The most prominent theme of the novel involves Tom's lifelong struggle to find meaning, happiness, and peace in his life. While all human beings struggle with this search, Tom's position, as a Ute Native American and as a child whose parents have both died young, renders his path toward meaning particularly difficult. Tom must negotiate countless societal pressures as he leaves the wilderness and enters the civilized world. As a Ute Native American living in the beginning of the twentieth century, the new life he begins in Pagosa forces him to reconsider his entire value system as well as the details of his daily patterns. The next phase of his life, in which he becomes a wild bronco rider in the rodeo, does not provide the peace and sense of accomplishment he has expected. Despite his fame, success, and relatively comfortable existence, Tom finds himself continually dissatisfied, angry, and in search of greater meaning in his life. After years of struggling with fundamental questions about his identity, Tom finally comes to terms with himself when he accepts a job herding sheep in the same area in which he spent his childhood. By facing his fears and painful memories, he overcomes them and learns that an embrace of his heritage and a new, simple lifestyle in the wilderness can provide him with the most contentment he has felt since his childhood. Because this theme provides the novel's central conflict, the novel concludes as soon as his search for his identity concludes.
Linked to Tom's search for his own identity is his search for his true home. Bald Mountain and the surrounding wilderness provide Tom with a sense of home and of belonging during his childhood years. Even in the painful time following the death of his mother, Tom lives peacefully in the wilderness, befriending the animals with whom he shares the woods. However, when Blue Elk persuades him to leave the woods and enroll in the local reservation school, Tom first experiences the acute pain of displacement and will continue to experience it for most of his life, until he returns to the wilderness at the end of the novel. As Tom's teachers and bosses become increasingly frustrated with Tom's inability to complete certain tasks or with his passionate will to return to his old ways, they send him from place to place. As a result, Tom does not feel welcomed in by any environment or by any individual. When he begins his career as a bronco rider, this pattern only perpetuates itself, as his competition takes him to many cities across the country. He lives a life on the road, with no sense of attachment to place or people. While he hungers for the comfort and ease a sense of home provides, he know not how to seek it until his return to the mountains.
From his very first interactions with the townspeople of Pagosa upon his arrival at the reservation school, Tom reacts to authority figures with resentment, hostility, and distrust. However, his experiences with these authority figures justify his behavior toward them. They have deprived him of the lifestyle of his heritage and treat him with prejudice because of his status as a Native American. Tom also feels as though these authority figures continually attempt to control his life in various ways. They exploit his abilities for their own material gain or for their own sense of worth. Tom's resentment of authority becomes so pronounced, however, that it sometimes causes him to distance himself from people who may genuinely try to help him. For example, the nurse Mary Redmond, who appears later in the novel, strives to comfort and care for Tom. Because of his fear of her control over him, he automatically assumes she has selfish motives. Borland writes, "Then he remembered and the whole pattern fell into place. Blue Elk, Benny Grayback, Rowena Ellis, Red Dillon—they had trapped him, every one of them, had tried to run his life, make him do things their way. And now Mary Redmond."