I WAS STEELING myself for what was going to be a three-hour horseback ride through Great Sand Dunes National Park when I realized I was unprepared.
First, I didn’t have a ten-gallon cowboy hat. (I learned early on that not a single outfitter within a two-hour drive of Colorado Springs Airport carried a Stetson that would fit over my dreadlocks.) I knew that the hat wasn’t required, but not wearing one felt just as odd—like playing baseball without a cap.
Second, I didn’t have chaps. “Do chaps actually do anything?” I asked Ruby, a wrangler at Zapata Ranch in Mosca, Colorado. As I gazed out over the desert before us, Ruby patiently explained the many practical reasons chaps are a good idea (thorn-bush defense, rope-burn protection).
She’d done this before—reassuring city people like me who had binged Yellowstone and were looking toward the rough country as a means of escape. And in a form of western hospitality I’d experienced many times during my extended weekend at Zapata, she guided me to the least troublesome situation for me without actually telling me so. “You’ll be riding Big Lil,” Ruby said. Luckily, Big Lil appeared as kind and forgiving as Ruby.
AS SOMEONE WHO grew up in Detroit and now lives in New York, I have taken pride in “making it” in big cities. But lately this life has been wearing on me—cramped apartments, soaring rent, pandemic paranoia. When New York is at its most crowded, expensive, and short-tempered, I fantasize about moving to a ranch or a cabin in the woods where I would become reliant on the land instead of on public transportation, food delivery, and noise-canceling headphones.
And I’ve found myself leaning into westerns like Yellowstone and 1883, as much for their action and drama as for their sweeping views of the West.
“Your grandfather used to say you can’t fix a broken wagon wheel but you can use the parts to make a new one.” —JOHN DUTTON, Yellowstone
I’m not the only one. Westerns are going through a TV and movie revival. The Power of the Dog received the most Oscar nominations last year, and Yellowstone was renewed for a fifth season (out November 13), followed by its prequel, 1923 (December 18), and its spin-off, 6666 (TBD). Even experts who study this stuff have noticed the new draw of the West.
“I lived in Montana for many years and can confirm the effect that Yellowstone, in particular, has had of late,” says Andrew Patrick Nelson, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Film & Media Arts and an associate professor of film studies at the University of Utah. “There are social-media accounts dedicated to locals documenting the fantasies of folks who’ve relocated from California or the East Coast, asking for directions to the Dutton Ranch.”
Data backs him up: During the pandemic, people left some of the nation’s largest cities while areas in the South and the West saw growth, according to the U. S. Census Bureau. Experts see Covid and cost of living as the main drivers of the change.
“The primary audience for a movie like The Power of the Dog or a show like Yellowstone is roughly the same, demographically, as the population now relocating to the West in increasing numbers: educated upper-middle-class whites,” Nelson says. But it goes beyond demographics, too.
“In popular culture, the American West has long functioned as a mythical space where people are able to imagine themselves leading alternative, more authentic and exciting lives,” he says.
People like me might have preferred the energy of a city, but at the start of the pandemic I began fantasizing like the well-off whites Nelson described. Cities lost much of what made them special. What good was a place like New York without the endless restaurants, bars, and live performances?
"It hit me that God is everything. Everything good, and everything bad.” —ROYAL ABBOTT, Outer Range
That chaps-less ride on Big Lil (bless her gentle gait) left me exhausted and in a state of total-body soreness. And then there were chores to do. I’d come out to Zapata for a
real taste of the West I had been streaming, but I was taken aback by how real it felt.
Although ranch work didn’t see many more intense than my jobs in construction and moving, there didn’t appear to be a hard clock-out time for wranglers at Zapata. On any given day, starting at 5:30 a.m., the ranchers would round up horses and cattle, dig to expand an already miles-long irrigation trench, brand the cows, clean a barn, and fix a busted gate.
Work is over when every task is complete. And after you’ve finished your manual labor for the day, there’s paperwork to do into the night.
This won’t come as news to the millions of Americans who currently work in farming and ranching, but I was raised with a different portrayal of the West. I hadn’t seen much maintenance and bookkeeping in classic John Wayne westerns like True Grit, of course, because that was the Wild West. Outlaws, bounty hunters, standoffs—that’s when the West was untamed and cowboys were its vanguard.
"You know, when you boil life down, it’s funny just how little you need, isn’t it?” —RIP WHEELER, Yellowstone
But the modern westerns I had binged prior to my trip to Zapata introduced me to a different depiction of ranching, one that reflected all that sweat and toil of running massive plots of land. Yellowstone’s Dutton family operates (for better or worse) as a unit, safeguarding its land and legacy. It’s easy to admire John Dutton’s leadership and determination to protect his family business, even when he’s vindictive.
The modern western is evolving from a gunslinging flick into a political drama. Although the characters on Yellowstone carry guns, they’re not shooting them as frequently
or as mercilessly as John Wayne did. It’s a tamer, more family-centric western, and for that reason, the Westernverse may have tapped into early-pandemic escapism.
Yet that escapism isn’t free of stress or rough edges—it’s to a place that reflects our own modern sensibilities. We all strive to find meaning in hard work. We have all leaned into tribal, us-versus-them thinking. To belong in the West means having a meaningful appreciation for what makes it beautiful enough to live in and defend.
Western strength isn’t something you gain simply by moving there, especially if you’re doing so to escape something else. In fact, the modern western is self-aware of chaps-less mis-adventurers.
On Yellowstone, the Duttons’ primary enemy isn’t an Angel Eyes or even a Doc Holliday. The family fights for their land against transplants and developers. The message is clear: You’re only as powerful as those around you and what you all stand for.
During my final days at Zapata, I discovered I didn’t need to pack up my city life and move out to bigger pasture like so many Americans are doing right now—some of them perhaps as a direct result of the Westernverse. My tribe is where I am right now. The work I do is fulfilling. A vista that I could squint out over like John Dutton won’t change who I am and what I love.
I DON’T BELONG in the West. Not yet. Maybe not ever. And maybe fleeing to one part of this country isn’t the answer to problems in another. Maybe I apply the lessons I learned at Zapata to my city life. Toil is worthwhile if it serves a purpose. Ownership demands a deep sense of commitment and care. Family—biological or chosen—really is everything.
“A man’s made by patience and odds against him.” —PHIL BURBANK, The Power of the Dog
And when someone inevitably hands you the reins to your metaphorical Big Lil, you’d better damn well take them.
I do think I’m tough enough to survive out West, but I’m not sure I’ll belong until I respect the actual lifestyle enough to recognize what makes it special. And based on what I’m starting to learn from movies, TV, and real-life ranchers, to know what makes the West special is to want to protect it for as long as possible.
So before I make the move, maybe I’ll admire everything from the sidelines a bit longer. There’s plenty to stream from my apartment, at least.
Maybe I’ll even track down a cowboy hat big enough for my dreadlocks.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2023 issue of Men's Health.
Jordan Calhoun is the editor in chief of Lifehacker, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and the author of Piccolo Is Black, out now.