Bob Sundown — freedom in a sheep wagon

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Bob Sundown

Oldtimer Bob Sundown is a dropout in the true sense of the word. For 40 years he has voyaged about 20 miles a day along the West’s gritty highway shoulders in a donkey-drawn sheep wagon he and some kids built from discarded materials. “Thousands of friends,” a few live-in chickens and his knowledge of edible plants form his sometimes tenuous security net. Although he intentionally draws no pension nor social security, he claims he’s the richest man on Earth because he knows how to “use his mind.”

The seventy-something, slow-and-steady traveler espouses hard-won creeds borne of stark life experience. It’s apparent this slight, one-eyed, leathery-faced man in dusty clothes has conquered concepts cerebral seekers grapple with perpetually. As his story unfolds, he untangles fear, worry, surrender, attention to the moment, freedom and peace of mind sagaciously in the rough, unfeigned tongue of cowboy slang.

Sundown bears his Nez Perce Sioux mother’s name. He drove his Caucasian father off at age ten with a pitchfork after the man “whupped” his mother and sisters one too many times.

He left home at age eleven to begin a lifetime of labor that continues to this day, although a heart attack last year curtailed his fence building and “cowboying” activities. He still teaches survival skills to children, announces for children’s rodeos and ranch-sits for friends - mostly in Arizona and New Mexico. He says when he gets too old to work, he will lay down and die.

He eats plants, jackrabbits, chickens and eggs. His burros, he says, “always have hay.” Sometimes, if he has money left over after his burros are fed, he treks to town and treats himself to some store-bought food. “I’m not afraid to go hungry,” he says. “It never killed me yet.”

The former Marine, prospector, sheepherder and owner of two ranches used to travel the highways incessantly in trucks loaded with show horses and cattle. But four decades ago, after his wife was killed in an automobile accident, he decided the fast lane was not his friend. He relinquished his worldly goods and properties to his children.

He motions to the range beyond the highway. “I wanted to prove that a person can survive if they know what to do. Do you know there are 190 different plants you can eat around here? Pretty soon people better learn to be self sufficient.”

He expresses concern for an exploited world and its victimized children, blaming corruption in government, the church, the media and other institutions. But the corruption, he says, is just the end result of the root problem: the unbridled human ego.

Humans will be free when they learn to surrender their fear-based need to control, says the cowboy, intimating that the mind can expand to a clear perspective when aired in nature’s open spaces.

“Lots of people are afraid to do the way I do; they say they can’t. I say, How do you know? Have you ever tried?’”

But the nudge is designed to click light bulbs rather than change lifestyles. Acknowledging his way would be inappropriate for most, he believes humans from all walks of life face tough roads, and the key to peace is in learning to handle the fear that accompanies struggle.

“People are worrying about, ‘what am I going to do tomorrow?’ Let a person who has real heavy duty fears of life just go someplace away from every place else and just give up on everything and relax and start to think - use their mind. Then they figure, ‘Hey! By golly! I made it through today!’ They realize, ‘Hey, I could have done this but I was afraid.’ Then they figure again, ‘What was I afraid of?’”

“Everybody can be free; it doesn’t matter what kind of element they’re in. They just sometimes get too afraid to turn loose. If they just take another step - it’s like a newborn learning to walk - they’re afraid but then they take it and everything’s all right.”

“I don’t give a hoot where you’re at or who you are. If you can use this brain and these eyes and legs, you can always make a buck or two. In 40 years, I’ve never worried about tomorrow because tomorrow is always a new adventure.”

Despite losing an eye and getting his legs pummeled with machine gun lead in the Korean war, Sundown has persevered. “They told me I’d never walk again. That’s just a big bunch of stupid words,” he says, nodding downward. “I don’t even wear braces anymore.”

An avid reader and gatherer of information, he lived through his recent heart attack without medical assistance by preparing beforehand for the unexpected. “I used my mind, what was give to me. The mind is the most powerful thing on Earth, if people learn how to use it.”

Sundown was heading west toward Flagstaff, Ariz. to teach a survival workshop and announce for a children’s rodeo. Then it was on to Wyoming and Idaho, where he says he’s going to die because “that there’s near where I was born.” Is he afraid to reach the end of the road? “Fear of death is one of the dumbest ideas they put into people’s minds.”

When will he arrive in Idaho? “Whenever I get there, kiddo.”