Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

City Slickers: Let the Cattle Speak for Themselves

Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

City Slickers: Let the Cattle Speak for Themselves

Article excerpt


City Slickers, the classic movie starring Billy Crystal, portrays a man who rediscovers a part of himself during a two-week cattle drive adventure in the rugged American West. His rediscovery arises from the challenge itself, with minimal psychologically oriented discussion or "processing." The belief that such a thing can happen--that, indeed, such self-driven discovery may be superior to an excessively verbalised experience--echoes the famous objection of Outward Bound leader Rusty Baillie, who said, "Let the mountains speak for themselves." Citing

aspects of City Slickers for illustration, this article questions the efficacy and propriety of certain forms of adventure therapy processing, and offers cautionary notes on attempts to reduce great adventure experiences to words. Topics addressed include the principle of parsimony, the meaning of experiences, learning from experience, processing, training for processing, and the feasibility of relevant research in outdoor education.


A popular film hardly constitutes scholarly work. Taken as an interpretation of common experience, however, a well-received movie may convey intriguing messages about phenomena of academic interest. Such is the case with City Slickers (Smith & Underwood, 1991), which was one of history's more successful films--ranking ahead of Rocky, for example, and Good Morning, Vietnam on the all-time USA box office list (IMDB, 2004).

In the film, comedian Billy Crystal plays the part of Mitch, a middle-aged New Yorker. With his friends Phil (Daniel Stern) and Ed (Bruno Kirby), Mitch travels to New Mexico to experience a different sort of vacation, in the form of a two-week cattle drive. Under the terse, intimidating guidance of the old cowboy known as Curly (Jack Palance, winning an Oscar award for his performance), Mitch achieves a life change that is by turns dramatic, funny, and poignant. In the end, the city boy becomes enough of a cowpoke to take charge and make the drive a success, discovering an unexpected competence and rediscovering, as well, his ability to smile.

That tale of personal achievement through adventure contains subtle commentary on the place of verbal processing. As an illustration, Curly disdains Mitch's small talk, and positions himself as something other than a warm, fuzzy therapist. Consider this exchange:

Mitch: Hi, Curly. Kill anyone today?

Curly: Day ain't over yet.

Somehow though, the old cowboy, with his few words, helps Mitch to achieve something in the wild that had eluded him in his comfort zone in the city. Ultimately it is action, not speech, that makes the difference. This outcome evokes the view attributed to Rusty Baillie, an Outward Bound course director, who reportedly did not wish to make his students engage in extensive discussions of their outdoor adventure experiences. Baillie's memorable response: "Let the mountains speak for themselves" (Priest & Gass, 1997, p. 174; James, 1980).

To every thing, says the ancient adage, there is a season (Ecclesiastes 3:1, King James Version Bible). It is not always necessary to articulate. Even in group psychotherapy, where people assemble for the express purpose of discussion, Yalom (1995) observes,

   [S]ilence is never silent; it is behavior
   and, like all other behavior in the group,
   has meaning.... [If] a group is tense and
   experiences a silence of a minute or two
   (a minute's silence feels very long in a
   [psychotherapy] group), I often ask for a
   go-around in which each member says,
   quickly, what he or she has been feeling
   or has thought of saying, but did not,
   in that silence.... [But it] is a mistake to
   use [such] exercises as emotional space
   filler--that is, as something interesting to
   do when the group seems at loose ends.
   (pp. 376, 447)

In the spirit of Ecclesiastes, the movie's suggestion is not that an overly chatty leader should completely withdraw from group interaction. …

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