When I was in my 20’s, in what seems to be a different lifetime ago, I worked in the oil industry. I was what was known as a “Landman”, which involved criss-crossing the Western states, hoping to sign farmers and ranchers to lease their lands for the company I was representing for oil and gas exploration.
That different lifetime ago, I was a naive city boy. By necessity, (2 of my 4 children had already been born) I was yanked from my dreams of being a great symphonic conductor (yeah, right) and dropped into a world that was as foreign to me as, well, a city boy being dropped into the country!
I’d spent time on a farm when I was a young boy. Dad had relatives who owned a farm in Eastern Colorado. I’d spend a couple of weeks on their farm each summer, having a hootin’ time driving the tractor, helping milk cows and getting up with the rooster’s call each morning. As a boy of 10 years or so…what would there have been not to love?
That was my sole experience with “country life” that I took with me when I ventured out on my first “business” trip onto the great plains in search of signatures. In your twenties, you’re still not scared of a lot, or just too dumb to realize you should be scared but I set out for a tiny town located in Northwestern Wyoming at 6:00 pm one fine Monday Summer evening. The trip was going to take 8 hours. I had never traveled much of anywhere up to that point due to being quite ill when I was in my late teens, so the trip wasn’t scary…it was somewhat cathartic.
One starts to get away from the impressive Rocky Mountains, and more out into the open expanse of Wyoming, and you start to think differently. Back then, your choice of music offerings for any road trip was AM/FM radio and cassette tapes. Being the sophisticated city boy, I opted for cassette tapes once the FM signal could no longer pick up my city boy radio dial tastes.
For a reason still unbeknownst to me, I popped in a cassette of Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo” once I got into the Wyoming “plains”. Somehow the tape had been queued perfectly to start with the third dance, entitled “Saturday Night Waltz”. The sun was setting, the air was pure and clean, and this Copland piece perfectly depicted what it was like to be where I was at, exactly at that moment traveling the back roads of Wyoming. To this day, I still can’t describe the feeling…but when I hear this Copland piece, I know.
I was a Landman for another couple of years. I learned a great many things – the value of a handshake, of taking life a bit slower, that when you’re in a small town, you respect the fact that you’re an outsider and you do what the locals do. I learned to appreciate AM radio and the local offerings of who in the local town wanted to trade what for what and how comforting it was to listen to Paul Harvey when you were in the middle of nowhere in Montana. I ate some of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life in tiny town diners, VFW’s halls, and most especially at the farmers and ranchers homes I was lucky enough to visit and be invited for dinner. And if one is there at the right time…you’re always invited for dinner.
I happened to be at a rancher’s home at the right time for my first lease signing. As I sat down to visit with a rancher in Southeastern Colorado about oil and gas drilling rights for his thousands of acres ranch (I’m exagerrating… but just a bit) this being my first “signing”, I found out real quick that there were certain things you did before business was finalized. If there was a rodeo being televised…you watched it. There was one being broadcast that late afternoon…we watched it. Then, if they have something they were particularly proud of…you gave it your utmost attention and respect.
“Do you like our arrowheads?” I was asked by the ranchers’ wife as she had hauled out their expansive collection, laying them carefully on the dining room table. Each group of arrowheads had their story -where they were found, what Native American tribe they originated from, along with their respect for what they were stewards over. I marveled at the craftsmanship of each arrowhead. I listened attentively to each story…not because I wanted their signature (which, of course, I did) but mainly because I was fascinated to touch a part of history that, being a city boy, I had no clue about.
The lease was signed. The rancher and his wife were grateful, as I was, and we sat down to dinner. And the most magnificent of dinners it was. I was lucky enough to hear of more stories of the land they lived on, what each day brought to them and of their love and reverence for the land they farmed and ranched on.
Writing about it now, “reverence” is the word I’ve been seeking. The Copland piece depicts, at least for me, in a way no other piece of music does, the reverence and wonder of a part of this beautiful country.
I am most grateful for my 2 years spent traveling through Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado. The clean but simple motel rooms, the wonderful diners, the Saturday night outings at the local VFW, where you showed up, drank a Budweiser with the locals, watching as they danced with each other, never casting a lingering look toward the farmers and ranchers women. They were to be respected…and that they were. The dingy but “educational” bars and pool halls in small towns, the long, long drives along county roads where if you did happen to pass a truck along the journey, they always gave you a “wave”, and the friday night high school football games you went to because that’s what the locals did – it was all good. The most honest, true and cordial people I’ve ever met, I met during those 2 years traveling county roads.
So, if you ever happen to find yourself traveling the Great Plains, roll down the window, slow down a bit and take it all in. It’s truly beautiful in its own way. And if you remember, queue up Copland’s Rodeo, Saturday Night Waltz, and see if you too experience that reverence that Copland perfectly captured.
Aaron Copland: 4 Dance Episodes from “Rodeo” – III. Saturday Night Waltz (4:11)
A picture of me from this past summer in the Rocky Mountains. This is the first photo I’ve included of myself since starting this claptrap of a website. It’s the closest photo I can find of me being somewhere near a ranch, sleeves rolled up as we did back when I was traveling from farm to farm, from ranch to ranch – ready to work. Hope the photo doesn’t cause harm to your computer!
Photo credit (front page): www.unsplash.com/@kohntopp
Photo credit: www.unsplash.com/@robostheimer
Photo credit: www.unsplash.com/@kelsikkema
Photo credit: www.unsplash.com/@riley_mccullough