We’re sitting in the lobby bar of the luxurious Beverly Hilton, nestled in Beverly Hills, movie stars and movie-star wannabe’s all around, but at the moment, the mountains of Appalachia seem much closer than the Hollywood Hills.
To my left is Cowboy, aka Herbert Coward, in coveralls, porkpie hat, long, scraggly white beard and missing front teeth. He looks about 70 years old. Opposite me is Spencer “Two Dogs” Bolejack, a self-described hillbilly and survivalist, a neighbor of Cowboy’s in Cold Hill, N.C., a place so obscure it can’t yet be googled. It’s home to 16K acres of wilderness and folks like Spencer, Eugene Runkis, his sidekick and mentor on the upcoming Destination America series “Hillbilly Blood” (August premiere), and, of course, Cowboy. DA’s gm Marc Etkind sat on my right, whom I considered an ally from civilization. The series features Spencer and Eugene making various contraptions using refuse found in neighbors’ yards. It’s not entirely clear what Cowboy does in the series, but his presence should tantalize viewers and perhaps reawaken his acting career. Cowboy made his debut in “Deliverance” as Toothless Man. He’s actually 91, according to IMDB bio.
A conversation with Cowboy is an experience. The task of providing a written translation of his oral tradition is nearly impossible. The drawl makes many of his words unintelligible and his quick mumbling is a hoot, but difficult for a city boy to put into prose. Yet the twinkle in his eyes, his sense of humor and the stories he tells make a chat with him an occasion to be enjoyed. After initially feeling as if I had less in common with him and Spencer than I would with a Martian, I slowly realized our differences were mostly of degrees.
An extensively edited copy of our conversation follows:
CFAX: What’s it like for you to be here, in LA, where people have mobile phones and devices on their wrist that monitor their steps and sleep (I show them my wristband)…
Cowboy: Really? That does that? You’re gonna think I’m driving up in the mountains and I see a deer killed on the side of the road, I pick it up and put it in my truck.
CFAX: That’s nice of you.
Cowboy: When it gets cold in the winter, I’m gonna need that meat. Now a possum ain’t too good, it ain’t all that good.
Etkind: Cowboy wanted to bring something with him on this trip, but couldn’t.
CFAX: His squirrel? [In clips shown to critics, a squirrel is sitting on Cowboy’s left shoulder.]
Cowboy: Yes. Angel. I’ve had him since he was a baby. I didn’t raise him, but I’ve had him since he was a baby. They wouldn’t let him on the plane…somebody said they’d drive him here, but I said that’s O.K.
Spencer: To answer your question about how I feel being here, I feel free. I have a big space [at home]. When I get in places like this, I worry that I’m gonna get in trouble without meaning to. When I go to the airport I start freakin’ out. Is there a bullet shell in my pocket? A knife? We live really free and there’s a lot of diversity, people wouldn’t believe it. There’s a same-sex couple as neighbors, nobody cares. You can have a bonfire the size of this room, you can shoot guns all night if you want to. Everybody kind of takes care of everyone when they need it. Differences are usually settled without intervention [from the police]. There’s a sense of freedom that I really enjoy. I don’t get in trouble there. In towns, I sometimes get in trouble.
Cowboy: I came down here in the morning to walk around. Ya know, I do look like a vagrant and one of the security guys came up to me and asked me, ‘Where did you come from?’ You have to explain to me what you’re doing here.’ I told him, ‘I’m a guest here.’ Then he apologized and I told him, ‘I love you anyway.’ [Laughter]
CFAX: What’s the biggest misconception that city people would have about where you live?
Spencer: There’s a lot of misconception about racism and religious intolerance. When I travel to towns and cities I see a lot of that, but where I live, honestly, I just don’t see that much of it. I went camping in the Florida Keys one time and there was mixed-race couple next to us and they hid from my family because they saw North Carolina on my license plate. They thought we would shoot them. We later became friends. That’s a misconception that I run into a lot.
Cowboy: When I get up in the morning I always carry guns, two guns, I have a belly holster.
Spencer: They’re always taking guns off Cowboy for the TV show.
Cowboy: [Laughs] I always carry guns. One morning a year ago my hamster cages were open and they were gone. I’m gonna tell you something, when I find out who played with those cages, I’m not going to tell the Law, the next time they come in I’m gonna blow their brains out. I ain’t caught no one yet.
CableFAX: I find that fascinating that there’d be vandalism in an area where so many people are armed.
Spencer: There is gas stealing…
Cowboy: I got a gun with a beam on it. When I shine that beam on them, they scream, ‘Don’t shoot me, I’m leavin’.’
Spencer: There’s a cause and consequence gene that’s missing in people…there’s a lot of people who have nothing to lose…they’re in and out of jail…
Etkind: That’s everywhere.
All: True, yes.
Spencer: We’ve had someone siphoning gas on our side of the mountain. I’m not gonna shoot ‘em over it, but they’re gonna have a problem. We’ll figure out who it is. We’re trackers and we know how to use infrared cameras. The mountains are economically depressed…so you end up with a lot of people who don’t have work, so they get into trouble.
CFAX: What about staying connected in the mountains? Do people carry mobile phones? Do they work?
Spencer: Yes and no. I have an iPhone, but I don’t have a TV. I have a computer. I choose to live where I live because it’s beautiful and affordable. You can make $25 or $30 grand and live pretty well.
Cowboy: He’s got a beautiful place.
Etkind: How far a drive is it from Washington, D.C. [your reporter’s home base]?
Spencer: About 6 hours.
Cowboy: You should come down there [to visit us]. We’ll make a big bonfire. We’ll drink a little moonshine. If you drink it and don’t feel so good we’ll lay you out in the camper. [Laughter]
[Editor’s Note: This is where Cowboy, not too delicately, brought up the subject of bodily harm being done to your reporter should he reveal much more about Cowboy’s procurement and production of adult liquid refreshment. In short, Cowboy, laughing heartily, promised your reporter would meet the same fate as the person(s) who vandalized his hamster cages. Despite swearing an oath to CFAX Editor Michael Grebb that your reporter would always report all the facts of every story, a line had to be drawn here.]
Etkind: Both Spencer and Eugene have large YouTube presences, that’s how our production company found them.
Spencer: I use sailing to teach kids how to survive, how to tie knots, how to eat plants. I don’t why they picked us.
CFAX: What else do you do to earn a living?
Spencer: I teach martial arts. I play in a band in Nashville, mostly weddings. I blacksmith knives.
Cowboy: He’s good at that.
Spencer: I’ve even taken adults to the Caribbean to teach survival. I like to take people out of this world and teach them how to survive. I also run summer camps for kids. I also sell a little bit of ginseng. It’s as valuable as weed and people will steal it. So what I do is I go way up in the mountains and harvest it up there. It’s a very particular plant…it takes 7 years to harvest. I make beer with it, that’s why I look so young [laughter].
CFAX: Does Cowboy take the ginseng?
Spencer: He must, he looks so good, he has some kind of secret.
Cowboy: [Laughter] Now you can’t print the stuff I told you. I’ll come by and shoot you. [Laughter]
Spencer: You have to fear old men, because they have nothing to lose.
Cowboy: I do a lot of volunteer work. There’s lots of homeless people, I fix them meals…
Spencer: Cowboy’s up there most every night. My wife, too.
Cowboy: We fix meals for 60-70 people. Then Saturday morning we pick up homeless people and bring them in for meals. Now that you can write about.
CFAX: Thank you. It was a pleasure meeting you.
Cowboy: Now remember, if you print that other stuff I’ll come and shoot you [laughter].