Growing up is hard to do


While teaching a class in Gardiner, Mont., I asked the teenagers for adjectives to describe their lives.

"Boring," one called out, because I sensed the kid knew that teenagers were supposed to be jaded. It was a cloak he could easily don, and by pretending to be bored he wouldn't have to work very hard. Who knows, it might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

He may have been testing me, too: Many grown-ups get infuriated at the notion that teenagers are bored. They say, "How can you be bored when you’re surrounded by beautiful mountains like this?" Then they go away and leave the teenagers alone. But I just wrote "Bored" on the chalkboard, and held the chalk waiting for another adjective.

"Desolate," said somebody else, a strong word, at least. But then we got down to business.

"Mountains," said somebody; "wildlife," said another; "sagebrush," said a third. These weren't adjectives, but I didn't want to get hung up on grammar. Not when I had a chance to learn about the lives of rural teenagers.

"Driving": the kids drove everywhere. "Basketball": the Gardiner boys' team was currently advancing in the state playoffs. "Skiing," "snowboarding," "hunting," "desert," "drought."

I was there to talk to them about Mildred Walker's novel Winter Wheat, thanks to a statewide program sponsored by the Montana Committee for the Humanities. I was afraid they'd find the book boring since I’d found it a little bit boring myself, until about halfway through when its carefully crafted momentum propelled me to the end.

The book is set on a 1940s Montana wheat farm, and I asked them for one-word descriptions of the lives of its characters.

"Boring," the same wag said, and we all laughed. But soon we came up with a list: prairie, quiet, cold, wheat, community, deadly, spare time.

With it going so well, I decided to test out a theory of mine. "How many of you are familiar with cowboy novels?" I asked. "And John Wayne movies?"

Enough nodded their heads that I plunged in. "Let's do the same for those."

Our results: outlaws, romantic relationships, violent action, sheriffs, suspense. Mindful of "community" on the previous list, I suggested adding "individualism" to this one; they agreed. It was a little vague, since we weren't examining a specific text, but the result still looked remarkably different from the other lists.

The list demonstrated that in the real West — now or 60 years ago as portrayed in a realistic novel — outlaws, sheriffs and romantic relationships don’t seem that significant. The deadliness comes only from weather and driving. The tie to landscape is deeper and more rewardingly complicated than moviemakers portray.

This difference between movies and real life isn’t surprising and has often been written about. Of course, no Hollywood genre fits people's real lives. Your love life is nothing like a romantic comedy, that classroom was nothing like Dead Poets' Society and reality is nothing like reality television programs.

At the same time, everyone in our culture understands the themes of cowboy books and movies. We know that iconic set of adjectives. We quickly grasp those mythologized images. They're an easy set of stereotypes.

So when we as Westerners interact with "the grown-ups" in the form of the local and federal government, corporations, environmental organizations, "Easterners," "Californians" or anyone we see as being from that other culture which seeks to control us, I think we sometimes reach for that easy stereotype. We pretend to be cowboys, individualists, stoics — not necessarily because we believe the stereotype ourselves, but because we hope the grown-ups will buy it.

Then, we hope, they'll go away and leave us alone.

It's a teenager's response. Sure, it's slightly immature. But it comes from an aggravation at being condescended to, which I think is often justified. If the adults would sit and listen, our conversations might get beyond the tough-guy stereotypes.

But too often they don't. The dialogue just gets frustrating — leaving us with a problem, too. As Westerners, we have to live with the consequences of our pretensions: we have to continually live up to that lonely celluloid image. And, like teenagers, we also have to live with the moments of desperate doubt, when we wonder why it is that we're all alone and not growing up.

John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in Red Lodge, Montana, and his new book The Cowboy Girl, a biography of the writer and rancher Caroline Lockhart, is due out next year.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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