Cowboy at the checkout

Livingston, Montana. I’m at the checkout at Albertson’s, a big U.S. grocery chain, when I line up behind the cowboy. The man towers over me — easily six-foot-six, with a white Stetson that extends his altitude by another half foot. He has a ZZ Top-calibre russet beard, shoulder-length hair and curling moustaches that give him the mournful air of a bewhiskered nineteenth-century homesteader or a murderer. He waits patiently behind a woman unloading cases of Mountain Dew and chicken parts.

I move to another checkout line for a better view. He wears Wrangler jeans tucked into suede knee-high boots. Under a black vest, a long-sleeve maroon shirt and a red bandana. At his wrists, wide leather cuffs studded with green rhinestones. A gold chain emerges from somewhere on his person, makes a loop, and terminates at a vest pocket. (To a watch? A picture of his mother? Opera glasses?)

I see no evidence of six-shooters, spurs or chaps. But he is holding a basket with several tubes of toothpaste, bottles of mouthwash and hair care products.

As I puzzle over the toiletries, a cashier at another checkout calls to me, “Excuse me, Mister, I’m open now. Would you like to pay?”

I catch the cowboy’s attention: “Sir, I think you were here first. After you.”

He pauses, touches his hat. “Thank you kindly.”

* * *

Our hosts in Paradise Valley have generously lent us a cabin on their property, which is fitted with large windows looking east and west. To the east is a pond fed by mountain streams from Emigrant Peak (nearly 11,000 ft.), which is part of the Absaroka Range. We’re at the foothills of Emigrant Peak, and so the mountain dominates the view and the light. During the morning hours, the three peaks repeat their purple silhouettes in the still water, and all is quiet, until the sun finally rises over their shoulders to stir things up.

Our hosts tell us that in the fall, hundreds of elk descend from Emigrant Peak, where they have been summering, to graze on the stubbled alfalfa fields below and to wait for winter.

Another large window, at the opposite side of the cabin, over our bed, gives a view of the distant Gallatin Range across Paradise Valley.

Approaching our cabin, nestled in the wooded patch on the right. Above us, Emigrant Peak.

The pond, just outside our kitchen window.

* * *

The cowboy at Albertson’s reminds me of The Stranger, played by Sam Elliott in the The Big Lebowski. A hammy cowpoke in a bowling alley, narrating a story to a hippie addled with dope and white Russians. Nothing could be clearer than a poke in the eye. And if The Stranger is the narrator, maybe even the creator, like all creators he has perfected the dramatic device of disappearing at just the right moment.

A poke in the eye. This Cadillac was in a parking lot on Main Street, Livingston, Montana.

When the cowboy at Albertson’s paid, I set the contents of my shopping cart on the counter, fumbled to locate my USD credit card, grabbed my bags, and only then looked up to see where he’d gone. I scanned the parking lot. Vanished. I regretted not following him. Was he driving a pickup or a Civic? And where was he headed? To the open range, or to a kid’s birthday party, to make animal balloons and perform rope tricks? I’m glad I never saw him leave.

* * *

People fly into Montana from all over the world, to cast trout flies in Yellowstone River, which threads its way through Paradise Valley. They buy bear repellent, hike the mountains, ride horses, eat bloody steaks, stare wide-eyed at the vistas, and raise hell in bars.

A voice tells me I should be doing at least some of these things instead of sitting by this pond, watching the light change, moment by moment, along and below Emigrant Peak. I pay no heed.

At mile marker 49, Route 89, along the Yellowstone River, between Emigrant and Livingston, Montana.

8 thoughts on “Cowboy at the checkout”

  1. Hello Mate!

    I just sent you a txt message only to realize you’d already been hard at work on your writing… As you described the Cowboy I also thought of Sam Elliot and thought to myself how ridiculous this man would seem shopping at Metro next to my mum’s. Not in Montana though! I wouldn’t mind trying his accoutrement just once, just to feel the difference in my walk and attitude… Great read and pics Sir as usual. Coffee next week in much less exotic surroundings?

    Keep well you two xx

    514 9944433


    1. Actually, quite ridiculous looking at Albertson’s, too. But I admit, Metro would be worse. Thank you and thank you. Clothes make the man. And the clown. Yes, coffee in less exotic surroundings. Much love.


  2. “Oh! Great!” I said out loud when I found this in my inbox. Always a treat to read your writing Spyro!

    If you tell me that, on top of the breathtaking surroundings, there are no bugs there, I’ll be very envious.

    Terrific verbal snapshots. All the photos are terrific, but that last landscape photo is superb. I could sit and look at that a long time. So many layers, so much movement, and yet so still.


  3. I reck’n ya just sattle up yer six pack and move on or just sits an thinks a while. Pictures look like movie still from a western. You travel with words as Shari keeps working her watercolour strokes.


  4. Wild … beautiful Montana. What a view from your cabin! Great shots. Your depiction of the supermarket cowboy – priceless. Thanks for another wonderful Spyro short.


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