Breaking for freedom in the New West

by David Feela



My neighbor owns a horse. I see it standing in the field across from my house every morning as I leave for work, and when I come home the horse is still waiting there, like a picture of grace and power that has no place to go.

My neighbor rides the horse up the road and back again on weekends, a sort of cowboy without a cow, horsepower enough to rustle a few moments from the week, then turn them loose before heading back to his modern life at the doublewide ranch.

I could theoretically be his partner, for I watch him — even watch for him — as he rides up the road, and somehow feel an affinity for his refusal to sell the animal or let somebody put the old horse out to pasture. Oh, we’re a sorry bunch, Easterners and Midwesterners transplanted in the West, imagining an eternal frontier.

We see the mountains rise up like so many bucking broncos, hunker down beside a side-winding river, and we’re forever romantic, cellular phones and paging devices flashing in the holsters strapped to our belts. And the real Westerners, the few around us, the ones born in the valley and nursed on a secret formula of chewing tobacco and beer, they think the only reason strangers keep showing up is because someone forgot to close the gate.

My neighbor doesn’t care what people think. That’s obvious to anyone who drives past: His yard is a clutter of junk cars, broken appliances, twisted bicycle frames and iron parts from something unnatural that seems to have planted itself as a memorial.

His horse has a little piece of ground fenced off from the chaos, its own grass, bathtub trough and a good view of the mountains. Granted, it’s not much, but how much does a horse need? A cowboy, on the other hand, has to keep his stock in line, and though my neighbor’s horse doesn’t appear to get as much attention as his pickup truck, boat, camper, snowmobiles or his ATV, it stands as an idle reminder that we, too, can be saddled by whatever holds the reins.

Everything I own eats a little of my time, even if it claims to save it in the long run. My car guzzles gas, my computer consumes bytes of information, my telephone beeps and swallows half a dozen voices only to regurgitate them when I finally get home. My VCR tapes the shows I don’t have time to watch so I can view them once I’ve pulled an hour free, just like an old farmer clearing his land, tree by tree.

Last year, my neighbor’s horse suddenly bolted through a barbed wire fence. Two deep gashes were torn into its chest as well as a multitude of smaller ones across its front legs. The horse might have died — would have died — but my neighbor caught it, and because he owns no stable or shed where he might confine a horse, he came to me to ask if he might use my garage.

There, he tied the horse to the front wall and with no more than a quick injection of veterinarian Novocain, began to stitch the horse’s flesh together using a curved needle he’d packed away with his experience as a medic in Vietnam. I’d never seen anything like it, except to watch my grandmother stitch a quilt in her lap, but here were blood, tissue and muscle exposed like so many anatomy schematics in a textbook, things that belonged on the inside somehow laid open.

My neighbor put all the parts back and shut the fleshy door, the entire time complaining about how much hay a horse can put away in one winter. As he led the horse out, I suddenly knew how such a placid animal could have behaved so rashly, charging a barbed wire fence.

The last time it happened to me, I wound up in western Colorado.

But I was pulling a trailer packed tight with a few hundred necessities. I unpacked them all, took a deep breath of the clear Western air, and started planning where I’d teach school next.

I’d like to think that that horse and me are some kind of kin — patient, yet yearning for the unbridled life. We make our halfhearted breaks for freedom, searching for a slightly different perspective of that same old mountain.

Meanwhile, another year begins, and we keep on plugging.

David Feela is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. He is a teacher in Cortez, Colorado, and a freelance writer.

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