My Cowboy Hat
by Gary Campanella
I had this hat.
It was my favorite hat,
a leather cowboy hat,
handmade in Mexico.
I bought it from a migrant worker
I worked with one summer
in a Wisconsin canning factory.
This was many years ago.
It was roughly but sturdily sown
with thick leather lace
and a braided hat band
was held together with a tin clasp
and, when I bought it,
it had a wide flat brim.
I oiled it religiously, once a week,
and I wore it around the room I rented
to give it fit and shape.
By the end of the summer
it was soft and curled at the sides
and it fit me, and no one else.
It was my outlaw hat.
I couldn’t wear it in public
without looking silly or unbalanced,
but I wore it in the hills,
and I wore it on the frequent
road trips I took those years,
and, more commonly, I wore it
camping on the bluff
that overlooked that Wisconsin town.
I went to that bluff
when I needed space,
or a fire,
or a sunset,
and once, as I watched the cornfields
and church spires fade into silhouette,
a doe stepped lightly up behind me
and nosed the hat
down over my eyes.
(I wonder now if it was the same doe
I hit with my car,
And had to kill, a year or two later).
Another time in Montana
I camped with a friend’s girlfriend
on the shores of Lake Elizabeth
a week after a Christian hiker
had been killed there,
eaten by a grizzly bear.
Though the bear had been killed
(and maybe eaten) a day later,
the local newspaper interviewed us
for our supposed fearlessness.
She and I made love that night
(our only fearless act)
and in the morning, while climbing
high in the rocks of Going-to-the-Sun Mountain,
she found an eagle feather
and stuck it in my hat band.
She and I never told anyone
we made love, and we never
made love again.
Today she’s a born-again Christian
somewhere in the Arizona desert,
far away from grizzly bears.
I also kept two seagull feathers
in the hat band.
These I found in a ten-day storm
on the shore of Lake Superior.
I was trapped
in a broken-down, mouse infested
Quonset hut. I uprighted a rusted
potbelly stove and improvised
a chimney for a fire. I chopped
wood til the hatchet broke,
then cut wood til the saw broke,
then snatched driftwood from the waves
and dried it alongside the stove
before burning it. After five days
I was low on food and lived
on flour biscuits, whiskey
and some blueberries
I braved the storm to pick.
On the ninth day the weather cleared
enough to walk along the lakeshore.
There I found the feathers – and I thought
how those gulls had made their way,
over the hills and over the years,
all the way
from the Atlantic –
like me –
to this westernmost Great Lake.
I was on the West Coast,
walking it. The hat
was my only luxury.
It earned its keep
in the Mojave Desert sun.
There were three of us,
and we were three weeks across the desert
when we stumbled into a frontier town,
at the foot of the Sierra Nevada.
We were hot and dry and wearing out.
We were low on food, out of money,
with three more days to walk.
The Sierra loomed over us
like a jail sentence.
I found a box of supplies
left by others
in the corner of the post office.
The idea was You take something,
you leave something,
so I took a bag of rice,
a bag of dried apples,
and some instant coffee.
It was enough for three days.
It was all we would need.
In return I left my hat.
Reaching the door
I looked back and saw
dusty rays of sun glancing
off its worn, oiled skin.
It was shining.
I turned and walked
into the harsh white light.
I search for it now and again.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I write most days, and most days I work on making my memoir or my novel better, more ready for publication. This creative process, like most creative endeavors, like much of the traveling I have done over the years, takes many twists and turns. While working last year on a section about hiking in the Mojave Desert I came across an old journal passage where I said goodbye to the cowboy hat described in the poem. I put down my pen, backed away from my keyboard, and reflected on my history with the hat, both before and after I intentionally lost it. And so I wrote it down, not in prose, which is the business of my memoir, but in rhythm and verse, which is the business of my memory. I hope you enjoy it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gary Campanella is a Senior Manager and Vice President in Office Services for The Capital Group Companies. He is a career operations manager and leader, rising most days before 6:00 and working until after 5:00. After that he squeezes in parenting time with his two children, quality time with his wife, and then an hour or two squeezing out a few words. Some of his avocational achievements have included hiking the 2700-mile Pacific Crest Trail, volunteering as a backpacking instructor and wilderness first responder for the Appalachian Mountain Club, and extensive travel throughout the United States (he has slept at least one night in 49 of the 50 states), Europe, and the Middle East. Most recently he has completed two book-length manuscripts, a novel about a murder, and a memoir about traveling. He resides in Los Angeles, California. Samples of his writing can be found at GaryCampanella.com.
AUTHOR’S PHOTO CAPTION: This photo was taken five years ago from the summit of Mt. Whitney, tallest mountain in the lower 48, after losing cowboy hat.