ARIZONA – A sea of cactus, the heat, tumbleweeds, cowboys and Indians– this is the Arizona every European imagines. Me included. Guess what? For the most, reality will prove you right. Yet, as I landed in the American West, I knew there was more to that. I had a mission: forget all the sitcoms, leave stereotypes and prejudices at the boarding gate, and discover the ‘Gringo culture’ on my own.
Driving on Arizona’s highway, dying from the heat, the air conditioner turned to maximum cooling, a large wagon drew my attention to the side of the road. I pulled over and hopped out of the car. In front of me was an interestingly looking man sitting on a chair. I spotted black grease on his Arizona pants and striped shirt. He was wearing a cowboy hat and sturdy, dusty boots – his belly hanging outside of the outfit. His peculiar style was more than a fashion statement. He seemed to be embodying the values of the ‘Wild West’.
“What are you looking for?” he asked. His voice was deep, his accent almost incomprehensible to my European self. I looked around for a moment, quite uncomfortably. To my great surprise, I had accidentally stepped into the ‘Wonderland of wagons’. They were everywhere, of every shape and size – camouflaged between rusty metal and wooden wheels. All my fantasies about damsels in distress, outlaws playing cards at saloons and Indians throwing arrows, magically took shape.
“Welcome to Wagontown,” said the man, winking at me with blue eyes that had preserved their youthful luster. That’s when I met ‘Wagon Man’. Marlen Halverson has handled thousands of wagons. He collects them, repairs them, and sells them.
“You know what’s funny?,”he told me. “I am the real deal, Hollywood is phony!”.
Ask him, and he will tell you that he is a “farm boy, a cowboy and a merchant”.
Over the next couple of days, Marlen revealed what it takes to be a ‘Wagon Man’ and what differentiates him from so-called ‘asphalt people’. By the end I wasn’t sure what we were talking about, but it seemed that with every story I was diving deeper into a world of cowboys and endless miles of dirty road.
Back in 1972, Marlen gave a Canadian farmer five silver dollars for the running gear of a wagon. From this beginning, he started driving teams in conjunction with a youth camp he worked for – hauling herds of people each outing. “After my first wagon train, I knew that it was nice to be in a wagon. You don’t have to pitch a tent, you don’t have to worry about rattlesnakes, I am telling you from experience because I’ve covered over 5 thousand miles.”
One warm late afternoon, together with my boyfriend, I drove to his house, in Suncity, approximately half an hour North of Phoenix, Arizona. Now, if it weren’t for my ‘American escort’, I would have probably understood less than a quarter of the cultural allusions Marlen constantly referred to. It was funny having Patrick acting as a fellow reporter – often taking the lead as the conversation evolved. By the end of the interview, the two men were sipping a beer together, looking like old buddies – while I was in TV room chatting with Anita, Marlen’s soft-spoken wife.
“I am very quiet, shy, introverted,” she said while meticulously working on a wool weaver. “Marlen is very extroverted, talkative, so we make a good balance. I like his passion for life and his positive attitude. He is resourceful, he never worries, so I guess that’s good”.
Their house was impossible to miss. It was the only one with a huge wagon on the front yard, which kind of made it look like a movie set. I wondered if that was the same wagon, middle-aged Marlen – covered in dirt and mud – had driven to pick up his to-be-wife at the airport years before. The married couple kind of reminds of the ‘American Gothic’ painting by Grant Wood. A cowboy version of it.
From family pictures, to Native American blankets and innumerable wood-carved wild animals – their house was full of symbolism. It felt like discovering a part of the country that was far from mainstream media; different from the America we are usually exposed to as Europeans.
Marlen offered us a beer before excitedly handing me a stack of sheets detailing various types of trail-ready and landscaping wagons. He sat down, with a cowboy hat, and I thought he was ready to talk about the people he met and the places he visited. But he wasn’t.
“You never mess with another man’s woman, with another man’s horses or his team, and you never touch a cowboy’s hat,” he said with a glass of rum and coke in hand. I later got to know that it was one of the fundamental principles integrated into his philosophy of life – popularly known as ‘Marlenism’.
I looked around and saw a sign on the wall, which declared: “every day is a holiday, every step is a dance, every breath is a smile, everytime I ride or drive my Studebaker [American wagon and automobile] or meet a person like you is an inspiration.” Something told me that Marlen was holding true to his mantra.
Travelling on unbeaten paths wherever possible, ‘Wagon Man’ spent most of his life in his virtual home on wheels, enjoying the companionship of his fellow riders and the sound of coyotes howling at night.
He found himself having to deal with difficult situations more than once. At one point he was lost in a wild horse pasture and later counted himself lucky that a herd of stallions hadn’t crossed the path of his geldings, triggering an attack. Again, in Montana, his wagon fell off a cliff, causing him injure his head.
Despite all the misadventures Marlen never gave up on his logical yet Western-romantic journey.
“People would always tell me: “boy your horses are in good shape”. You know what I would say? That’s a reflection of the owner. They’ve come thousands of miles, so they better be in good shape”.
As Marlen talked about his relationship with his horses, Patrick asked him about the fundamental connection between man and land in the American context. As a boy, this full-time cowboy learned about animals, production and how to bear the calluses on his hands. When he left the nest, he was ready to face the world. “Travelling with my wagon, I met people I call my ‘asphalt friends’, they are like you, they live in cities. I am a farm boy, I live on dirt.”
A good share of his stories, originated from a cross-country trip from Mexico to Canada. In 1990 he drove his wagon, pulled by his two horses Rock and Roll, from border to border.
“There are a lot of stories in between there, but I can tell you just a few,” Marlen said in a rather mysterious fashion. “On my first day out I broke a wagon wheel”. Not a very good start, I thought. Then Marlen, went on sharing some of his pearls of wisdom.
“I learned there are two kinds of people, the good and the bad – nothing in between,” he said, suddenly appearing very serious. “I met hundreds of good people but I also found five really bad people. Of these five bad people, one guy tried to steal my horses, one to steal my stock trailer, one to steal my wagon, and the other two I don’t even want to tell you about them, they were that bad.”
But ‘bad people’ were not the only latent peril to Marlen. In a country that is increasingly tailored for cars, the now 75-year-old man and his horses experienced several reality-checks during their travels across America.
“At one particular moment, there was a big jumbo jet flying by, a train going into the city, and an 18 wheeler passing me. Now, if you want to feel insignificant that’s it.” I could totally picture him, with his horse-drawn covered wagon, cars honking while he kept going. That image put a smile on my face. Marlen traveled following a series of simple – yet effective- principles. “I always listened to the natives, they were usually right”.
When driving across the United States at 4 to 5 miles an hour, he had a lot of time to think. This is probably how he developed ‘Marlenism’, his philosophy of life. “If a person gets tired of you asking their name, then I stop caring, it’s not important anymore”.
Before leaving his home, after my boyfriend helped him loading his truck, I asked him if being a wagon man was still meaningful these days. He looked straight into my eyes and in pure ‘Wagon Man’ style he whispered: “Even more”.