By John D. Pierce

Spending time in the American West takes me back to my childhood love of all things cowboy.

While riding through expansive Hayden and Lamar valleys in Yellowstone National Park recently, I found myself working up my best TV announcer voice to proclaim: “The Big Valley, starring Barbara Stanwick as Victoria Barkley…”

Long before ever exploring the West in person, I lived vicariously through the film-based cowboy heroes riding the range. My mother would come into the family room early on Saturday morning to find me sitting cross-legged on the floor watching TV.

“What are you doing up so early?” she asked, more scolding than inquisitive. “I had a hard time getting you out of bed for school all week.”

A Chattanooga TV station showed, on alternating weeks, a Gene Autry or Roy Rogers movie at 7:30 on Saturday mornings. Had the school offered such a curriculum, I would have been a more eager early riser on weekdays.

When not watching them on TV, my brothers and I pretended to be cowboys — even giving ourselves cowboy names. And we watched lots of Westerns such as Rawhide, The Cisco Kid, The Lone Ranger, The Rifleman, My Friend Flicka, Fury, Gunsmoke and Bonanza.

I still have actor Kirby Grant’s signed photo as Sky King, standing alongside his plane Song Bird.

We stood patiently in line when he made an appearance at Brainerd Village shopping center in Chattanooga.

In more recent times I’ve sung along with Tody Keith on the radio, affirming: “I should have been a cowboy; I should have learned to rope and ride…”

However, spending a little time exploring true cowboy culture at Trail Town in Cody, Wyoming, and elsewhere — and even riding along a horse trail or two out West — has led to an honest confession: I’d rather play a cowboy than to have been a real one.

The reason is dust! Dust up the nose, dust in the eyes, dust everywhere.

It must have been a young cowpoke’s mom who first asked, “Did you wash behind your ears?”

Now I know why cowboys wore bandanas over their faces even when not robbing a bank or stagecoach.

And speaking of stagecoaches, that old method of travel through Yellowstone is described by historians as being bumpy, hot and particularly dusty.

Televised cowboys look so well groomed. But I’m sure Butch Cassidy, Billy the Kid and Tom Horn wore a lot more sweat-clinging dust than did Marshal Dillon, Little Joe and Heath Barkley.

So I’ll keep remembering the Old West in those nostalgic terms — and only hitting the dusty trail when some wranglers have cooked up some tasty grub and a good, hot shower soon awaits.

I believe, as the Bible states, that we humans go from dust to dust. I just don’t want to deal with too much in the in-between span of life.

Pretending to be a cowboy on occasion is OK. However, faith doesn’t work that way — though we too often take the same approach. It is easier to pretend to follow Jesus — by avoiding the hard parts like sharing our resources and our loving enemies.

However, the narrow way of self-giving is often like the dusty trail. It’s not easy to travel but it leads to somewhere good. But Jesus calls his followers to be more authentic.

Taking up a cross is more challenging, yet more rewarding, than putting on a bandana and trying to avoid the dust.

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