Creative Nonfiction: Thoughts of a False Frontiersman
By Lance Colet
On the second of August in 1876, Wild Bill Hickock sat facing away from the door of the Number 10 Saloon while playing poker. He was holding what is now known as the dead man’s hand—a pair of black aces, a pair of black eights, and an unknown fifth card—when Crooked Nose Jack McCall stumbled in and shot him from behind. This, I remind my girlfriend, is why I must always sit facing the door. I must reposition her couch.
She reminds me that I am not Wild Bill Hickock.
I don’t have to be Wild Bill Hickock to strut about with Wild West panache.
She reminds me that I can’t grow a handlebar mustache.
I don’t have to grow a handlebar mustache to tell her, “I reckon even the Comanches fear me. I reckon I’m the most dangerous man in the West.”
She tells me to stop reckoning. She reminds me that we are on the East Coast. She tells me to stop procrastinating doing the dishes because, if I want her to make me a cup of tea, I’ll have to clean a mug for it.
I holster my finger guns and tell her that I can certainly go clean a mug, I fear no frontier.
She tells me that the sink is not a frontier. She tells me that it’s 2022, there are no more frontiers.
I scream sometimes when I take cold showers. The water electrifies me. My body grows spastic in a crazy dance to keep blood flowing. My testicles flee for warmth, retracting like two hibernating bears. My nipples harden enough to cut glass.
Cold showers boost your immune system, stimulating the production of white blood cells. They can reduce inflammation, expedite weight loss, and improve circulation. I don’t care about the health benefits though. I care about the mental ones. Willpower, like any muscle, must be stressed in order to grow.
Cold showers cannot harm you. This is known. Still, the body twitches away from the stream, as it does instinctually upon any confrontation with discomfort. An integral part in conquering the thermal frontier is lassoing this response. Hogtie yourself with raw force of will. Gag and cease the shivering and teeth-chattering. Straighten your posture against the glacial onslaught, and raise your chin in the pursuit of a noble frontier—supreme mental fortitude. Where else, today, can you test your own discipline in such a ruthless manner? How else, today, can you chisel your mind into a cool, calm, collected force of stoicism?
Imagine Wild Bill Hickock in his famous 1865 standoff with Davis Tutt—the first recorded quick-draw duel in a public place. Imagine his heart beating slow, rhythmic, cold. Imagine the clean, unbiased, mechanical perfection with which he drew and aimed his Colt revolver. Imagine the smooth coolness in his breath as he pulled back the heavy trigger.
The West was lush with opportunity for Wild Bill to develop his killer willpower. He policed a variety of violent cow-towns. He struck deep within enemy lines as a Union scout during the Civil War. He even, reportedly, wrestled and killed a bear that was blocking the road.
And now I stand before the mirror butt naked, cool and confident, high on the conquest of a cold shower. The world is sharp. I feel quick and strong, muscles well-tuned and reactive. I draw a pair of phantom Colt revolvers from my hip and announce myself as Wild Bill Hickock, legend of the frontier. I have no mustache, and my belly jiggles like a pale jelly, but otherwise the comparison is uncanny.
Lakota leader Sitting Bull was one of a few frontier icons depicted in Andy Warhol’s “Cowboys and Indians” series. The image is based on a photograph of him sitting stoic and still, thick with melancholy. Warhol—true to his style—lays garish, clownish colors over the Indian holy man.
If I were Sitting Bull, I would wonder why the White men call me red but paint me blue. Why must artists, living so comfortably in the pillow fort of modern life, feel the need to create increasingly bizarre, increasingly cryptic pieces?
Because there is explosive demand for things to explore. Take a few seconds to slap blue paint on an Indian and leave it to the audience to wow over the depth of the manifested artistic frontier. Leave it to the audience to love the struggle of deciphering meaning while sitting in an air-conditioned museum. There are no more conflicts between cowboys and Indians to take up the time.
Look at Sitting Bull. Look how annoyed he is to sit for a photo. Perhaps he knows that it will be warped and altered over the years to give comfortable people a comfortable interpretive challenge. More likely, he doesn’t consider this. He has battles to prophesize and General Custer to fight.
In deference to his request during his 1881 surrender, it should be noted that Sitting Bull said, "I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle.” His rifle was his paintbrush. His rifle served his frontiers.
Doesn’t that say something about our modern frontiers? That we’ve gone from rifles to paintbrushes. How our frontiers have developed. How the stakes have fallen. A bad paintbrush might lead to polite criticism, but a bad rifle has led to death and cultural annihilation.
The last Comanche chief, Quanah Parker, looks similarly exasperated on the cover of S.C Gwynne’s book, Empire of the Summer Moon. Quanah’s personal frontiers have been too violent, too brutal, too full of carnage for him to find any excitement in things like photographs, so far removed from reality. He looks awkwardly domesticated on camera. His power is palpable. Just one of his hands, holding a feather in the photo, had the strength to wrench back the hair of hardened Texas Rangers and keep them still. The other hand gripped a knife and sawed away their scalps.
Today’s world has trouble stomaching the idea of scalping in the Wild West. Such a red frontier has little appeal to us now. We try and sweep that kind of history under the rug because it is horrendously ugly, but to the Indians it was a beautiful sort of butchery, a magnificent chance for them to prove their worth.
Quanah Parker’s tribe was the last Comanche band to surrender. Inevitably though, surrender came. But Quanah, a man hardened by the new challenge of alien settlers flooding westward, saw arguably more success in the toned-down, softened society of the United States. In court, as in battle, he proved a formidable roadblock to Western expansion. When Congress attempted a quick grab of tribal lands, offering vaguely valued private parcels of property to individual Indians who would agree to give up collective land, Quanah refused to be left out of the loop, demanding specifics of the predatory proposed deal and dueling with lawmakers in a language not his first. What follows is a snippet of Quanah’s exchange with commissioner Warren Sayre:
Quanah: How much per acre?
Sayre: I cannot tell you.
Quanah: How do you arrive at the number of a million dollars if you do not know?
Sayre: We just guess at it.
Quanah: We would like to know how much per acre.
He was a stubborn arguer, because how intimidating were finely dressed legislators when you have fought with Texas Rangers? How daunting could a courtroom be when bullets have grazed by you on the battlefield? How stressful could a conversation be when you have whooped your ferocious, deafening war cry to drown out the cries of the scalped?
It’s no wonder that, after securing prosperity for his tribe, he became the wealthiest American Indian of his time. Quanah was a man bred for a harsh frontier and new challenges, but tested by a soft society burgeoning with new luxuries.
I think of Quanah sometimes when I drink whiskey.
Common consensus amongst stiff-backed, slick-suited, waxy-mustached whiskey drinkers is that sipping harsh whiskey neat is not gross, it’s challenging. And, while my posture is far from perfect, and suits never fit me, and my facial hair can only twist into the vaguest, wiry shadow of a mustache, I understand the appeal.
I sip whiskey and hold it in my mouth, stoic as Quanah Parker or Sitting Bull, belying no discomfort while my taste buds blaze and my sinuses burn. A sense of pride blossoms. I swallow, and it sears through my chest, and I feel my facial hair thicken. I feel the weight of two revolvers on my hip. I feel the heavy heat of the sun beating down through dusty saloon windows, shadowy cowboys in the corner playing blackjack and poker, bounty posters pinned to the walls, a barmaid pouring more whiskey as she asks about my recent forays into Indian territory…
Sometimes though, at the bar, my tastebuds shriek for help and I have to chase away the offenses of whiskey, sneaking a sip of my girlfriend’s sugary, colorful cocktails. Fruity liqueur rolls sweetly over my tongue.
After such a betrayal of the Old West, I am compelled to write essays like these to reinstate myself in my mind as a literary cowboy, like a Texas Ranger patrolling the frontiers of a Word document.
In the early years of the Texas Rangers, the Indian-fighting regiment attracted young men that were frothing at the mouth for adventure and excitement. The Texan government could not afford to pay the Rangers livable wages, they could not afford regular barracks or comfortable retirement assurances, they could only afford guns and bullets, but that was enough. The frontier was plum-full of excitement—enough to make up for the pay and the living conditions.
Perhaps the extremity of frontier warfare was an outlet for these young men, bored of life back east. The frontier was more than the edge of the United States, it loomed as the edge of a man’s courage. Comanches took on a nightmarish quality—a savage people, monstrous in their warpaint and whooping, unnatural in their ability to shoot from horseback, alien in their beliefs. They sliced off genitals of prisoners of war and fed bloody scrotums back to their de-manned owners. They burned hands and feet until the screaming, excruciated nerves died, then they amputated the charred limbs to set to work on fresh flesh with fresh nerves that could feel the burn more clearly. And afterwards, instead of ending a captive with a quick death, the Comanches severed Achilles tendons and dumped the frontiersmen, crippled and horseless, into the vast Great Plains, alone but for the vultures.
What could be more exciting?
The Comanches saw torture as an art. They saw it as the battle after the battle. Torture was a way to break the White man’s spirit after breaking his horse, his battalion, and his body.
Sometimes though, they lost the battle after the battle. Once, a nameless White man—a Texas Ranger, perhaps—laughed as knives were brandished inches away from his hanging testicles. What else could one do in such a situation but embrace the absurdity of the extreme? The Comanches released him, fearful of his bad magic.
Throughout their history of skirmishing with the Comanche, the Texas Rangers grew more grizzled, more hardened, more inhumane. They adopted the habits of their enemies. They learned to shoot from horseback. They learned to mimic war cries, not for any strategic purpose, just as a guttural outlet. They learned to take scalps, and they wore long, bloody braids of Indian flesh and hair proudly. America’s defenders of the frontier, Los Diablos Tejanos, were far from noble. They were tobacco-chewing, whiskey-drinking, violence-addicted lunatics, skilled as any knight in shining armor, just dressed in dirty bison furs and scalps.
It was a short life of sadism and savagery and very little glory, but the men who lived through the skirmishes, the men who were alive when Quanah Parker and the last of the Comanches surrendered, had seen the worst of frontiers. Life only got easier from there. Perhaps even boring.
And now, there are no Old West Texas Ranger regiments for young men to enlist in. No dusty, bloody landscape to patrol. Those seeking adventure and increasingly extreme stimulation must seek it on other frontiers. Softer frontiers. Frontiers that mush minds and dull spirits, coaxing us below the threshold of mental toughness necessary to adequately participate in reality.
In the mire of escapism that is the internet, such insidious frontiers abound.
Imagine a boy online. The trap begins with silicone boobs and lifted butts. Blondes with pouty lips and long legs that coo to him as he hunches over in the dark of his room, slathering Vaseline up and down his Johnson, his sweat-sheened face illuminated by the blue of the computer screen.
Soon though, the fake blondes aren’t fake enough. Algorithm-recommended videos hint at new, enticing frontiers, deeper in the web. He needs the blondes to do things to him that real women won’t do. He wants them to brandish whips and paddles the same way the Comanches once brandished knives and hot irons, and he smiles as he hurts himself, timing his pinches and slaps with the pixels on his screen. And afterwards, when his masochistic grin has faded and his yogurt slinger hangs like a soulless sock puppet, he cries at the mundane world he's returned to.
The archetypal American boy, the Tom Sawyer, the Huckleberry Finn, is dead.
But the lack of any real frontiers has resulted in sexual deviances beyond the Fifty Shades of Grey flavor. Quentin Tarantino cannot control his urge to write himself into scripts and slobber over Salma Hayek’s feet. Odell Beckham Junior has allegedly asked women to shit on his chest. And Eminem raps about sticking Gerbil tubes up his ass:
Now see that gerbil, grab that tube Shove it up my butt. Let that little rascal nibble on my asshole, uh Yeah, right there, right there.
But perhaps Eminem doesn’t actually have a fetish for gerbils. Perhaps those lyrics are fictitious, written for shock value. Perhaps this section, in all of its gratuitous detail, is meant for shock value too. Perhaps shock value, rather than a gimmick, is a legitimate literary device that pushes you into new, ugly frontiers, so that when you slide back to your comfort zone, it is that much more beautiful.
And, of course, shock value also sells. Much like the adventurous young men of the nineteenth century, it’s natural for us to be drawn toward extreme frontiers. But there is no longer a blazing sunset to ride off into, armed with a rifle and fighting spirit. There is only a Google search bar to fill, and tubs of Vaseline, and a brain thirsty for more and more egregious stimulation.
I played hockey growing up. Us healthy hockey boys, we stayed away from that weird porn. We found other frontiers. The locker room was our Wild West, a lawless land away from governing, parenting bodies. We boxed each other. Sometimes for fun, other times to prove a point. And the tussles were kept secret from coaches and parents—everybody knows the first rule of Fight Club.
Violence was the great communicator in the locker room. It was intimate, in a way, because a fight between boys was an agreement to touch each other, to explore the power in our bodies. A fight was a pair of friends, dance partners, linking arms to map out uncharted frontiers of the human psyche.
Cormac McCarthy, in his extensively violent novel, Blood Meridian, puts it succinctly:
War is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one's will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.
But unlike in the pages of Blood Meridian—where John Glanton and his gang of scalp-hunters made their living through violence, proved their points through violence, and lived their lives wallowing in dirt and blood and grime—and unlike in the hockey locker room, where our merit was determined by how hard we hit others, and how hard we could laugh while getting hit, violence is no longer the great communicator. Another tool is necessary to conquer modern frontiers. Words are today’s forty-four caliber bullets. Paragraphs are the buckshot spread of a shotgun. Essays are the rush of mounted Texas Rangers—or the stampede of whooping Comanches—that, with frontier-hardened conviction, make a dent in the world around them.
Colonel Sherburn exemplified this new form of warfare in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, putting down a threatening mob with vicious words shot from the hip:
The pitifulest thing out is a mob; that's what an army is—a mob; they don't fight with courage that's born in them, but with courage that's borrowed from their mass, and from their officers. But a mob without any man at the head of it is beneath pitifulness.
Not only was the mob a coagulated mass of mindlessness, they were manless, to Colonel Sherburn at least. Sherburn’s image of a man is consistent with today’s romanticized gunslinger galloping across Hollywood. A grizzled, rugged individualist with a duster and a five o’clock shadow, thinking for himself, drifting where he wants, and shooting who he pleases.
This individualism is the aspect of the frontier that has been most lost over the years.
Before toilet paper reached the frontier, Americans used corn cobs to wipe. Soft on tender areas, absorbent enough, easy to use, Americans cleaned their ass with what they grew themselves.
Who do you know nowadays that grows their own toilet paper? We are reliant on an infinitely complex supply chain to do something as integral to hygiene as wiping, and when this supply chain is interrupted by factors beyond our control—like the coronavirus pandemic—we can do nothing but try to poop less and fold our toilet paper squares six, seven, eight times to save as much as possible.
If land was available in the rural Midwest, the middle of nowhere, what would it take for you to move off the grid and live as self-sufficiently as cowboys, Indians, and frontier homesteaders? Think first of your life online, reliant on far-away server farms and satellites. You would have to give up the Instagram scrolling, the Facebook bragging. You would have to accept that, upon leaving the online world, you die to the majority of people you’ve ever met. Much like nineteenth century Americans moving west and giving up everything back east.
And when you’ve come to terms with unplugging from the digital world, you need to learn how to build a house. You need to level the site, you need to build the footings, you need to hammer in the framing, and install insulation, and lay flooring, and raise walls, and shingle the roof.
And when you have a house that can withstand the elements, you need to dig a well—because you certainly didn’t know how to set up plumbing in your house. You need to build an outhouse and chow down on a few corn cobs. But where will you get these corn cobs? You’ll have to have been farming, tilling land, planting seeds, watering and fertilizing. And, without cows, you’ll have to get the fertilizer from somewhere…but if the fertilizer is needed to grow corn, and the corn is needed in the first place for a clean defecation process…
Luckily, we aren’t trapped in a sterile utopia devoid of frontiers. The Seasteading Institute is reimagining civilization with floating cities, “Opening humanity’s next frontier.” Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk have literally shot towards the stars, setting sights—however ambitious—on colonizing Mars. And NASA has sent probes out as far as the constellation of Ophiucus, twenty-some billion kilometers away.
But not all of us can pack up and build a city at sea, plan on colonizing Mars, or explore the edges of the solar system. That isn’t discouraging, it just means that there are smaller, more reasonable frontiers for us to conquer first, before building up to such achievements. Maybe start with cold showers, maybe drink whiskey instead of White Claws, and hone your willpower until you can wield it to conquer bigger, badder, better frontiers and change the world.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C Gwynne
Fack by Eminem
Sitting Bull by Andy Warhol
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Lance Colet is a student at Penn State university studying economics, psychology, and creative writing. He has been published a handful of times across Penn State's literary journals, Kalliope, Klio, and Folio.