As a child regularly nourished by television Westerns, I did not realize that I was absorbing centuries-old literary motifs and archetypes. I did not yet have the vocabulary to recognize the heroic quest in the wanderings of various cowboys, but, like every human that ever sat around a fire inside a cave or a hearth inside a hut, I came to find comfort in the repetitive story lines and stock characters. That sooner or later one of the main characters would find him- or herself delivering a baby with no prior experience or being the vehicle of redemption for some rotten scoundrel exhibited not a lack of creativity on the part of the Westerns’ writers but rather an understanding of the need to be reminded that no problem exists that has not been faced and solved before.
The other day I came across a contemporary poem, brief and pointed like a quick refusal, centered around the image of a snow rope. Reading the words “snow rope” sent my mind careening away from the poem to a montage of remembered images from all those Westerns I’d watched as a child. All of them, as I think of it now, whether set in Nebraska or Wyoming or Texas, eventually included an episode involving a horrible blizzard, an isolated homestead and a snow rope, a rope whose one end was tied to a post on the cabin and whose other end was tied to the barn, a way to reach the animals without getting lost in the blizzard.
Inevitably, of course, the homesteader’s hands get pulled away from the rope by the fierceness of the blizzard, or a child, wanting to be helpful, decides to go to the barn and can’t reach the rope. Someone always gets lost in the blizzard.
At 8 or 10 my only concern was what providential occurrence would save the hapless homesteader, the foolish child. Would Rowdy Yates and his horse stumble into the corral, drawn through the blizzard by the dim light in the window of the cabin, just in time to calm the hysterical wife and mother and charge back out into the snow, one rugged hand on the rope, the other reaching down to pull the frost-bitten and nearly dead loved one from snow? Of course he would.
It had never occurred to me, before reading that poem, that we all have snow ropes. We all have practices, philosophies, people that we trust to keep us alive as we venture out into the inevitable blizzards of life. The rope is sound, the knots are tight. We test them in the sunshine and we go on about our business.
And then it snows. Heavily. Unrelentingly. And after a while, sitting inside around the fire becomes untenable, so we open the door and face the stinging cold and slapping wind, putting all our confidence in the snow rope. What we forget is that the snow rope is only as good as the grip on the hand that holds it.
I have survived blizzards, my faith and my family and my friends braided into a cord not quickly broken, plaited into a snow rope stretched taut across an impenetrable landscape, but in the end, I was the one who reached out, who grasped, who gripped with strength I didn’t know I had and moved, step by tenuous step, through the blinding white. It was my choice to hold on.
Some stories end with the cavalry appearing on the horizon, with the cowboy showing up in the nick of time, with the marshal out-drawing the bad guy. But most of them end much less dramatically. Most of them end with the hero, or the heroine, realizing for the very first time that that is exactly what he or she is.