital again, you neglect and abandon him, and the PETA people haul your ass into court—there is no romance in court, ever.” --Richard Schmitt, “Sometimes a Romantic Notion”
Forty horses stretch in a line along the wide path, one wrangler (at minimum) for every seven dudes per our insurance policy. The wranglers, professional horsemen and women are easy to spot. We wear cowboy-cut jeans, palm leaf hats, boots, and fire-engine red or denim pearl snap shirts. Fringed chaps wrap around my thighs, and I enjoy correcting the guests about the pronunciation of the leather leggings. "Ch-ap is what happens to your ass when you don't wear sh-aps. It's short for chapparal, brush country." Some guests have gone shopping before arrival, trying to look the part of a Westerner. Little girls wear pink pointy-toed boots, women tie bandanas glinting with rhinestones around their necks, and men ride with one hand clutching their ill-fitting, ill-shaped straw hats.

It’s a routine we repeat every week. A new batch of dudes arrives on Sunday and fills the rickety bleachers. Lee Greenwoods belts out “God Bless the U.S.A” as the wranglers stream into the arena and perform a choreographed routine of loops and x’s. I ride a svelte bay gelding and carry a Colorado flag that flutters behind me as we gallop. At the end of the performance, the horses line up in the center of the area facing the audience. My gelding stands like a statue while I hold my hat over my heart for the National Anthem, and the guests applaud.

Then we heave the guests onto the pre-saddled horses waiting in the corral and take them on what we call a trail ride. But the “trail” travels through one pasture, behind a subdivision of summer homes, across the country road, and around a pond in a second pasture. Nothing remote or impressive if you’re used to Colorado, but our dudes come from Los Angeles, New York City, and Atlanta.

The first section of the path abuts another large field full of horses. One bay with an arched neck gallops the fence line, calling to the sedate, dude-bearing mounts. He tosses his head, shakes his black mane, and kicks his hind legs in the air.

"Can anyone ride that bronco?" one woman asks.

"That's the horse they put the bad guests on," her husband answers, shooting a look at his oldest son.

“That’s right,” I say. “Better do everything I tell you to, or we’ll put you on him tomorrow.”

The boy’s mother laughs but scrunches her face in a way that tells me I’ve worried her. My first job is to keep everyone alive and healthy. The ranch horses are used to beginners and tend to be slow-going, but animals are unpredictable and humans are always looking for new ways to find trouble. I give tips on sitting comfortably in the saddle and bark at children to not throw acorns at each other. I watch the dudes to determine who is coordinated (and obedient) enough to go on rides up into the mountains. My second job is entertainment, and I chatter about horses, backcountry, wildlife, and country western dancing.

When we return to the ranch, the bay gelding is still frolicking. After the guests are safely back on the ground, I ask “Do y’all want to see me break that crazy horse to ride?”

The woman tells me seriously, “No, we don’t want you to get hurt.”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure I can handle him.” I answer.

I grab a soft cotton rope and duck through the wire into the pasture while the dudes gather near the fenceline. The bay gallops my direction, and I flail the rope towards his face when he nears. He pivots on his hind end, kicks his heels in the air, and gallops away. When he slows to an energetic trot, I move so that I’m perpendicular to his shoulder, and he starts to circle me, his delicate head lowering. When he slows to a walk, I drop my eyes to the ground and step backwards. He stops, and I back up further. The bay steps toward me warily.

I give him a moment to settle, and then pad up to his shoulder with quiet heel steps. He shudders when I pat him firmly on the neck but doesn’t move away. I ease the rope around his neck and leap onto his back while the crowd gathered on the other side of the fence gasps. The bay rears up, lifting his front feet and striking like the Lone Ranger’s Silver, and I dig my fingers into mane and press my chest into his neck. When he touches down, he shoots forward at a full run. I coo at him until he slows to a relaxed lope, and lay the rope against the right side of his neck. When the gelding curves his spine and turns to the left, I praise him loudly and direct him toward the watching guests.

I swing off directly in front of them, give the bay an approving rub, remove the rope, and turn to my onlookers. The bay tries to use my back as a scratching post, and I scold him.

“Not too bad for the first ride,” I say.

The guests are in awe of me, their own private Annie Oakley and fearless tamer of wild horses. None of them recognize the bay from our drill team event that morning, one of two horses on the ranch that can carry a flag without spooking, and they won’t recognize him when we run short of kids’ horses on Wednesday and pack an eight-year-old on him. A horse that I have owned since I was thirteen. A horse that I taught verbal commands such as “up” for rear and “let’s go” for gallop. I make the best tips of any wrangler on the ranch.

Even as I tell this story, I fall back into the shtick, give into the temptation to let the story run away with me. I was just starting to teach Razi, that bay gelding, to rear that summer, so his bronco display wouldn’t have been as dramatic. I used a halter with a lead rope instead of just the rope. We’ve never mastered riding with just a neck rope despite my best efforts. The girl who rode Razi when we ran out of children’s horses was eleven, not eight. Our guests came to Colorado for the fir and aspen-clad mountains, the blue lakes, the clear air, but they came to a dude ranch for the romance of the Wild West. So we gave it to them. Other wranglers told stories about competing in the National Children’s Rodeo (doesn’t exist), a beloved horse waiting for them at home (imaginary), the year they spent living in the wilderness (totally fictitious), a promising bull riding career given up because of injuries (one ill-advised leap onto a bull in a pasture), childhoods on a ranch in South Dakota (born there, but the family moved to Phoenix before the wrangler in question could walk.)

In Richard Schmitt’s essay “Sometimes a Romantic Notion”, he discusses the human penchant for clichéd drama, an appetite for tales that are plucked and clipped and primped until they fit into an elegant frame. He tells his own story of “running away to join the circus” as a teenager, except he was already a runaway, a minimum wage brick scrubber sharing an apartment with a junkie who rested his hopes on a white Ringling Bros. train. From Schmitt: “People say ‘run away to join the circus’ as if there is only one, and as if there is no doubt about joining it. As if the option resides solely with the runaway. One is fed up; the need to escape strikes; you find this entity called circus and presto, you are embraced.”

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” An ever tempting piece of barroom cowboy advice. Romanticizing our past and our selves is a trap for memoirists in particular but other nonfiction writers as well. What makes something romantic anyways? Unfamiliarity? Inaccessibility? Romance is a trope that we substitute in for reality, cowboys or circus performers with the manure wiped off their boots before they’re allowed in public.

Schmitt discovered that finding gainful employment under a big top was more complicated than he’d imagined. “One didn’t simply decide to join the circus and have them issue you a bandanna and a tambourine.” Instead of focusing on the glitzy culmination of his circus career as high-wire act, the essay follows the teenage Schmitt searching up and down the train for someone to hire him and observing the workers and his surroundings with a honed gaze. “The spit polish and flash of the first few cars gave way to peeled paint and sooty squalor. There were garbage bags. The windows weren’t washed . . . Stockcars, pervasive zoo odors, heavy wooden ramps soiled with various types of dried animal crap . . . a hunched troll-like figure crawling from the black belly of the train, dragging a fat rubber hose, the type used for pumping septic tanks. An old man covered in soot and rail cinders. His face resembled a tire tread in dried mud.” When he did find the right people, they had no work for him, at least not there in Providence. He could try Albuquerque. A romantic notion has a gleaming surface, but it lacks the depth and humanity of life.

But what harm in just a notion? It’s such an impulsive little word, with none of the vigor of opinion or the steadfastness of conviction. A notion will pass like the latest fad, so why not indulge it for a moment before moving on? From Schmitt: “Notions are fleeting; they go away. One minute you are making a tiger vanish; the next moment he is having you for dinner. Being eaten by tigers is not romantic.”

In sewing, notions are all the tiny items, the afterthoughts one grabs at Joann’s after they’ve selected a pattern, a fabric, and a trim. They’re the simple structural items that differentiate a professional looking garment from an amateur one. Cider-hued thread for traditional jean pocket stitching, midnight blue for an edgier, urban look. Goofy red buttons for clown costumes. Pearl snaps for a western shirt. Plastic stays to make a high-wire performer’s collar permanently stiff. Notions also include basic tools. Scissors to make a bolt of cloth match the pattern.  Pins that hold the fabric together for sewing. Bobbins that whirl out thread on the machine. Needles to prick and thimbles to protect. A seam ripper to correct mistakes and try again. Without notions there can be no stitching together of satin or scenes.

Notions are the connective tissue of essays, that singular vision that takes a jumble of parts and transforms it into a whole. Some notions may show in the finished project; others may be pulled out like pins when the piece is sewn together, but they are just as integral to an essay as narrative, voice, metaphor. Enter an essay with the wrong notion and the components won’t stick. Or perhaps they’ll stick but look as garish as a pair of leopard print capris. Schmitt’s steadfast gaze on the grimy details reminds us that despite the temptation of cliché, that the austere underbelly is more fascinating than polished façade, that we as essayists should look past the first glint and dig for a more ambiguous treasure.


Erin Zwiener is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at the University of Arizona and assistant editor for Fairy Tale Review. She’s the author of the children’s book Little Red Riding Boots, the first in a series of cowgirl fairy tale retellings. She lives on the slopes of the Tucson Mountains with a corral full of horses and mules. Visit her online at


  1. Really great piece! Reminds me a bit of Gretel Ehrlich's insistence that they've gotten the cowboy image all wrong in "About Men." I'm teaching Schmitt's essay right now, so I appreciate your reading of his piece in relation to that "temptation to let the story run away with me." Thanks.

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