Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Walk They Walk

Unless they are very young you can tell a real cowboy by his walk, particularly if rodeo was a part of his life. From their mid-30’s on it seems that cowboys have had their spines fused. They walk stiff and straight, shoulders thrown back, chest out. It looks as though they could never bend from the waist. Their bowed legs and wrecked knees take cautious wobbly steps.

Most older cowboys have trouble getting out of a chair. They struggle up using the chair’s arms and back as supports. As they straighten you can practically hear the creak of bones with no cartilage left in between. They scuttle slowly, somewhat sideways like a drunken crab as they try to orient both sides of their bodies to face straight ahead. It’s painful to watch and obviously even more painful to survive.

Years of being thrown from horses, getting kicked or run over by livestock, or avoiding being killed by any number of "on-the-job" hazards have taken their toll. Your chances of finding a cowboy over 40 who hasn’t had at least one broken bone are about as good as your chances of winning the lottery twice in a row. Most cowpokes have story after story of broken tibias, fibulas, femurs and bones whose names we’ve never heard. As they struggle from a chair you’ll hear, "yup, bunged up my back rodeoing. Should have quit a couple years before I did. Never did amount to much anyway".

John Wayne affected a cowboy swagger that encompassed some of this stiffness and pain, but most movie and tv cowboys walked normally, sprang up into the saddle and jumped blithely down from the horse once they pulled up to the barn. Most working cowboys haven’t done those things since they were in their teens.

I’ve got a friend who ended up with a morphine pump implant to squirt the drug directly into an area of his back so he can function. Before this he’d be working on something when suddenly he’d grab his back, his eyes would glaze over and he’d stagger over to the shade where he’d collapse in a spasm of pain. Fifteen or twenty minutes later he’d finally be able to pop a pain pill. Half an hour later he could begin to move around again. Most of the damage was from his rodeo days.

The first time I really studied the cowboy walk I was at a tire dealer in the small town north of us. An old cowpoke pulled in in one of those early 1970’s monster cars that seem to be a feature of this area. I watched him battle out of his vehicle.

After he told the tire man what he needed it came over to chat. He didn’t sashay, he didn’t mosey, it was more a modified duckwalk, stiff and with one shoulder lower than the other.

At one point in our talk he had to go over to his car and bend down to see what the tire man was talking about. He didn’t bend at the waist. Instead he slowly and painfully bent his knees and eased downward, keeping his spine rigid as he did so.

The knees are another factor in this cowboy walk. Most cowboys’ knees ceased normal functioning years ago. When they bend them it’s a real production trying to unbend them. But not to worry - bending them in the first place is nearly impossible.

You want to know if someone is a "drugstore cowboy" or the real thing? Ask him to walk over to your table - you’ll know in an instant.


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