Let’er Buck: The Life of a Cowboy

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Lack of sleep makes concentration difficult. I’m on my third cup of coffee and I can’t help but stare out the window trying to recapture last night’s fading dream of a life of a cowboy.

“找不到你公司税务登记证 ! 在哪里?”

The sound of these foreign words spin me back to reality here in China.

如果找不到太麻烦!”  My secretary again looks at me for a response.

I shut my eyes and focus on the feeling of “Let’er Buck” – a touch of the West, a touch of home.

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A world away, I taste the dew of the morning and roll out of bed to gaze over never-ending wheat fields.  I imagine saddling up the best friend a cowboy will ever have and head out to face the day.

The feeling of adventure mixed with a taste of adrenaline I suppose is why the cowboy often has a wistful smile as he saddles up.

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It doesn’t take long for the soft eyes of my horse to be replaced by the glare of my secretary. Her continual banter in Chinese steals me away from my daydream.

The figures on the spreadsheets in front of me wrestle each other in an endless battle to determine whether the year will see a profit or a loss.

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There will be a lot more wrestling with figures before the day ends and the freedom of a ride has never felt so far away. Running on the wind lifted by the cheers of a crowd.

I hold up my hand, and the Chinese words stop mid-sentence and for a second all is quiet, a rare moment of peace.

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“I should’ve been a cowboy…” I mutter, a common wish for most guys I grew up with, although for me I admit a life on the back of a bucking bronc is not in my blood.

The courage to ride requires a special spirit infused at birth.  The adrenaline rush of the ride, the feel of the rope, speed of the chase and mixing blood with mud is a lifestyle meant only for the few.

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What I am chasing though, is almost as elusive, the spirit of the cowboy. The legend created by songs and stories I’ve heard growing up: the down-to-earth attitude, importance of treating each other well and when taking a fall ~ fearlessly dusting off and saddling up again.

Dusting myself off, I stare at my computer and pound out another business email…

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The essence of the life of a cowboy defines the spirit of my hometown of Pendleton, Oregon. Waking up every morning with the annual September dream of becoming a cowboy, if only for a day.

To walk out onto the infield grass and take it all in, feeling the crowd with the beating heart of the grandest rodeo in the world, the Pendleton Round-Up.

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Around the world there are company executives pilfering the paychecks of their workers, politicians focused on lining their pockets and places where a hard day’s work has become a myth of days gone by.

Yet the philosophy of a cowboy remains true over the centuries. Put in a full day’s work, take care of family and friends and with bones aching, fearlessly climb back into the saddle again.

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The cowboy spirit flows through Pendleton with the memories of past cowboy heroes such as Lane Frost, Mike Boothe and Mike Currin – men as genuine in the arena as they were outside.

Also the present champions, Trevor Brazile, winner of four consecutive all-around titles at the Pendleton Round-Up and bareback champion Ty Breuer, showing the heart and spirit of cowboys still run true.

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For some, the dreams of the West and the cowboys who built America may be disappearing, however they still remain a strong foundation for the people of Pendleton.

Ranchers and farmers understand there is no such thing as an easy ride and to grab an opportunity when it arrives, knowing it may not come again. So when the rope leaves their hand there is no doubt it will find its mark.

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The echo of the rodeo reverberates in my mind, as my fingers struggle to tap out a message on my iPhone. These hands stand in stark contrast to the callused hands of a cowboy holding a rope and reigns.

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Any calluses I do have are quickly fading away, perhaps similar to the fading cheers a cowboy hears as he walks away from the arena one last time.

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Years ago when I was in my mid-20s, I was talking to a bronc rider after an excellent ride and he said something I’ve never forgotten: “The opening of a bucking chute is like the start of a new day. Some days will be tough with rough rides and broken bones – those days are to be remembered because it makes good days like today taste all the better.” 

Patience.  Belief.  Hard work. Cowboy logic.

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There are many things I’ve learned from rodeo champions over the years, but perhaps the most valuable lessons have come from the local farmers and ranchers.

Growing up, my annual summer job at PGG operating Rew grain elevator during harvest stands as one of the best work experiences I’ve ever had.

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The many people I worked with at Rew helped form my character, each one having the heart of a Pendleton cowboy. Two such cowboys, Bob Byers, who can create a solution for any problem and Terry Simpson who has an outlook on life second to none; both men define Pendleton perfectly.

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From Pendleton to Calgary to Cheyenne and to cities around the world, the spirit of the life of a cowboy flows free and strong. Looking out the window again, I put on a George Strait CD to fit my mood and the music even makes my secretary smile.

Here in China, I’ve found the soul of the cowboy both in myself and in the great people I work with over here.

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Closing my eyes, I feel the wind on my face and the pounding of hooves and earth blending perfectly with the music. I feel great.

Yes, I may be thousands of miles from home but all I need to hear are the words “Let’er Buck” and I am right back in the middle of the Pendleton Round-Up arena and it’s a perfect day.

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The beginning of December is where the last piece of magic will be performed when future champions get ready to ride at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.

Cowboys who grew up in small towns around the country, holding onto a belief that one day their names will be dancing in the bright lights of Vegas.  Their focus locked-in on the final ride of the year and the chance to etch their name in the history books and become a part of cowboy folklore.

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Good luck and good health to all. 祝你们好运气,健康.

Let’er Buck!

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The Wolf You Feed ~ A Native American Story

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Crawling out of the teepee at first light, my spirit is buoyed with excitement of the salmon run on the Big River (the Columbia). The echoing roar of Celilo Falls in the background is a symphony, welcoming back the tribes once again.

Rubbing my eyes and taking a cool breath of morning air, there is a light laugh beside me followed by several pieces of salmon pemmican pushed into my hand reminding me while I may not have been born into the Umatilla tribe, I am treated as family.

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I spot a friend from the Nimi’ipuu (Nez Perce) tribe across the way, and remember the spring day long ago in 1838 sitting down with Chief Tuekakas (Joseph the Elder) and a group of men from the Hudson’s Bay Company out of Fort Vancouver.

I was a young kid responsible for translation, fascinated by these leaders discussing the impact of the first party of Cherokees to resist removal to a reservation, not yet knowing their brave march westward would one day be known as the Trail of Tears.

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The impact of Chief Tuekakas’ words that day led me to take the opportunity to travel with his people, the Nimi’ipuu.

The wisdom I collected over those years I hold with gratitude, but my most cherished moment came the day when we stumbled onto a camp of the Umatilla people at the base of the Blue Mountains. All it took was one look and I realized I had found the destiny I had been searching.

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Over the past 20 years since those early days, I have lived with the Walla Walla, rode with the Cayuse and shared many a meal with the Palouse, Tenino and Chinook – learning a culture and a land far removed from my birth home in Scotland.

My memory is faint, but I understand while the climate, terrain and traditions of my homeland are quite different; the love of Mother Earth is the same.

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It is with this thought I can rest my head, my mind drifting off to dreams of the past. Crossing the Atlantic with family and friends in the year 1828 to reach the New World only to watch in horror as disease ripped through our cramped tenement housing, wiping out everything I held dear.

Broke and alone by the end of the year, I snuck aboard a wagon train with a dream to arrive in the Oregon Country to make my destiny. Discovered by the wagon master early on the trail, my skills as a fisherman and hunter proved valuable, and at a young age I had my first job.

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The journey through the free country of the west taught me the land, accepting the beauty it offered. The berries and roots kept us fed. The buffalo, elk and deer honored us with their great bravery as we matched them with our hunting skills.

Not a day goes by where I do not thank the animals, plants and spirit of this land for all they provide, and acknowledge the tacit agreement where we will take care of Mother Earth in return.

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Sitting here today along the banks of the Big River, the current mood of the Umatilla people is of sorrow. During the previous night, a tense meeting with the tribal leaders signaled the inevitable signing of a treaty with Washington D.C. to give up 6.4 million acres of land.

A treaty threatening to strangle the freedom and culture built over thousands of years. When the tribes sign the Treaty of 1855 they will receive in exchange, land designated at the Umatilla Indian Reservation to become a permanent homeland.

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My mind clears as I gaze off into the distant waters of Celilo Falls. My wife Awendela silently sings as she ponders the future of her people, repairing the fishing nets needed for another day’s work.

Biting into my pemmican, I retell an old folktale from the past, drawing a parallel with the clash of cultures we are experiencing today, an emphasis to remain strong and positive.

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An old man spoke to his grandson. “My child,” he said. “Inside everyone there is a battle between two wolves. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, inferiority, lies and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and truth.”

The boy thought for a moment. Then he asked, “Which wolf wins?”

A moment of silence passed before the old man replied, “The one you feed…”  

Native American Proverb

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Thinking of the world today, I wonder, which wolf is winning?

With the endless cycle of greed that sweeps through men and their politics, I fear the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I feel for the children of this land. The change in lifestyle will be difficult and clashes of culture will create an opportunity for the Evil Wolf to gain traction in the minds of the young.

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Turing around, I watch the children of the Cayuse with their ponies teaching the other kids the essence of the magnificent Cayuse horse dominating the plateau. I smile. We can learn much from the children, for their hearts are pure.

Succeed in educating children well and we ensure a way of life and culture forever.

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Teach as well as learn the way of the world, and we can all sleep better at night listening to the howling of the Good Wolf, sharing its “joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and truth” with us all.

Yes, feed the Good Wolf. I sigh and take another bite of pemmican…even with the sadness, I believe this shall be a very good season indeed.

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NOTE: The photos above are from the Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon pageant taking place every September in Pendleton, Oregon. A communion of sorts for the farmers and ranchers of the area along with the gathering of Native American Indian tribes of the Northwest, with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation hosting a teepee village of over 300 teepees.

A weeklong experience every one should experience once in life ~ Let’er Buck ~

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Watershed Moments in the DPRK

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What is the feeling of receiving a genuine smile from a stranger, where the eyes light up and there is no mistaking the emotions of wonderment, curiosity and delight?

A watershed moment in the DPRK.  It is strange, it was one of those off-chance smiles from a local walking along the street with nothing particular happening.  A spur of the moment release of joy and wonderment as with all smiles, but it also contained a little more – something that could bridge two very different cultures.  If there were a photograph that could do it justice, it would be the greatest photo ever taken.

Beautiful moments and smiles can certainly be photographed.  Everyday, many tremendous smiles are photographed around the world with children the greatest source; from pure minds come pure smiles.  Capturing the glory of such photos usually happens within a friendly atmosphere, and a camera is a mere afterthought.  Photos to be treasured.

In an environment where there is no such familiarity and warmth, it is difficult.

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There in lies the rub, the introduction of a camera steals a bit of the purity away from the spell.  The shots are still admirable, but the sparkle in the eyes may lose some of its mystical glow.

Why I mention this is that while I have photographed nice smiles of people and children in the DPRK, nothing could match the off-chance reactions of first ‘the glance’ followed by ‘a glimmer in the eye’ and finally a ‘world-winning smile’ of a local worker we passed by on the streets.  If I had to describe such a smile, picture the Mona Lisa breaking out in laughter after Da Vinci told her a racy joke…that type of electricity.

There is nothing I have that can come close to such expressions.

It took a few days in the DPRK for these “watershed moments” to arrive, all of which have taken me by surprise.   In my previous posts, I have mentioned several times that there is a forced stoic look on just about everyone – a veneer that upon arrival seemed impossible to penetrate.  Coming from places where smiles are common (China and the USA), this was a strange thing to witness.

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On the DPRK streets it may be that it is not easy to express ‘friendship’ or ‘happiness’ with the locals because of the barriers I have touched on in earlier posts.  Nevertheless, after a few of these sincere smiles, I wonder if this has as much to do with myself as with them.

The theory being that my unconscious biases and expectations I had when I arrived in the DPRK were getting in the way and it took a bit of time to unconsciously wipe away the ‘built-in’ negativity and realize we are all human with similar emotions, albeit with a vast abyss separating the cultures.

There was a post by a fellow blogger Jessica last year that touched on such a thought: http://jesscy.com/2012/10/23/people-are-people/, a nice read.

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Catching the eye, the gleam and then the smile…it is an easy way humans communicate.  Conceivably, it is the most basic primitive instinct that humans not only still have engrained in their genetics, but a primitive instinct that still serves the very same purpose from our beginning: to demonstrate there is no animosity, nothing to be feared and most importantly, friendship.

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While I still think ‘free expression’ is somewhat rare in the DPRK compared to other countries, it is here in some form.  Being in the DPRK has heighten my awareness, so it possible that the fact of just being here in this country makes a ‘simple form of self-expression’ seem more dramatic.  

If this is the case, then it just serves as a reminder that a smile is a mutual sharing of joy that can make any day a little bit better.  If such smiles are unexpected, then it is something I believe we can all relate with, knowing it is a bit more special.  Something so simple that can brighten the day is priceless.

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Sunset in the DPRK…Surprising and as Beautiful as a Smile

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When I first had this watershed moment, I thought that it was a singular event, even when followed by a few more the following day.  Uplifting.  In the afternoon as we visited a local brewery, and over a few mugs of the local brew, this very topic came up and the table turned electric with varying stories of connections.  Each story containing one common thread: everyone had been hit in some form by a genuine smile.  Simple and sweet.

My theory regarding this, is that it takes two to tango.  Being a little shell-shocked on arrival, it was difficult to have been on the same plane of understanding with our Korean brethren.  Be it culture shock or an unconscious bias.

Then again, perhaps not and it is the local brew doing the talking – never a bad thing at least until the morning after.

Regardless, joyous smiles from the heart are universal.

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The revelation of such a simple act and connection with people confirms that we are all home.  Regardless of where we are in our travels, good people are everywhere.

If there is a highlight of the trip regarding the sites we have visited, the children’s activity center (Pyongyang Schoolchildren’s Palace) and the performances afterwards would rank at or near the top.  Still, I think that while the children’s smiles are incredibly special, the rare genuine smiles surprisingly received on the streets are the ones that I will always remember.

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As for the children’s activity center, an amazing place filled with the magic of children and their ability to bring hope & smiles to us now and in the future.

Daoist philosophy explains the essence of children very well: a goal to ‘return to the mind of a child.’  The purpose being the mind of a child holds clarity and purity.  The child’s mind is closely connected to nature, not yet encumbered by the biases and cynicism that we collect as we move on in life.  If we can capture this essence, we can achieve a sense of self.  Unfortunately, as an adult, it is a place we can never return.  Sigh, at least we do get to enjoy the innocent wisdom of children before watching them grow up like us, into grouchy, cynical adults…(kidding of course).

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If you ever want to understand what is the epitome of happiness, watch a child at play when they are impervious to everything around them except the joy of laughter.

I hope the photos in this post prove to be a better messenger than the scrambled set of words I have already laid out.

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It occurs to me that while I describe the watershed moment as a breakout, I suppose the moment was slowly building.  Traveling to a new area and a new culture can expose the soul to incredibly different customs and it takes time to get acquainted with the place.  To understand its ambiance.

An old friend of mine once told me: “Travel, because when you teach your soul to accept new surroundings, you become more human and more compassionate towards the world.  So go out and live in it fully.”  At the time, he was simply talking about the different cultures you find in one city.  It is important to explore.

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With a few days under the belt, the DPRK has began to feel more human and, shockingly, a place I could definitely spend a fair amount of time to experience and learn more of their culture and the people.  While it still remains distant from any society I have lived or experienced, I guess it is the potential that has me feeling optimistic.  It all falls back to that watershed moment.

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As I think back to my first response to seeing people on the streets, watching them with a stoic veneer that seemed to be plastered on their face as they looked straight ahead, I thought that nothing could break through this frozen barrier.  Soldiers of a continuing Cold War.

Looking back, though, I should have seen the positives and great character right away.  My first experience to the personalities of the North Koreans was brought about by our guide (Ms. Kim), who was incredibly quick-witted.

Dan Levitsky and Ms. Kim Un Hui

Dan Levitsky and Ms. Kim Un Hui

What surprised me was how very quick she was to become wary of my wit.  Her hilarious replies and rebuttal for any smart comment I made often left me stammering for an answer, and the group in laughter.  She become a highlight of the trip herself…really a great personality.

It sounds foolish now, but I did not think such a personality could exist in the DPRK.  In all likelihood, I think I may have even thought such genuine smiles were impossible as well.  Where did these biases come from…?

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As for Ms. Kim, while we were at the Schoolchildren’s Palace (activity center), I did create a little stress for her as I got “disassociated” with the group and did a little exploring and met up with some great kids.  I think the students were as shocked as I was running into each other, and after their laughter at my horrible Korean, one of them broke into English.

It was simple small talk about where we were from, what we did and then description of classes and whether or not I was going to attend the performance that was just about to take place.  A couple of teachers came over to listen and enjoyed the conversation, although each of them looked at each other as if to say “where the hell did he come from?!?”  Again, simple and sweet.

However, when I did make it back to the group, I was warned that Ms. Kim was quite stressed, and the scolding I took confirmed this… even though both her and the group enjoyed the critique of my troublesomeness.

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As for the activity center, it was a lively and beautiful place where children studied extra-curricular activities such as ballet, musical instruments, and craft works.  It was difficult to say what was more inspiring – the art that was created, or the children who were putting their time into learning such skills.

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Travel rarely disappoints, for if you allow and seek it out, at some level there will be a connection with the locals along with a new set of experiences.  Experiences that can diversify the path you’re on and be incorporated into new dreams.  The experience may be a trip across town to a new ethnic restaurant, into another community or a different country.  A place where the mind and soul opens up to new ideas and adventure.

In regards to the DPRK, I am still disappointed with the politics that surrounds the country, but it feels strangely irrelevant compared to the past two days, as the beauty of its people overshadowed the politics.  The warmth of the smiles and the understanding that we are all a part of this adventure together has been the true highlight.

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