Originally published in Hot Springs Little Baldy Press, March 10, 2010
Westerners are into — and out of — gates. Especially ranch gates. Our gates say a lot about us. They say who lives here.
For many people, the generic gate will do — the kind that is crafted from lodgepole pine or 2 x 4s. It comes in two colors: "utterly unpainted" or "bare-bones barn red."
Yet many of our gates reflect some human fantasy. The sentimental gate of old wagon-wheels. The monumental gate of massive pine, with a state-of-the-art cattle guard. The heraldic gate, burning its brand into the sky. The junkyard gate, with an old Model T tractor parked on top.
Oh yes ... and that murderously effective barbed-wire thing, that is variously known as a Dutch gate and a South Dakota gate. Everybody blames this gate on somebody else. If New Yorkers had invented it, they'd call it a Midwest gate. If Montanans had created it, they'd insist it was a California gate.
But a gate is not a facade. Facades are not meant to be gone through.
The gate is a gift from our most ancient geniuses. After humans monkey-puzzled through what mathematics is, they used numbers to build the first wheel, the first ship, the first house... and the first fence, complete with a gate and rawhide hinges. How else could the ancients keep their ponies in and the thunder-lizards out?
A gate must be skillfully engineered — or it falls over like a bad joke. It is a creation of technical genius — a marvel of weight and counter-weight. It must have hinges that swing at the touch of a child's hand — yet stand solidly in place when a herd of 5000 buffalo hits it at full gallop.
Any well-built gate can outlast a marriage, a bank loan, a belief, even an era. On the ranch where I grew up, a few gates are older than me.
In addition, a gate should be designed so a cowgirl or cowboy can open it from horseback. What impatient rider can wait forever to get down and un-snap the chain?
The best gates are also wide enough between the poles for a kid to slither through.
As it swings open, a gate invites us into a new place, a new time, a new view, a change of venue. It takes a bunch of cows in, to new grass. Or it can take them out, to the packing-plant that changes them to tasty steaks. The gate brings a 4-H Club to visit, friends to dinner, the veterinarian to heal, the auctioneer to disperse a herd. The gate takes children away to school, the soldier away to the Middle East, the RV away to discovery, the grandparent to the cemetery — and brings the new baby and mother back from the hospital.
How we westerners love our gates. Some of our grandest, most historic places of passage are gates opening to new peoples and great Time. Hellgate Canyon. Gates of the Mountains. The Golden Gate. The four gates to Yellowstone.
Gates also have their partners in symbol. For the First Nation peoples, there are the leather gates — lodge-doors opening to a magic world of firelight within, to the magic world of sunlight without. The leafy cottonwood gates of the Sun Dance Lodge. The limestone temple gates of Uxmal.
For the European arrivals, there are the Iron Gates of the Danube, the Great Gate of Kiev, the Brandenburg Gate, the Lion Gate of Mycenae.
Even our planet is a gate of Life and Death, ever opening and closing as billions of lives speed through Her like electrons every day. The word "gate" sounds like Gaea — the name of goddess Earth.
Like minds, gates aren't useful, or diplomatic, if they always stay shut. When a gate is flung open, both sides of the argument can mingle.
Magical things happen with gates. They keep saddle horses in, but let the butterflies and jackrabbits circulate freely. Unlike doors and windows, they have the power to let in the smell of rain even when they're shut.
In short... a gate by any other name would still have squeaky hinges.
Yes, we humans have designed gates that are not things of beauty. Prison gates with peeling paint. Castle gates with rusted iron hinges that scream of ancient cruelty. The Gate of Hell. And that Gate of Hollywood grillwork thing, operated by electronic sensors, that only stays open long enough to let a stretch limousine hum through to a Beverly Hills palace.
But I'll take the gate of lodgepole pine, wintered to a silver hue. The kind that opens into an alfalfa field. The kind that has a pair of pickup tracks curving away to the horizon.
The grass may be greener on the other side of the fence — but only a gate can get us there.