A long section entitled The Whitemud River Range lies at the heart of Stegner’s Wolf Willow. “Genesis” is the story of a giant blizzard that struck the area in 1906 and, for all extent and purposes, ended cattle ranching in Saskatchewan while preparing the way for farmers like Stegner’s father.
Like all of us who have lived even temporarily in cowboy country, Stegner longed to be as noble as the cowboys he admired:
Many things that those cowboys represented I would have done well to get over quickly, or never catch: the prejudice, the callousness, the destructive practical joking, the tendency to judge everyone by the same raw standard. Nevertheless, what they themselves most respected, and what as a boy I most yearned to grow up to, was as noble as it was limited. They honored courage, competence, self reliance, and they honored them tacitly. They took them for granted. It was their absence, not their presence, that was cause for remark. Practicing comradeship in a rough and dangerous job, they lived a life calculated to make a man careless of everything except the few things he really valued.
Perhaps it’s not too surprising, then, that he chose as the hero of his story a young Brit with a literary flair who longed to become a real cowboy:
He wanted to see everything, miss nothing, forget nothing. To make sure that he would not forget what happened to him and what he saw, he had begun a journal on the train coming west from Montreal, and every evening since then he had written in it seriously with posterity looking over his shoulder. He watched every minute of every day for the vivid and the wonderful, and he kept an alert eye on himself for the changes that were certain to occur. He had the feeling that there would be a test of some sort, that he would enter manhood or cowboyhood, manhood in Saskatchewan terms as one would enter a house. For the moment he was a tenderfoot, a greenhorn, on probation, under scrutiny. But at some moment there would be a door to open, or to force, and inside would be the self assurance that he respected and envied in Jesse, Slippers, or Little Horn, the calm confidence of a top hand.
The challenge he ends us up facing is the 1906 blizzard, the kind of challenge that can easily end up costing men their lives, though it’s not the kind of heroic challenge that Rusty had imagined:
That cloth house stamped itself into Rusty’s mind and memory. It spoke so plainly of the frailty and impermanence of their intrusion. And yet that frailty, and the implication of danger behind it, was what most nettled and dared and challenged him. Difficult as this job was, it was still only a job, and one done in collaboration with seven others. It called only for endurance; it had very little of the quality of the heroic that he had imagined Saskatchewan enforced upon the men who took its dare. Some time, somehow, after he had gone through this apprenticeship in the skills of survival, he would challenge the country alone some journey, some feat, some action that would demand of him every ounce of what he knew he had to give. There would be a real testing, and a real proof, and the certainty ever afterward of what one was. The expectation had no shape in his mind, but he thought of it in the same way he might have thought of sailing a small boat single handed across the Atlantic, or making a one man expedition to climb Everest. It would be something big and it would crack every muscle and nerve and he would have to stand up to it alone, as Henry Kelsey had, wandering two years alone among unheard of tribes in country not even rumored, or as young Alexander Mackenzie did when he took off from Fort Chippewyan to open the mysterious Northwest and track down the river that carried his name. There were even times when he thought of the wolfer Schulz with near envy. Like him or not, he didn’t run in pack, he was of an older and tougher breed, he knew precisely what he was made of and what he could do, and he was the sort from whom one might learn something.
Though much of the time Rusty sounds like anything but a hero, in the end he ends up risking his life to help a cowhand he has despised most of the story:
The notion insinuated itself into his head, not for the first time, that his sticking with Spurlock after Panguingue left was an act of special excellence, that the others must look upon him with a new respect because of it. But the tempting thought did not stand up under the examination he gave it. Special excellence? Why hadn’t anyone praised him for it, then? He knew why: be cause it was what any of them would have done. To have done less would have been cowardice and disgrace. It was probably a step in the making of a cowhand when he learned that what would pass for heroics in a softer world was only chores around here.
Needless to say, this is the kind of everyday heroism that Stegner admired in the cowboys that he met in his daily life, rodeo cowboys who carried on a tradition that was short-lived in all but its hold on the imagination of our nation.