Originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine, “About Men” column.
Artwork courtesy of Julian Allen/New York Times.
A young boy molts. Tender skin falls off, or gets scraped off, and is replaced by a tougher, more permanent crust. The transition happens in moments, in events. All of a sudden, something is gone and something else is in its place. I made a change like that standing in the back of a pickup truck when I was 15.
It was 1967 and I had a summer job at a camp in Wyoming. It was beautiful there, high-pasture country with a postcard view of the Tetons. As an apprentice counselor I straddled the worlds of boys and men, breathing the high air, watching over kids, hanging out with cowboys. The cowboys wrangled the horses for the camp and were mostly an itinerant group, living in summer cabins below the barn, and they tolerated my loitering down there. I hitched up my jeans like them, braided my lasso like them, smoked and cursed and slouched like them. On the day it happened, I was standing with a group of cowboys by the ranch office. We heard the sound of a big engine coming in the long driveway, and after a while a red Corvette Sting Ray convertible, of all things, motored up in front of us. Conversation stopped. In the driver’s seat was a hippie. His hair fell straight down his back and was tied with a bandanna around the forehead. His style may have been standard for somewhere, but not for Jackson, Wyo.
The guy was decked out with beads and earrings and dressed in fantastic colors, and next to him his girlfriend, just as exotic, with perfect blonde hair, looked up at us over little square glasses with a distracted, angelic expression. All in a red Corvette.
I was fascinated, mesmerized. I looked around me with a big grin and realize that I was alone in this feeling. The cowboys all had hard stares, cold eyes. I adjusted, a traitor to myself, and blanked out my expression in kind.
The hippie opened up a big smile, “I went to camp here when I was a kid…came by to say hi. Is Weenie around?”
In that moment, Weenie, the owner of the place, having heard the throb of the engine, appeared in the ranch office door and walked toward us with a bow-legged stride, his big belt buckle coming first. He walked right up to the driver and looked down on him.
“Get out.” Weenie didn’t say Hi. “Get out of here now.”
“What? Wait a minute… I came to say hi. I went to camp here. I just came to say hi.”
“Get the hell off this ranch. Now.” And staring at the hippie, Weenie kicked some dust up on the side of the Corvette.
“What’s wrong with you, man?”
“You’re what’s wrong with me, son.”
I noticed the cowboys were nodding. I nodded. Weenie’s right. The guy should leave. He doesn’t belong here.
“But you sent me a Christmas Card!” By this time, the hippie had choked up a little. “I don’t believe it. You sent me a goddamn Christmas Card!”
The group of us closed in a little around the car. We-don’t-like-that-kind-of-talk-from-a-hippie was the feeling I was getting. Thumbs came out of belt-loops. Jaws began to work.
“Looks like the little girlie’s cryin’,” said one of the cowboys, a tough one named Hondoo. He spoke with his lips turned down on one side as if he was mouthing a cigarette. “Maybe the little girlie needs a haircut.”
“Maybe so,” said another, with mock consideration.
The notion rested in the air peacefully for a moment, then, in a sudden whipping motion, Hondoo’s jack-knife was out, open and raised. With his other hand, he reached down and grabbed a fat bunch of the hippie’s hair and pulled it toward him. Smiling grimly he hacked it off and held it up for us to see.
During this, I was looking down at the hippie’s face which was lifted up and sideways in such a way that he was looking right at me. Involuntarily, my head tilted just like his and we froze like that for a second.
“There now, that’s better, ain’t it?” asked Hondoo.
The hippie, stunned, turned to his girlfriend whose eyes and mouth had been wide open as long as she had been sitting there. Then he turned back to us, his face contorted, helpless. And then he went wild. He threw open his door and tried to jump up from his seat, but forgot that his seat-belt was fastened and it held him in place. He struggled against it, screaming, swinging his arms like a bar-fighter trying to shrug off his buddies restraining him. It was funny. Like a cartoon.
I looked around. We were all laughing. Our group closed up a little more, and came toward the car. The air bristled. He was the one who started the trouble. Well, he would get what he was looking for, all right.
The hippie stopped struggling, threw the ‘Vette into gear, and fishtailed in the dust. We all jumped out of the way, but the open door of the car bumped into Weenie’s favorite dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, an inside-out-looking animal, who gave a wild yelp and ran straight into a willow thicket. We could hear his yips over the sound of the big engine as the hippie gunned it and took off.
That settled it. The hippie hit the dog.
Without hesitation, we jumped into one of the trucks. Rifles were drawn from the rack in the cab. Other weapons were thrown up into the bed of the pickup. I was standing there and I caught one.
We take off, and because the rough road slows down the Corvette, we were gaining. I was filled with a terrible, frightening righteousness. I was holding a rifle, chasing a man and a woman with a rifle in my hand. I looked around at my partners in the truck, and the air came out of me. We meant harm. We didn’t care. I wondered who I was exactly. I needed to know. And in that moment, it happened: I switched sides and never said a word about it.
We hit the asphalt road and floored it, but we can’t catch the Corvette. No way. The smoke from its exhaust settled around us like fog in the valley.
Still, twenty years later, I can see the two of us clearly, chosen by the same moment. Memory cuts back and forth between our faces. The wind pulls tears from the hippie’s eyes; his long hair waves behind him in his fiery convertible rocketing down Route 191 under the Tetons. I with my short hair stand in the back of a pickup truck watching after him, chasing after him, following, facing the same wind.