Urban Cowboy

David Allan
4 min readFeb 4, 2024
Highways, byways
and country lies ways.

The voice in charge told us to stay calm, but a flash flood was barreling toward us. People started screaming. The road became a river. Water burst through a building’s windows. A cart in the road toppled over in the onslaught. It was coming for us next!

Luckily, we were on the tram tour of the Universal Studios¹ lot, and as with an encounter with Jaws, a disorienting avalanche tunnel and Battlestar Galactica Cylons, the flood threat was movie magic.

¹ I precociously asked so many questions 
on the tour about shows and movies
being filmed there that our guide gave
me a printout of what was being filmed
the day of our visit. It includes Bill
Murray on the set of his Hunter S.
Thompson biopic “Where the Buffalo Roam,”
a personal favorite, discovered later,
in college.

When I was 5 years old, my mother — frugally, creatively and in the spirit of true adventure — planned a summer cross-country trip via a series of Greyhound buses between Baltimore and Los Angeles, where we had extended family. We changed buses in various towns and slept in our seats overnight as the lights zipped by like we were in a rocket, all safe and warm inside, with the vast darkness outside our metal ship.

Some of my earliest memories are from that trip, a fuzzy mashup of a pinata, the rhythmic heartbeat thump of wheels on highway, and the Universal Studios tram tour. My mom fondly recalls going to church in New Mexico, walking under the St. Louis Arch and taking a cruise on the Mississippi River.

On one of the legs of the great bus journey, I sat next to a boy a couple of years older than I. My mom, in the row behind us, listened as we compared our life stories.

I spoke with authority about my life as a cowboy, how I lived on a farm and had cows (of course) and horses and such. My mom stifled her laughter to avoid betraying my first acting role.

The other boy asked me questions about my prairie livin’, which I answered with confidence and the imagination required of a kid who actually lived in an apartment in downtown Baltimore.

The takeaway
When you travel, you can reinvent yourself.

Unanswered questions
Did we see Bill Murray on the tour? How many horses and cows did I claim to own?

And now a word from my mom…
“I was apprehensive and concerned you wouldn’t be able to pull this [cowboy bit] off and at one point interjected with, ‘David?’ To which you snapped back, ‘At my dad’s,¹ Mom.’ That may have caused the tightened-lip smile you are remembering. Also, this [other] boy was traveling alone and certainly dressed the part, well-mannered and soft-spoken.”

 ¹ In pen pal letters to a schoolgirl 
named Alice, living in Phoenix, young
Tobias Wolff (as he tells it in in
his memoir, “This Boy’s Life”) invents
a Palomino horse he owns that lives on
a fictional ranch belonging to his
father, with whom he’s actually

Related dream:
August 13, 2009
Our Cobble Hill apartment, Brooklyn, New York

Road Trip

I was on the bus, the first leg of a six-week cross-country trip. I had my iPhone, cord, book and a few clothes. I was concerned it wasn’t enough to occupy my time, but I was happy to be free and easy.

On the seat in front of me was a young woman talking on the phone. Her parents were also on the bus, taking her to rehab. Despite appearances, she was having issues.

The first stop was New York, though it looked more like the Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco, plus a scale model of the Statue of Liberty. When we got out of the bus, we all went into a suite in a hotel. There was food [I went to bed a bit hungry in real life], and I greedily ate the pizza.

Me, around age 4, Annapolis, Maryland.



David Allan

CNN’s Executive Editor of Enterprise and Features (Travel, Style, Wellness, Science). This account represents my personal views, not CNN’s.