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December 4, 2005

Every girl wants a cowboy, right? Clover Stroud went to America to hang out with the chaps in chaps and discovered that they’re not quite as macho as they seem

But the arrival on the big screen of Brokeback Mountain, based on the novel by Annie Proulx, is about to change all that. Shot in Wyoming and Texas, the movie features the big skies and pretty horses we have come to expect from cowboy movies — and with Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in starring roles, there is enough cowboy eye candy to keep everyone happy. This time, though, there’s a difference. Stuck on the edge of a Wyoming mountain, the boys get hot and heavy with each other, embarking on a passionate love affair that is to last for 20 years.

It’s a side of the enigmatic American icons that we haven’t seen before — a touchy-feely side that was bypassed by the John Wayne movies. While the sex scenes are indisputably violent, there is a tenderness underpinning the relationship that is gentle and affectionate. If you thought that cowboys were all about menacing, harsh stereotypes, then think again.

I speak from experience: some of my best friends are cowboys. Six years ago, I went to live on a 500,000-acre cattle ranch in the Texas Panhandle. I grew up on a diet of country music, and although I had not been to America before, the tangled tunes that Tammy, Dolly and Loretta had spun through my dreams were pulling me to Texas. I wanted to find a cowboy who could teach me how to rope cattle and ride bucking horses. I wanted to ride around in a pick-up truck and listen to country music. Most of all, I wanted to dance the two-step in the arms of a cowboy in a real-life honky-tonk.

What I did not expect to find were men who cried over a dead calf and loved their ponies as much as their mothers. Yet, although these boys lived uncompromisingly tough lives, they could also be perceptive and soulful. By day, Randy, Billy Joe, Rhett, Cody and Shy cut me no slack and treated me just like one of the boys. I was expected to work every bit as hard and tough as them. They taught me everything I know about castrating bulls and breaking unbreakable horses, and the cocktail of machismo and adrenaline that surrounded me was seductive. They lived for wild riding and breakneck roping, so when the mercury in the thermometer rose to 110 degrees, it was me they sent out to mend barbed-wire fences until sweat blinded me.

Come night-time, though, when I put on my eyeliner, and wore tighter jeans and a vest instead of a long-sleeved denim shirt, my role as the lone girl among them changed. They called me “ma’am” and bought me beers and treated me like a lady, even if the hands they clasped as we danced were scarred with blisters from the wire clippers I had been mending fences with all afternoon. Their unrelenting toughness by day could be attributed to the fact that they really cared whether I won our next rodeo, succeeded in learning how to rope like them or learnt how to two-step without standing on their toes.

The real clue that the hard exterior wasn’t the whole story, however, was the way they dressed. They might have been tough, but they were also as vain as peacocks. “You can tell a lot about a man from the way he creases his hat,” my boss Randy told me. Crease your hat too high and you will be branded a city dude who has no place on the Texan plains. The way they break their Wranglers in is almost as important as they way they break their horses. Marilyn Monroe might have looked every bit the crazy cowgirl, wearing her Levi’s tight and lean in The Misfits, but real cowboys only ever wear Wranglers. Wrangler even makes a special cowboy cut, the 13 MWZ Rodeo, which was designed especially with real-life, working cowboys in mind. Hat branding is important, too: Resistol is the only brand to be seen in in Texas, not, as I had assumed, Stetson. This cowboy dress code left my head spinning: the path to sartorial acceptance was lined with more potential pitfalls than an interview at Vogue House.

Bridles had to be hand-embellished, with pretty leatherwork and handmade rawhide straps, and saddles decorated with silver cutouts of bucking horses, flowers, birds, card tricks or naked girls. Spurs, though, form the definitive touch in a cowboy’s kit. The fancier they are, the greater their trade-in value, and a cowboy with a healthy pay cheque will think nothing of having his spurs marked out in silver with red diamanté inlays. When I started riding rodeo, the cowboys I worked with gave me some silver spurs with “Clover” written around the band. This became a running joke with every cowboy I met, as it meant that they had no trade-in value. Not, that is, until a cowboy called Walter Joe pointed out to me that: “Lose the C, honey, and they could be anyone’s.”

Texan cowboys have a bad reputation, dismissed too easily as gun-toting, incest-loving rednecks. Perhaps Brokeback Mountain, and the sight of Heath and Jake toughing out a relationship that can only end in tears, might do something to change that. They are real men, but at each one’s centre is a heart of gold.

Then again, the reality is, perhaps, more complex. I read Brokeback Mountain when I was living with the cowboys, and after I finished it, I took it to the bunkhouse to tell the boys that they should read it. “Honestly, it’s great, It’s about two gay cowboys,” I enthused, as they sat chewing tobacco and skinning a rattle snake. Walter Joe snorted. Cody flicked through the book and tossed it into the dust. “Sonofabitch, Clover. Are you plumb crazy, or have you just not been concentrating? Ain’t you goshdarn learnt anything about us yet? Because if those cowboys in that there book are gay, then they sure as hell ain’t real cowboys.”

Walter Joe and Cody might be in for a nasty shock — because, in reality, Jake and Heath are about as authentic as they come. Their sensitivity and rugged glamour could well have a bunch of English girls — and boys — jumping on the next flight out to Amarillo.

Copyright 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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