It is in the opening credits of every American Western that we are introduced to the protagonist. He is a slim yet commanding presence, able to hold his own with arms akimbo, yet simultaneously gentle in the face of love. Wise in the sense of the river’s flow and the harvests. We follow his lead because he knows the paths less traveled, yet endlessly more interesting.
Armed with an assignment to trudge into the high desert to find new roads, photographer Lucette Romy and writer Michaela d’Artois found another calling: to bootleg the iconography of the Western genre, try it on for size, and deconstruct the moral code of the cowboy.
April 25th, 2019
Do not practice ingratitude.
It was the same valley I had woken up in a year before with a tattered heart as I lay in the bed of a truck occupied by a relationship cannibalizing itself. Fast forward twelve months, and this time, I woke to the whispers of the cactus flower as they themselves set to bed with sunrise. I awoke more myself than I ever have, in the back of a Chevy Silverado, my pup snug against my side and my dear friend sleeping beside me. I felt overwhelming gratitude for the journey I’d taken this past year. Releasing from the tangles of the duvet, I unlatched the back of the truck and hopped out — bare feet on the sun-warmed soil. I closed my eyes and absorbed that meditational white noise of the desert, reminding myself to carry this feeling with me. I would need it when I returned to the city. I could use it as my compass.
Just few days prior, a partnership with Chevrolet to road trip to Stagecoach hit my inbox. At the risk of sounding like the opener to a bad joke – a Canadian and an Australian walk into a country music festival – I gave into my annual summer craving to pack the car and just go. By the end of that week, my photographer friend and I were behind the wheel of Big Red, our flame-hued Silverado, with Google Maps directed towards California’s desert-scape. Our energies were ignited with a common goal: to find new roads, the kind that re-establish your sense of wonder, that allow you to uncover truths about your surroundings and self you hadn’t seen before, that ask questions and maybe even answer a few that you’ve been harboring.
April 26th, 2019
Respect the land.
As we drove through Joshua Tree National Park, I mulled over the sentiment, “Go West, young man.” I found myself unable to conjure many places as untouched as this, where, barred down by the elements, one has space to breathe. The American dream is that there is always more space out west. Only you and I both know that there aren’t many places like this left.
April, 27th, 2019
Never pass anyone on the trail without saying howdy.
In Palm Springs we were met with a new road we hadn’t foreseen, and it came in the form of iconography we had thought long dead. Myth or man, the modern cowboy lives on, only they’ve traded in their horses for horsepower. It’s the mode with which you travel into landscapes of rough unpredictability with the confidence that you have the means for taking on a new road, wherever it may lead you.
Chevrolet may as well be synonymous with Americana, and we felt immersed in that history as we tore over dirt paths that still slept as if being pulled closer to the edges of the golden state. Windows down, breeze licking at our cheeks, we lost count of how many times we found ourselves at a red light only to catch our neighbor giving us a once-over. Two women bound by no city in a brand spanking new cherry red pickup truck. Each time we pulled Big Red into the Stagecoach festival, the staff would tip a metaphorical cowboy hat and drawl “nice truck” with total sincerity. We giggled at Big Red’s sovereignty.
Truth is, I have, to some degree, always been entranced by the outlaw life of a cowboy. It was one illustrated for me through the Spaghetti Westerns on my childhood cable TV. Tales of freedom, a man and the trials of the terrain. An individual who thrives in solitude – I identified with him in this way. It occurred to me that I did not want to fall in love with a cowboy as much as I wanted to be one myself.
Armed only with a few lyrics of a Luke Bryan song, we headed into the uncharted terrain of Stagecoach and nestled in with the crowd against the main stage. Incognito in our cowboy hats and bandanas, our motive was to observe the contemporary cowboy, to see what he could teach us. Did the American legend still ring true? I wanted to know if there was really a cowboy code of ethics, one that that was unspoken yet well-lived. That gentlemanly grace that had intrigued me as a child was there, adrift in the ballads blasting from the stage. Just like in the movies I binge watched as a child, each cowboy tipped their hat as they passed. An act of civility. An unspoken habit. The dichotomy of virility grounded by virtue. As a resident of a city powered by insatiable hearts always seeking the next best thing, I found comfort in the simple contentment of the country-man.
April 28th, 2019
Never try on another man’s hat.
Here, my uniform of Hanes tees and trousers feels untaught and appropriate. Dressed in the language of masculinity, I discerned that cowboys are not defined by their trappings, not even by a respect-demanding hat with scale. We learned it’s a calling to find oneself through a little wrestling with nature. It is every John Wayne character arc – he meets the trails in solitude, a conflicted soul, only to emerge out the other side with newfound wisdom. A far cry from the folklore glamorized by a Hollywood genre, this was the true grit of stepping into the unknown gunning for answers.
And boy, did I need a few of my own.
April 29th, 2019
Real cowboys are modest.
In the desert, it is not your social network looking on but instead a network of stars, like tiny alerts reminding us just how small we are. It is in finding new roads that we find corners of ourselves we hadn’t seen before — how we interact with the land, our patience for her unpredictable elements, the curiosity that is cracked open when we finally find the space to do so.
If you pay close enough attention, the desert can act as a soothsayer to all the questions you want answered. The birds will dive and twist to teach you grace under pressure, the vegetation will tell you tales of perseverance, and the silent beauty of the terrain? That is a reminder that you don’t always have to speak your truths. Sometimes if you quietly pursue your purpose, those who truly want to hear you will come seeking.