When I was growing up it wasn’t uncommon to see ranch hands donning those big, over sized bandannas. They were always loosely wrapped around their necks in a kind of billowy manner. There was a time in my youth that this kind of bandanna was almost ubiquitous to the point that I never put much thought into it.
However, when I got older, I did a stint in the Forest Service which landed me on the front lines of several forest fires. It was there that I quickly adopted what the experienced fire fighters were wearing; an over sized bandanna around the neck. It also became obvious why it was worn loosely. The primary use for it was for a way to protect the back of your neck from the sun. Being bent over for hours under a beating sun digging fire lines exposes your neck, even with your hard hat on. The loose fitting aspect quickly became apparent, too, because you wanted them loose enough that you could pull them up over your face when it got real smokey and/or dusty. In fact it only took one trip to the fire line and I soon adopted wearing two of them; one tied in the back to drape the majority of the fabric to the front, and one tied at the front to leave fabric draping over the back of my neck. The whole set up was an absolute necessity. It kept me breathing, it kept my neck from being fried, it kept me noticeably cooler, and it kept floating fire embers from finding their way under my collar. I remember thinking to myself then that I sure wished that I had adopted this bandanna set up a few years earlier when I was earning summer cash bucking hay for various ranchers around the valley.
Over the years I found myself wearing them as a kind of do-rag on my head. I wasn’t out in the sun as much, but I had long hair (back in my rock and roll band days) and when I did go camping or found myself working outside, it helped in the usual keeping me cool and keeping my hair out of my face. After my rock and roll band days and cutting my hair, I still continued to wear a bandanna on my head occasionally, mostly out of habit. Shortly after, I transitioned to wearing a ball cap most of the time. In many ways it does what the bandanna did with the added bonus of helping to keep the sun out of your eyes, but, of course, without the neck protection.
Lack of sun protection for the back of the neck is not a big deal when you’re just kicking around. Yeah, one could wear a cowboy type hat, but just kicking around in a cowboy hat isn’t my style. In fact, it shouldn’t be anyone’s style. Really, if you’re kicking around in a cowboy hat you should reevaluate that choice. The only people that should wear cowboy hats are actual cowboys that, you know, ride a horse out in the sun, round up cattle, work the range; that kind of thing. Maybe country and western singers can be given a pass, but even that makes me cringe.
Life has a way of ever progressing, we change, adapt, move on to new eras while leaving another behind. I’ve always been a person with an outdoors bent. I grew up in the mountains of west central Idaho and spent as much time if not more outdoors than indoors. After I moved away from Idaho I lost touch with that outdoors bent for a period of time. Then, after several years, my life veered back to a direction in which I have found myself back in the outdoors mode again. But, now, I live in a part of the country far different than the mountains of the Nez Perce Indians, and the Rivers Snake and Salmon.
Now I call the second driest state in the Union home. Sure, heading east of Salt Lake City takes me to 11,000 plus foot mountains and alpine forests, but heading west you immediately find yourself in a desert environment. It doesn’t take much time at all in the West Desert to realize that a ball cap just doesn’t cut it if you’re doing much walking around. Even a boonie hat doesn’t cut it by itself. A boonie hat alone would cut it for southern Utah, like Moab or places like that, but in the West Desert, it doesn’t because of bugs. The biting gnats out in the West Desert are relentless. We went out a couple of times last summer and the things just ate us alive. In the photo above we went out with some friends and we quickly learned that wearing shorts and short sleeved shirts just don’t cut it. By the time we left, we had more bites than we could count. I think that I was the only one who didn’t wear shorts; I don’t do shorts. As you can see, my son didn’t do shorts either. But, that being said, all we had was our ball caps. Well, except my wife. She did have a good sun blocking hat, but all of us were nothing more than a feast for the biting gnats; mostly around the hairline and back of the neck.
This brings me to the shemagh. The shemagh is an Arab garment that our military men and women quickly adopted when deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for good reason. It’s literally tailor made for a desert climate. When I first saw photos and videos of our soldiers wearing them, I instantly thought of my excursions out into the West Desert and the light went on in my head. It’s light cotton; almost see through, it’s huge–a proper shemagh is at least 42″x42″–it’s like a big, honking bandanna with a lighter fabric. It’s a garment invented by a culture living in the desert for thousands of years so it stands to reason to be hugely practical in a desert environment. Using a shemagh with a cap or a boonie hat would be a huge plus for traipsing around a bug infested desert. Also, I think it’s a good addition to the get home bags I have for me and my wife. Our get home bags are geared towards getting home post major earthquake because the area in which we live WILL suffer a major earthquake. A big-ass piece of cloth to wrap around your face in a post earthquake environment has nothing but upside.
A few days ago I took my 12 year old son out to the West Desert to do some shooting. It’s early enough in the year that the biting gnats are still a couple of months away, but the chilly air was reason enough to pull out the shemagh and wrap around his neck. He likes it so much he asked me to buy him one of his own. I told him that I would on the condition that he only wear it when it’s of practical use. Wearing a shemagh simply to wear one would be much like wearing a cowboy hat when it’s not needed. If he wants to wear his shemagh as a fashion statement, I’ll have to strangle him with it. Okay, I’m joking about the strangling part, but not the stupidity of wearing a shemagh as “fashion.”
Which brings me to another topic part of a conversation related to shemaghs. Apparently, wearing shemaghs is a big deal in the hipster community which is enough to make me shove an ice pick into my retina. Really, what kind of douche baggery would one be guilty of wearing a shemagh around town, to class, or clubbing? It would be of immense proportions.
This is an example of what I’m talking about. Colin Farrell, you need to be pimp-slapped, dude. Yeah, a shemagh is more or less a glorified scarf and people wear those around all the time, what’s the big deal? Well, I can’t put my thumb on it, but it’s just stupid.
On the flip side of the pretentious idiocy that emanates from someone sporting a shemagh as casual wear are things that I’ve read from some people who regard wearing a shemagh as somehow supporting Islamic terrorists. From what I understand, some colors are significant to certain terrorist orginazations, but keep in mind that it predates Islam by millennia. Also, the British SAS have been using them for years.
I guess the bottom line is that a shemagh is more or less a glorified bandanna with many uses. Fashion is not one of them. You can get them here.