A cowboy hat from far-western North Dakota was riding on an eastbound train. Out the window to the north, endless fields of high-plains wheat stretched on forever. To the south, a fat storm inched slowly along the horizon, arcing lightning and gathering gloom. Up ahead, beyond the pinpoint from which the tracks emerged, lay the cities of Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago. And beyond the steadily disappearing track to the rear lay miles and miles of endless American West.
The hat had been tossed casually upon the luggage rack above the seat, next to a scuffed duffel bag and a box of rocks taped heavily on all sides. The hat rode expertly, well-balanced, its weight evenly distributed. It seemed so perfectly in place that no one even noticed it.
In the seat below the hat sat a Milwaukee greenhorn, gazing out the window of the speeding Amtrak. This train was bound for Milwaukee – as was the hat, as were the rocks, as was the greenhorn. The greenhorn was heading home briefly to take care of urgent business in the city before returning to North Dakota to resume his work.
In the spring, he had come to the badlands of western North Dakota with a group of scientists from the local natural history museum. In the badlands, the ceaseless winds, summer storms and seasonal floods of the Little Missouri River had cut into the sandy gumbo cliffs, exposing some of the richest and most important beds of dinosaur fossils in the world. He and other greenhorns from the city were trying to make sense of the mess.
When he first arrived, he wore a faded Milwaukee Brewers baseball cap to shade his eyes and to shield his head from the hot, shriveling sun. But quickly he learned its limitations. A hat with a visor only in front exposed his ears and neck constantly to the exhausting rays of the sun. The tight-fitting headband trapped sweat and made his head hot and uncomfortable. The ceaseless dry heat, often in excess of 100o F., chafed at his exposed skin and drained him of moisture and energy.
In the bone-dry air of the high plains, the heat of the sun penetrates only where the rays of the sun can strike. A good airy hat with a wide brim is just the thing that is needed to keep the sun out of your eyes and off your head. A good wide brim cowboy hat can turn a blistering day in the desert into a pleasant stroll beneath a shady tree.
The greenhorn would never have dreamed of walking around Milwaukee in a cowboy hat. It would never have occurred to him. A cowboy hat in Milwaukee would look gaudy, out of place, derelict. But after a few weeks in the North Dakota sun, he began to admire its simplicity and utility, and he was envious of those who wore them. And so, at the first opportunity, he bought one.
It was a wonderfully functional hat. Not made of cheap felt or fancy leather, it didn’t sport a large buckle or gaudy ostrich feather. This hat was expertly constructed of tightly woven straw, light to the touch and airy, allowing cooling breezes to pass right through. It was sturdy, and its large, sweeping, curving brim created a heat shield against the exhausting rays of the sun and a resilient canopy in the driving rain. The ever-accumulating dust could be expelled with a simple whack against the thigh.
• • •
As the eastbound train continued to roll, the greenhorn watched the pale green grass of the plains give way to spindly trees. At first, two or three would spring up along creeks like neighbors talking about the weather. Soon there were groups of trees and then stands and finally, as the train worked its way across east-central Minnesota, the stands of trees merged into second-growth forests that ran seamlessly for miles. It was nice to be back amongst the trees, he thought, they had such a soothing, buffering, humidifying effect on the land.
With each eastward stop the train became more crowded. The man glanced up at his hat. It seemed larger now and was growing more and more conspicuous. No longer the unchallenged king of the overhead luggage rack, it now had to compete with travel bags, shaving kits and laptop computers for room. It was large and round and flimsy, whereas everything else was solid and rectangular. It stuck out; it didn’t fit in. It was becoming, in its own way, hideous.
The train rocketed on, over pancake bluffs of sandstone and across the Wisconsin River into the rolling green land of dairy cows, bratwurst, cheese-heads and beer. The cowboy hat grew bigger and more obtrusive with each passing mile. The train stopped in Madison and an eager knot of travelers stepped on and filtered back through the train, looking for seats. A large woman with an even larger suitcase eyed the spot on the luggage rack where the hat rested. She looked at the greenhorn. The greenhorn looked away. The woman mumbled something about “long ranger” and moved on down the aisle dragging her enormous bag behind her like a complaining child.
By the time the train pulled into Milwaukee, the hat had become a caricature. It was a foreign object. The greenhorn felt self-consciously ridiculous as he pulled it down from the rack and placed it on his head. But it bumped and poked people as he tried to maneuver towards the door so he took it off and held it in his hand.
He stepped from the train. The hat felt as big as a Mexican sombrero. Slowly, self-consciously, he placed it on his head and began to walk through the terminal. He had always been an average person of which no one took note, a “shadow in the shade” as he sometimes referred to himself, but now he could feel comical glances, the sideways looks. He pulled the large brim farther down over his eyes and walked out the main entrance to the taxi stand outside.
The man had been on the train since leaving North Dakota and had become accustomed to the air-conditioned comfort. But upon walking through the front doors of the train terminal and stepping onto the streets of the city, it hit him like a brick: the thick, sticky, humid, mid-summer Milwaukee heat. The humidity was oppressive and it was everywhere. Like some physical law of fluids it seeped through his clothes and it seeped through his hat. In fact, it seemed to seep through his entire being. The humidity soaked up the heat and carried it through every thread and into every pore. The heat permeated the hat and the hat held it in. The hat served absolutely no purpose.
The man flagged a taxi. The driver jumped out and tossed the man’s bags into the trunk. The air-conditioned cool of the cab was a relief as he slid into the back seat.
The taxi driver eyed the greenhorn through the rear-view mirror with suspicion.
“Where to, cowboy?”
“In town for a convention?”
“No, I live here,” said the greenhorn with mounting irritation, “born and raised.”
“No kiddin’? I just thought… you know… with the hat and all…” The cab driver dropped the subject and switched quickly to baseball, the recent heat and the hardships that the rising cost of gas placed upon the sturdy shoulders of cab drivers.
• • •
The man decided to wear the hat to the city the next day while tending to his important business. He would wear it downtown to show it off, he thought. It didn’t mean anything, it was silly really – it was simply a souvenir, like a t-shirt or coffee mug that had pictures of buffalo, Teddy Roosevelt and said “North Dakota” in large western-style letters.
But a city, especially the downtown city center, is a study in density: mass per unit area. As the number of people becomes greater and greater, individual space is reduced and reduced until personal spaces overlap and people, even city veterans, become irritable and uncomfortable. A cowboy hat in Milwaukee stretches outward in every direction like fingers. It extends beyond the personal space of the wearer, and into the personal space of anyone who walks or stands nearby. It bumps and pokes and becomes rude and obnoxious like an angry range boss barking orders at hired hands. A cowboy hat is jangling spurs, creaking leather and gleaming pistols swaggering down a big city street. The greenhorn wanted nothing to do with it. So when he returned to his home that evening, he threw the offending hat into a corner; and there he left it until he was ready to return to North Dakota on the westbound train.
• • •
The return trip was relatively uneventful. At first the train was crowded and the luggage racks were full, so the man was forced to ride with the cumbersome cowboy hat sitting uncomfortably on his lap. But with each westward stop the train opened up a bit, just as the land did outside the window. And by the time they crossed the Wisconsin River, the man was able to toss the hat up into the still crowded luggage rack.
Slowly he began to relax.
As the trees thinned and the grasslands regained control, the once conspicuous hat settled into the rack until it too was no longer noticeable. There was obviously some kind of inverse proportionality at work here: as space increased, the size and offensiveness of the hat decreased. And vice versa.
• • •
The grass finally surrendered and now only the badlands of the Little Missouri River spread confusingly in every direction for hundreds of miles. Dry and dusty in the summer, the landscape turns into “gumbo clay” in the rainy season, sticking to boots and tires in huge elephantine clumps and making travel impossible. Temperatures in the summer months easily and often reach 100 degrees or more. It’s a dry, scorching heat from above that quickly turns puddles to mud cracks and bare ground to fine dust. The white heat beats down from an angry sun and cuts you no slack.
The greenhorn from Milwaukee stepped down from the train into the glaring North Dakota sun. Slinging the duffel over his shoulder, he placed the hat squarely upon his head. Trimming the brim just so, he stepped from beneath the cool shade of the platform and out into the blistering heat. The high desert wind slipped through the hat and cooled his brow. The flaming rays of the sun, traveling at the speed of light were stopped in their tracks and deflected. The land had expanded, the hat had shrunk. Density equals mass per unit volume, or some such.
The hat was, again, perfect.
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Tags: baggage, cities, country, cowboy hat, cowboys, dinosaur, expansiveness, fossils, geologist, guest blogger, harmonica player, hats, humidity, jeff l. howe, luggage, milwaukee, north dakota, perception, plains, proportion, the west, traditions, train, train tracks, weather, wisconsin, writer
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