of the West"
||hy is this page not about Santa Fe, New
Mexico? Good question, Pilgrim. This page is about the Santa Fe Trail in my mind.
From the time I was born, the TV sat in the living room, and after 6 months in Grand
Island (and I have some vague memories from that time), I sat in Cheyenne, Wyoming for
five years, and Laramie, Wyoming until I reached puberty at which time, evidently, I was
unworthy and through no fault of my own was exiled from my beloved Wyoming until 1987.
And in Cheyenne, Wyoming, I watched Clint Walker in
"Cheyenne," and in Laramie, I watched "Laramie," and "The
Lawman" (which had "The Bird Cage Saloon" in downtown Laramie, and downtown
Laramie had "The Bird Cage Saloon" and I never knew if they were the same
establishment). And "My Friend Flicka" -- which takes place BETWEEN Laramie and
Cheyenne -- and "The Virginian" which takes place 30 miles north of Laramie in
Medicine Bow, Wyoming, and my Dad, who worked for the Forest Service, on the Medicine Bow
National Forest, brought me home Smokey Bear pencils and book covers and decals, and when
"Lassie" got rid of little Timmy, she was, while I grew up, with a Ranger who
worked for the Forest Service and drove a pickup truck just like Dad's.
Was I confused?
Of course I was. But I wasn't alone. The first "western" was written on
commission from John Jacob Astor by Washington Irving. The first American novel is its
sequel, also by Irving by way of Astor (he was buying P.R. you see).
And I have grown up in a region of the country that is on a level with a
U.S. Protectorate or Territory - Uncle Sam still insists on owning 80-90% of every state
in the West, and we are stymied in our ability to be other than resource pockets for
plunder, else National Parks for Easterners.
I remember the kid in first
grade, always in his little rodeo belt buckles, his red checkered shirts, his crew cut and
his Butch Wax, with his Dad's display of neat crap they'd found on their ranch outside of
town: Cavalry belt buckles, arrowheads, old Springfield rifle rounds, and the centerpiece,
an officer's pistol. Were we in the Old West? Yes and no and yes and no again.
Welcome to the West, the largest Dude Ranch ever invented. And welcome to the
child-proofing of the West, as the East Coast Mommies swath us in paved paths with
handrails. And, now, they charge us $3 to walk in the woods. Soon, all will be padded with
Styrofoam and we will be deported so we don't continue to spoil the view.
I turn my face from the East, from whence our well-meaning but clueless oppressors come.
And how many times have I seen some imbecile from Philadelphia move West and start telling
everybody how to save the natural wonder they've moved here for and can we all just stop
living so that Mr. East Coast can have his precious view and his topiary miniature poodle?
I have driven the Santa Fe Trail more times than I can count. I began at the Independence,
Missouri Courthouse in July of 1993, and took the Oregon Trail out here in search of a
better life. Independence, Missouri marks the extreme eastern edge of the portion of the
continent I'm familiar with.
No one would ever publish a novel in which the protagonist takes a boat from New York City
to Chicago, thence, by train to Atlanta as a "natural" route.
But 1955's "The Man From Laramie" has Jimmy Stewart taking the "Trail"
from Laramie (Wyoming, we assume) to unnamed Santa Fe, where they collect salt from the
salt lake just outside of town. From Laramie to Santa Fe to Salt Lake City? A howler to
us, but to the great Eastern mass that sucks our resources, and stifles our industry, it's
just a "good western."
I can't watch a John Ford western in Monument Valley without suppressing a giggle that all
those Navajo are dressed up like some gay Hollywood art director's idea of Sioux.
If need be, I could name at least ten tribes I've had significant personal friendships in
-- and therefore have had to listen to griping about another fifty tribes THEY have issues
The true victims of your refusal to let Westerners be real people -- to have cars, and not
to be cardboard characters, as "Eastern" friends of my parents used to always
ask when they got to Laramie: "Don't you ride horses? Aren't you afraid of Indian
attacks?" - the true victims are the Indians. You can't accept that they have CD
players, and that they want their kids to get a good education and a good profession, like
a lot of other Westerners. You prefer the myth to the reality. And some few dress in
Indian drag and sell you blankets from Taiwan.
I can't watch some movie obviously shot in Palmdale, California that's supposed to be
Kansas, and Dodge City has a big mountain behind it. Nor can I watch people riding in
wagon trains, when hardly anyone ever rode in one, and then only because they COULDN'T
walk. The movies forget that walking was always more important in the West than horses, no
matter when you want talk about.
My wife and I have a little game, called, "How long before Hart can tell you EXACTLY
where in the West that movie was shot." I know most of the rocks. The Phoenix/Tucson
flicks, the Santa Fe flicks, the endless San Fernando Valley/Twentieth Ranch/Palmdale
flicks of the early days, and the Oregon films of the 'fifties come readily to mind.
You see, the West has been half myth/half real from the very beginning, as have I. My life
has been based on Western assumptions of honor and initiative and Boy Scout rules, but in
my middle age man (at 44), I cannot separate fact from fiction. But I am not alone.
Neither can you.
But I will not accept Eastern cultural hegemony anymore, nor will I look to New York City
("New York CIDDY!?! As they say in the Pace commercials -- though San Antonio is
still pretty far East for my tastes) for publication, for culture, for literature or
guidance. National news is just New York news -- that old New Yorker poster was utterly
right. The world DOES end at the western limits of town.
But I will turn my face from the East and publish my own books, and write of western
issues for western magazines, and pray that someday you will let us control our own lands,
and not force us to live like serfs in some Disneyesque fantasy of "The Wild
West." I am not of "the North" or the "Old South." I am of the
West and I'm not sure I like you anymore.
Y'all come out here in your Winnebago Death Machines and sit on your big fat Buttes and
you know it all, and aren't we just "quaint"? Yeah, like all the other savages
in Borneo. Only your congressman decides what to do with 90% of our state, terrified of
self-righteous urban ecology sh(r)ills and Natural Resources Defense Counselors. We don't
hate you. Really. Promise we don't. We actually believe that you are citizens of the same
nation we belong to, and love. But you aren't. You're Easterners, and we're just the
facilitators for your Zane Grey fantasies.
So welcome to my Santa Fe of the Mind, where Laramie is just east of here, and Tombstone
is only a suburb of Abilene; where Denver is just south of San Francisco, and everywhere
in the West can be got to on the next Union Pacific train through town.
I turn my face to the West.
© 1999 Hart Williams