I should’ve been a cowboy

Published 8:59 am Tuesday, June 11, 2024

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By Lloyd Albritton


I have always loved the old cowboy movies and television serials of yesteryear. My father loved horses and western movies too; and in my family, we always had a couple of riding horses to play cowboys on, a few of which would also pull a steady plow. My friends and I spent much of our idle time riding our horses in the piney woods, pastures, swamps and dirt roads of Nokomis, the rural Florida Panhandle community where I grew up. Anything I saw my cowboy heroes do on television, I went right out and tried on my own horse. I was skinny and limber in those days and totally unafraid of falling and getting hurt. This was important because most of the cowboy riding stunts I tried did not work out quite like they looked on television. Consequently, I took a lot of tumbles.

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There was, however, one big thing missing from my boyhood cowboy fantasies. In the Florida Panhandle, we did not have the mountains, canyons and tumbleweeds we saw our western heroes riding in. Nevertheless, we were adventuresome boys with vivid imaginations and we simply pretended that the red clay gullies and sandy creek beds and small knolls available to us were the mountains and rocks we saw in the western movies we loved so much.

I never saw any real mountains until 1969, when my wife and I drove to San Francisco, Calif. to catch an airplane to Hawaii, where I was being transferred while serving in the Marines. We were in our early twenties then with one infant child. It was in the month of May when we started our drive west. The weather was warm and we were dressed in summer attire. We looked at our map and decided it would be exciting to take Colorado Highway 50 across the spectacular Monarch Pass. Halfway up the mountain, as we were oohing and aahing and taking pictures, it started snowing. Oh how excited we were! Neither of us had ever seen mountains or snow before. The snowfall quickly increased, the temperature suddenly dropped, and the roads turned icy.

My wife was driving and I promptly invoked my manly powers of superiority and insisted upon taking the wheel in these dangerous circumstances. My wife was more than happy to relinquish control and she stopped the car right in the middle of the road. As I stepped onto the icy road from the passenger side, I slipped and fell onto my back. At the same time the door slammed shut on my hand, smashing all my fingers. In this painful and nerve-racking state of mind, I took the wheel and we anxiously slipped and slid our way over the mountain at a speed of no more than ten miles per hour, even as experienced mountain drivers in 4-wheel-drive trucks flew around us without concern. When I came up behind a mountain plow, I stayed right behind it until we got to the bottom of that mountain. Despite the awesome beauty of the Rocky Mountains, I was never so happy to see the last of them!

I got a little better at mountain driving as the years rolled by, beginning with the mountains in Hawaii, then later in California, and vacationing occasionally in the Smokey Mountains of the Carolinas after returning home from military service. Later, my wife and I lived in Denver for a few years, and I even grew somewhat comfortable with the Big Kahuna of mountain ranges, the great Rockie Mountains. Mountain driving, however, always scared me, and second only to New York City cab drivers, driving on icy mountain roads is perhaps the scariest thing I have ever done.

Still, like the ominous sirens of Homer’s Odyssey, there is a subtle beckoning of the wayward wind, which whistles constantly through the mighty Rockies. It is a powerful and magnetic summons that has drawn miners, cowboys, settlers and businessmen to this beautiful region for generations, all tempted by the excitement and thrill of its dangers.

After visiting Ouray, Colorado many years ago to attend a family event, that same call touched my ears and my heart. I returned to New York, quit my job, sold my house, and got myself right back up there to one of the most beautiful little places on God’s good earth. Often referred to as “Little Switzerland,” Ouray, Colorado, was like a gorgeous woman. I could not stop staring at her. I visualized Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey and Hopalong Cassidy riding over every hill. This place truly was the cowboy country of my boyhood dreams. It is, in fact, very near where John Wayne filmed his Academy Award Winning movie True Grit.

I planned to travel to other places around the country to experience the beauty of the land and the charm of the people, but for the next few years I chose the comeliness of Ouray, Colorado to begin my new life. Despite the frequent droughts, mountain fires and hazy skies, the thin-air and splendor of the surrounding San Juan mountain range were a balm to my soul. The exhilarating arousal I felt in this little postcard rejuvenated mountain town waned in time and I returned to the familiar flatlands of Panhandle Florida and South Alabama. I left Ouray, Colorado in early January of 2008 in the middle of a snowstorm, slipping and sliding my way over the winding Red Mountain Pass toward Silverton and onward through New Mexico. I was well into Texas before I felt thawed out. No more mountain driving for this cowboy!

Still, the very thought of riding those beautiful mountain trails of Colorado on a handsome steed, unabashedly caterwauling the words to “Back in the Saddle Again” still haunt me. Oh, what a beautiful dream!