I am in Sacramento, waiting for a plague of eighth-graders to descend upon me tomorrow for a tour of the State Capitol and a scavenger hunt that will take us around town to other important sites. Today I am alone, hanging out in Old Sacramento. It is a truly bizarre area where the historic buildings and souvenir shops blend to create a confusing few blocks of past-meets- present. Tourists push their strollers on the wood sidewalks right through the ghosts and history to get to a funnel cake or t-shirt shop. I have no interest in purchasing either of those things, but I kept walking around because I loved walking on the wood sidewalk. I could hear my footsteps, and while the rubber soles of my tennis shoes don’t make the same sound as the cowboy boots that walked those boards many years ago, I feel a connection to them. I also feel like the sidewalk acknowledges my presence and is answering back with each step: “You are here.”
As I was walking, it occurred to me how terrifying it must have been to be a woman here in the early days of Sacramento. It also must have been pretty scary for the men. It was, after all, The Wild West. Among the thieves and murderers there were probably mostly good people who came in search of opportunity or adventure. While I don’t believe people are inherently thieves and murderers, I do believe we all have the ability to be. Maybe we become “evil” or “good” depending on how we deal with our fear. Maybe, like Walter White, that first successful step into the darkness makes it easier to take another and another until you are the darkness and cease to be afraid.
I have never been fearful. I am cautious and careful physically, and earned the nickname “Chicken Deeny” when I was a child. It didn’t bother me because I thought I was just smarter and able to see the danger — so yes, chicken when it comes to the possibility of being injured. Back when I was a dancer, it was pretty well known to choreographers that if you hire DeAnne Spicer she doesn’t go upside down. But I’ve never lived in fear emotionally. I have felt strong and safe my entire life.
That doesn’t mean I walk around late at night or go into an elevator alone with a man. I’m not going to intentionally put myself in a vulnerable position. Even though I feel pretty confident, there is a constant vigilance about my safety. I explained it this way to my husband: “It’s not always a conscious thought, but women are always trying not to be murdered or raped. It’s just always there.” It is exhausting, and sadly not much different from the women who walked these planked sidewalks in Old Sacramento one-hundred-thirty years ago.
On another note (I promise this will all connect in a bit), I discovered the site of the beginning or terminus, depending on which way you’re going, of The Pony Express. I love the history of The Pony Express. It was only in operation for nineteen months, but the ability to receive news in days instead of months shaped the West. The men who rode those horses “hell bent for leather” across the country made an important contribution to American history. They must have been a courageous group. In a pamphlet I found about the history of the Express is a copy of the hiring notice for riders. It reads:
Men wanted! Men familiar with the management of horses, as hostlers or riders on the Overland Express Route via Salt Lake City. Wages $50.00 per month.
-Sacramento Union, March 19, 1860
Riders had to be less than one-hundred-twenty pounds and carry twenty pounds of mail and twenty-five pounds of equipment. They also needed to be of fairly good moral character and be able to ride the heck out of a horse. This notice could be a description of my Grandfather, Merrill Brooks. PaPa was born in Wyoming and was a true cowboy. My Grandmother, Ema Lu, made him move to California in the fifties because she couldn’t abide the narrow-mindedness of Thermopolis, Wyoming any longer. After living in Long Beach and Garden Grove, they eventually bought a few acres in Riverside where they could again own horses. PaPa re-created a place that was a bit out of character in California, and we called it The Ranch. I spent a great deal of my childhood there and I loved watching him with his horses. He would ride full speed across the field and turn the horse on a dime, weaving back and forth herding the imaginary cattle. It was beautiful. He was a small man large with character, compassion, love, and courage. He would have made the perfect Pony Express rider.
It heartens me to think the majority of the men and women who settled the West were like my Grandparents — not afraid of the unknown and staying even when times were tough.
Currently we have a President who is in no way, shape, or form a cowboy. Any self-respecting horse he tried to ride would buck him off immediately. He is the size of two Pony Express riders tied together with a fifty pound weight, has no moral character, is probably afraid of horses anyway, and is one of those men who stepped into the darkness. Because of this man, for the first time in my life I am living in fear. I am afraid of nuclear holocaust, of white supremicists, of our growing alienation from the rest of the world, and of women losing the right to control their own bodies. I have never felt so vulnerable and powerless.
But today, looking at the statue of a Pony Express rider and horse, something great happened. I remembered who I really am and more importantly who I come from. I descend from brave cowboys and strong intelligent women who stepped out of their comfort zone to build a life not only for their own children but for the betterment of society as a whole. They endured hardships far worse than having a Headless Horseman in the Oval Office and came through it stronger and more determined.
America is a mess right now, but I have to believe most of us carry the DNA of our ancestors who came from all over the world to seek a better life, EVEN when they were afraid. So it will be okay. It horrifies me that so many people still support this President. I am sad about that, but I am optimistic that this will be over soon and they can go back to their hideouts. In the meantime I will follow in my ancestors’ footsteps, remembering that I know how to sit in the metaphorical saddle, hold onto the reins, and ride. I’m not sure who or what America is right now but I’m sure who I am. I am a cowgirl, and I am not afraid.