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The Wildness of the West

Can the paradoxes of the Old West lead us to find truth and inspiration in the Wild West of our souls?

By Jesse Wolf Hardin

 

". . . a walking contradiction—partly truth, and partly fiction."

—Kris Kristofferson

 

"Return with us to the thrilling days of the Wild West," some old radio program might begin, "to a time when women did the tasks long expected of men, and men the work of humble giants. A time when heroic deeds were the province of everyday folk, when justice was writ in the skyward coils of white gunsmoke." One by one it draws us all, beckoned by its siren's call.

People have romanticized the West—and hungered for all things Western—since before any but the "red man" even knew what this amazing region looked like. The more literate citizens of an entire continent were enthralled by stories of the American frontier from the moment the Spaniards' first sketchy reports of the "New World" were publicized in the major cities of Europe, and they eagerly ate up every bit of news related to the immigrants' rapid exploring and settling of those wondrous lands west of the Appalachians. Nostalgia for what was being lost set in well over a decade before a final end to the Indian wars and the settlement of their lands. This overlap made possible the anomaly of Sitting Bull touring with the Wild West Show between confrontations with the bluecoats' army, and Buffalo Bill taking time off from performing in order to help in an attack on the Cheyenne after the Indians' incendiary victory over Custer. History has colluded with legend to create a West that is so much more than merely
an idea or a place. It has grown into a myth for the ages, an alternative paradigm, a glowing vision that burns—like the fiery halos of ghost riders waving to us from the silken prairies of a broad Montana sky.

 

"There was a cowboy I knew in South Texas,

his face was burnt deep by the sun.

Part history, part sage, part Mexican,

he was there when Pancho Villa was young—

and he'll tell you a tale of the old days

when the country was wild all around.

Sit out under the stars of the Milky Way

and listen while the coyotes howl. . . ."

—from "The Last Coyote," by Bob McDill,
as sung by Don Edwards

 

It is said that when the first Europeans arrived on this continent they encountered a vast and "howling" wilderness: lands as yet unbent to the will of our civil kind, stretching westward as far as the eye could see. To the Native Americans, however, it was simply "home"—the place they'd inhabited, loved and helped sculpt for thousands of years. "Not until the hairy man from the East came. . . was it 'wild' for us," wrote Standing Bear in 1933. For the Indian, the civilizing of the land marked the beginning, not the end, of the danger and disorder we associate with the frontier period. "When the very animals of the forest began fleeing from his approach, then it was that for us the 'Wild West' began." Nevertheless, to the newcomers with the pale skin, it was wild indeed: mysterious, unpredictable and dangerous—the abode of unfamiliar creatures and unseen spirits. An out-of-control landscape inviting intercession and interdiction, just asking to be tamed.

Intending to make their settlements safer, our immigrant forefathers would effectively dominate or eradicate any competition for the land and its finite resources. Various contenders such as indigenous peoples and troublesome wildlife were said to have been "cleansed" in one region after another, contributing to the extinction of a number of different animal species and the dying out of many once-flourishing tribes. Sewall Newhouse said of the leg-hold trap he designed, that it formed "the prow from which ironclad civilization is pushing back barbaric solitude." The trap became the precursor to the plow, with farmers gradually replacing the freedom-loving trappers as the land was emptied of predators. But ironically the success of the plow, in turn, often resulted in its premature retirement—as the rough wooded land it cleared for crops could then be considered developable real estate.

What has been called "shining progress" includes not only effective medicine and hot water on demand but also increases in cases of cancer and heart disease, the draining of underground aquifers and the polluting of our rivers and lakes. Progress has meant urbanization, with an increase in such advantages as public services, entertainment, culture and the arts—but simultaneously, a reduction in open space, wildlife habitat and areas suitable for activities like backpacking and hunting. We are in theory safer from anarchy and terrorism thanks to modern government regulation, investigation and enforcement—but at a cost. In this "winning" of the West, one must bear in mind and heart not only what has been gained, but also what has been lost.

To continue with the Bob McDill song:

 

"Now the longhorns are gone. The drovers are gone,

The Comanches are gone. The outlaws are gone.

Geronimo's gone, and Sam Bass is gone.

The lion is gone, and the red wolf is gone."

 

A tragic loss, we should admit. But it can spur us to greater caring, action, change, reclamation and repair. To greater noticing, doing and celebrating. As Pete Hamill put it, in a Cigar Aficionado interview: "A tragic sense of life. . . doesn't force us into a closed somber cone of depression and futility, it urges the opposite. The tragic sense opens a human being to the exuberant joys of the present. To laughter, carnality, the comical varieties of love, to music and art, to the small glories of the day."

And with our recognition of what has been taken from us may come a renewed appreciation for that which remains: the national forests, forever kept off the real-estate market, owned by and open to every citizen and guest of this country. The grizzlies of Alaska and the surviving stocks of salmon in the Pacific Northwest. The rebounding populations of Western elk, heron, eagle and duck. A constitution that as of this writing still allows private individuals—not just the police and the military—to own and use firearms. Rugged and resolute mountains that afford us challenge and test. And the love of many of us for this distinctly Wild West.

Wild doesn't mean undisciplined—but rather, "willed." Wild is anyone and anything that's self-willed, living by its own natural instincts, responding to its genuine needs, slave to nobody and boss to none. Wild is true to its nature, free of outside manipulation and control, suppressing nothing, and being all it can be. Notice that Henry David Thoreau said that "in wildness" (not "wilderness") is "the preservation of the world." He wasn't talking about setting aside land for parks, but the actual quality of wildness that energizes all the natural world, causing a mouse caught in a trap to protest its fate, driving bull elk to bugle and then mate. It is this wildness that inspired American patriots to dump crate after crate of Boston-bound, English taxed tea into the sea. It's wildness that gifts certain men with "the right stuff," while provoking some women to finally say "enough is enough." Wildness that makes it hard for students to sit in their chairs, and causes some youngsters to respond to every taun
t and dare.

"Don't let them tame you!" the early American dance choreographer Isadora Duncan used to tell her young students. In actuality, every kid before a certain age could be considered a "wild child"—crying or striking back when they're hurt, laughing and playing whenever they're okay. To them the difference seems obvious enough and the choice clear: Tame is a stallion gelded and bridled, a land robbed of excitement and risk, earth girdled with fences and roads, a little girl forced to wear white at a picnic, a boy suffering from too-tight brogans and Sunday go-to-meetin' tie. On the other hand, wild is the fiery-eyed horse that breaks out of the best-laid corrals at the first peal of mountain thunder, and insistent seeds sprouting beneath pavement and pushing up through the cracks towards the sun. It's ungovernable weather, prickly pear fruit and undammed rivers. Tart canyon-grape wine and jokes that go just a wee-bit over the line. Wild is the beautiful flower that helps keep us from taking life for granted, p
art of a patch by the house that no one claims to have planted. Wild is the boy staring out the window, anxious to kick off his shoes and run to the nearest woods for a little squirrel hunting. And the girl who can't wait to get where her parents can't see, before skipping and crawling on grass-stained knees! Wild is the county that tells the federal government "no" and the kid who interrupts adult conversation, to repeat once again how she loves us so! It's untamed folk cherishing their wooly ways. An unbroken pinto frisking about beneath unspoiled skies. And that Old West spirit that will never, ever die.

 

"Well he cursed all the roads and the oil men

and he cursed the automobile,

saying, 'This is no place for an hombre like I am,

this new world of asphalt and steel.'

Then he'd look off someplace into the distance

at something only he could see.

He'd say, 'All that's left now of the old days

is those damned old coyotes and me."

—Bob McDill

 

The story of the West is in many ways a history of dramatic and telling confrontations—between train guards and train robbers, farmers and predators, settlers and free-rangers, Indians and cavalrymen, sheep herders and cattlemen. There continue to be battles between developers and locals, ranchers and conservationists, the relaxed if impoverished rural life and the almighty tourist dollar. Sometimes these contemporary conflicts flare up in incidents of violence, not unlike in those "thrilling days of yesteryear." But from the very beginning every battle has been inspired or exacerbated by the greatest contest of all: between the technologies of "progress" and the West as it once was.

We can easily picture images associated with this war, as if they were sun-yellowed posters tacked on the clapboard walls of our minds: An Arapaho brave, tearing up recently laid railroad tracks. Generals Crook and Miles outmaneuvering Apache hostiles by using a signaling device called a heliograph. The Sioux warrior with an appropriated Winchester, unleashing a barrage of .44 rimfire rounds at a trooper trying to pry a stuck cartridge case out of the chamber of his trapdoor Springfield. Outlaws cutting the telegraph wires leading out of town before initiating a raid. The machine guns of the 13th Cavalry cutting down Pancho's Indian raiders as they imprudently stop to try on pillaged shoes, and the planes that couldn't fly high enough to locate the escaping Villistas in their mountainous refuge.

Villas's attack was only the latest case of Indians being outgunned by their EuroAmerican opponents. The history of the Indian wars is the story of technologically primitive peoples struggling to catch up: braves with short-range bows or smoothbore trade muskets, shot from afar with high-powered rifles or blasted by horse-drawn howitzers; warriors struggling to purchase or steal arms they never did learn how to shoot accurately or take care of properly; dark-skinned natives with guns they can't find ammunition for; the old men and women at Wounded Knee, employing a tiny handful of hidden small arms against a ring of Hotchkiss cannons spitting out a blizzard of exploding shells. The one time that the Plains tribes exhibited both a numerical and technological edge was the battle of Little Big Horn, and the ferocious response resulted from umbrage over the "savages" being "better armed with our guns than our own boys were" as much as the thirst for revenge.

The technology race was no less a determining factor when it came to what are dubiously called "civil" affairs. Both lawmen and outlaws took advantage of the latest advances in science and industry, including improved firearms, ammunition and components, communication and transportation. Another innovation—popularly known as dynamite—not only opened up the Sioux's Black Hills to hard-rock gold miners, but also opened many a robber's pilfered safe (sometimes destroying the coveted contents as well!). In turn, posses used it on more than one occasion to blow up the log "forts" of highly uncooperative fugitives, when neither sweet talkin' nor small-arms fire seemed to do the trick. The telegraph wire made it possible for officers to leapfrog any escaping outlaws, by wiring ahead to the next jurisdiction with the fugitives' description and the news that they were likely heading "that-a-way." The bandit Henry Starr was almost caught when everyday people he passed on his way used their newfangled telephones to"ring-up" the state police. Starr also holds the dubious distinction of being the first bank robber to make his getaway in a motor car. Identification systems made a huge difference, with the Pinkerton Detective Agency compiling some of the first criminal photo records in this country. It was only a short step from reward posters without even a picture to fingerprinting—and now DNA sampling and digital mappings of the human eye. Needless to say, in this war of technology outcome has been increasingly determined not by the strength of courage or cause so much as by the realities of finance—since those with the best funding will inevitably have the finest and latest technological edge.

As Roy Rogers once said, "Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there." Even a backwoods, throwback Luddite like me has to make some accommodations for innovation. I confess I found it entirely impractical to take a horse and wagon from our wildlife refuge to town, and now ford the river crossings in a four-wheel drive. This essay was written on an Apple laptop, powered by panels that magically turn sun rays into volts of free electricity. I even have one modern firearm, a scope-sighted single-shot Ruger based loosely on the Farqueson falling-block rifles once carried by squint-eyed old Englishmen on African safari. And I will use it if I ever have trouble getting close enough to hit what I'm aiming at with nothing but one of my hundred-year-old guns and these two blue eyes.

But let there be no mistake. There is much in the archaic and old of value to us now—much in the way our ancestors lived and dared that can inform, deepen and enliven whatever future we and our descendants are bestowed.

 

"Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam

and the deer and the antelope play,

where seldom is heard a discouragin' word,

and the skies are not cloudy all day."

—"Home on the Range" (traditional)

 

There's an inherent contradiction in our differing cultural perspectives—our various ways of looking at North America's legend-inspiring Old West. On one hand, we revel in the tales of bawdy saloon brawls and deadly shootouts, the ferocity of soldiers and Indians in bloodied contest with one another. On the other hand, we imagine a frontier where, once things were "set straight," life couldn't have been pleasanter, the skies were always sunny and swans floated along inexplicably relieved of any worries like getting eaten. This is the version put forth by the early icons of Western television and cinema, and one still popular with twinkle-toed historical revisionists today. And who can fault the appeal of a place where no one ever falls off their horse, where barmaids provide comfort and counsel instead of sass and sex, and all stray dogs find a home? If there is any trouble, it's because of outsiders and miscreants and not the people we know and love. Justice and goodness inevitably prevail, and tho
se who love enough never fail. If there is an armed robber or a bully, the "good guy" will shoot the gun out of his hand without hardly bruising a single one of his fingers, and the townsfolk will bring him so many flowers and condolences in the jail that he'll be released early and behave forever after.

No doubt we need this vision of tranquility, redemption and hope. When writing magazine articles I sometimes leave out the darker parts of the story and whiteout the cussing, at some editor's behest. But "better a cruel truth to a comfortable delusion," as my late friend Edward Abbey wrote. I tell you, if there ever really was a place where "nary a discouragin' word" was said, that place was definitely not the frontier West.

Westerners had, after all, faced a number of challenges, hardships and tragedies that no doubt tested their patience and good cheer. A scary percentage of children died between delivery and five years of age. Many who survived had medical and dental problems for the rest of their lives as a result of a shortage of doctors and the limited knowledge of their day. Epidemics took out entire communities. Good fresh water was often hard to come by, even for communities occasionally ravaged by storms and scoured by floods. Few towns escaped the scourge of fire and many had to be rebuilt from scratch every 10 years or so. Crops often failed or were gobbled up by locusts, while foods imported from the East were always expensive and too often stale. Alkaline seeps and poisonous weeds led to the deaths of many of those sheep and cattle not barbecued by Indians, stolen and sold by rustlers, or shredded by the teeth of prairie wolves and mountain lions.

It was, as the saying goes, "rough out West." But the people who used that expression and still use it now say it with a grin. After all, if there are going to be difficulties in life, it is here where they want to suffer them. Just beyond the porch is another magnificent sunset, and you can pee in the yard anywhere you want with no one to watch or complain. Fresh meat hangs from a rafter, and the children can be heard squealing with delight as the first tray of buttermilk biscuits is slid out of the woodstove oven. Even the coyotes are howling—not with sadness, mind you, but with gladness and glee.

Indeed, the West was never as tranquil, pastoral or resolved as we sometimes like to think. Neither was it generally as violent as we've read. At the peak of "lawlessness," towns still suffered considerably fewer murders than modern ghettos of comparable size. One must realize that most guns discharged inside town limits were fired in the air, just for the fun of it. And the majority of shots actually fired in anger missed their intended targets. In fact—aside from deaths incurred during the war with Mexico or as a result of Indian resistance—poor gun handling was the number-one cause of firearms-related fatalities in the Old West. A study of old newspaper and hospital records indicates that "accidental discharges" provided frontier undertakers with far more business than assassinations and shootouts ever combined.

To Hollywood cowboy actor Tom Mix, the West was no more than a state of mind. "It's whatever you want it to be," he claimed—amorphous and ready to serve any master, sell any product, suit any purpose. But the real West had definite form, a particular landscape, a characteristic wildness, wonder and verve that made it different from other settings and other times. The romance and reality, lessons and tests, celebrations and tragedies are peculiar to a particular region and way of being. The events, like the characters, have personality. And theirs is a campfire story far more enthralling than the most entertaining fabrications ever to grace page or screen, more momentous than the best-told lies.

The West's promoters have not always been its truest proponents. The prevaricating Ned Buntline and dozens of other authors of Victorian feel-good drivel both enhanced the legend and gutted its truths. Buffalo Bill Cody, who did more than any other single person to both further and profit from the mythology of the West, nonetheless claimed his tour to Great Britain was "an expedition to prove. . . that the vast region of the United States was finally and effectively settled by the English-speaking race." The paradox is that this "settling" he touted unfortunately included not only the pacification of the Indians but also the diluting and denaturing of the very crucible from which he himself was cast. There could have been no Buffalo Bill grown out of the concrete of thoroughly civilized environs. "There's scarcely no passion without struggle," Camus tells us—and there could have been no Calamity Jane without a calamity or two. No heroes without villains to test their mettle, to keep them honest and give th
em purpose. Face it, there could have been no Ben Lilly without bears, no Wild Bill Hickock without a West to be wild in.

The people we find most interesting aren't the ones who toed the line—they're the ones who at one time or another stepped a good ways over it: the women who flouted convention, the lawmen who skirted the law in order to bring evildoers to ground, and the banditos who found such creative ways of breaking it. The word "order" in the expression "law and order" means keeping every element of society in its place, on an even keel, working together with little friction like the greased wheels and cogs of a great machine. And that's not necessarily what makes for strong character, or even a good story!

Let's indulge in alternative reality for a moment, just to make the point. Imagine instead of coming upon a rail crew massacred for having crossed into the natives' sacred lands, we find them whistling as they lay track with the help of reformed Indians eager for a decent job and a new Boston-made suit. Picture a frontier's town ordinances enforced by a British-styled peace officer with no need to carry a gun, and the subdued excitement of a Saturday night. A modestly garbed woman singing to well-combed cowboys about the importance of neatness, politeness and punctuality, while they quietly sip their alcohol-free sasparilla. No, I'm afraid that just wouldn't do!

The West we know and need is at once a place, a time and a state of mind—blessedly free of both certainty and imposition. It is unpredictable and sufficiently dangerous to test our intention and instinct, concern and courage, creativity and skill, purpose and passion. This West is and always will be a magical amalgam of wonder and discovery, peril and possibility, angst and awe. Of true hearts and wild lands. And it is ordinary men and women doing exceptional things in extraordinary times.

"Is that true?" the kids ask a storytelling cook in that old John Wayne movie Cowboys. The cook turns to look the young-uns in the eye and says, "Well if it isn't, it oughta be."

"Oughta be," indeed! And we shall make it so.

 

"One morning they searched his adobe.

He disappeared without even a word.

But that night as the moon crossed the mountain

one more coyote was heard. . . ."

—Bob McDill

 

The frontier has also been a place of opportunity, and not just for settlers, miners and the subdividers and land speculators who followed. It was in the West that women smashed the stereotype of the inept, weaker gender—by breaking all the rules. Frontier horsemanship necessitated bloomers or pantaloons instead of dresses. The women of New Mexico exposed a fair amount of calf under their skirts, smoked in public, and were free to divorce their men long before the ladies of the more staid East. And women won the right to vote in the mountain West long before anywhere else, beginning with the Wyoming Territory in 1869, and including five Western states before the close of the 19th century. Wyoming also had the first female justice of the peace and state superintendent, and Kansas the first lady mayor in America. Western women shocked the more traditional elements of society by working not only as laundresses and school teachers, but as market hunters, bronc busters and professional outlaws. And as mu leskinners driving freight wagons on fool roads through foul weather, like Calamity Jane and Black Mary.

Many of the negro slaves freed after the Civil War made their way west as troopers in the US Army, or as drovers helping to move the growing cattle herds. And it was in the most "lawless" regions of the West that blacks enjoyed the closest thing to true equality—where respect is parceled out according to the way a man treats his friends, takes care of his horse and handles a gun.

Admittedly, an inordinate amount of money has been made off the West, from the sale of its metal ores to the marketing of its allure. Fortune seekers swelled the towns, the profits from their ventures swelled the coffers of frontier banks, and outlaws got swollen heads from knocking them over. But through it all we cannot characterize the westward migration as a search for riches alone. It was also the search for a richer life that led wave after wave of immigrants into this wild countryside, the search for truth and liberty, the search for the freedom to live life as they wanted. That search is not over yet.

Mark Twain said, "Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated" when an ill-informed obituary prematurely listed him as dead. It is the same for the Wild West, surviving long after its first epitaph was published, and in some ways living still. Well into the 20th century, Westerners were still shooting it out with rustlers, robbing banks with single-action Colt's, and making their escape by horseback. There were a number of illegal hangings in Arizona long after the so-called "close of the frontier," with a lynching there by fed-up residents as late as 1924. Until a few years ago, it was still legal to tie up your horse at the hitchin' post in front of Uncle Bill's Bar in Reserve, the town nearest to me.

And just as it isn't violence that defines the Wild West, neither is the recent shortage of horseback shootouts any proof of its demise. I can speak for where I live, though the following applies to any number of the rural communities that currently exist in these Western states. National Forest roads lead off into the mountains not far from town, and over half of the community hunts. The children of some ranchers eat more elk than beef. An ol' timey grocery store called Jake's sells ammo as well as food. Our local sheriffs deputies are usually true "peace officers," riding the range, protecting their neighbors and herding the Friday drunks. There is a sense of the outlaw in the local government as well as those here who elect them, evidenced in Catron County passing an ordinance asserting local authority over federal agencies within the county, and considering a law that would have mandated that every sane citizen both own and be proficient with a firearm.

Like that old cowboy in the song, the mythic Western vision survives—inside the fast-beating heart of an undefeatable coyote, in formidable Rocky Mountain peaks and Arizona "dry washes" that periodically flood and rage. And the Wild West some thought was gone in us as well lives on.

 

"Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free."

—Henry David Thoreau

 

Not all historic Western characters have been the best role models, it's safe to say. We are called on to take the most impressive and noble and live it in our own times, and to exceed many of those who preceded us when it comes to consciousness and compassion, forgiveness and understanding. But in the end, we must measure those who came before us according to the context and customs of their time.

What we now call "slaughter" was once considered a successful day's bag by those rough-and-tumble market hunters who met the urban demand for wild game. Prior to the first generally recognized extinctions such as the extermination of the passenger pigeon, it must have appeared to folks as though the game would replenish itself forever. Lawmen were encouraged to bend the letter of the law in order to suppress trouble, secure convictions or send a particular low-life perpetrator to "a better place." The violence of a John Wesley Hardin was inspired, informed and fed by a culture of ignorance and racism, political inequality and personal retribution. The point isn't whether the wasteful slaughter of wildlife, the misuse of police powers or the robbing of banks is forgivable or not, but that we can understand it best by looking at all the cultural, contextual and circumstantial elements.

The characters of the Wild West deserve neither our sympathy nor our adulation, but rather our empathy—putting ourselves in their shoes for a spell, to understand what their lives were like, what they went through. Their trials and tribulations, minor accomplishments and major satisfactions. Their habits and traits, peculiarities and mannerisms. Their fears and hopes, needs and desires. The anger that fired their soul's furnace, the love that quenched and sated. The countryside and weather that drew a knife down them like a sculptor, and lifted them up straight as corn, tall as the ponderosa pines lining the nearby rocky ridge. The townsfolk who influenced their behavior, the newspaper stories that influenced their opinions and inflamed their prejudices, the dreams they lived and sometimes died for.

We can know their truth best by holding at once both the extremes of pain and bliss as they did, by our willingness to feel—and deal. We know it when we ache for the old ways and vanished wildlands, and hurt for a lover or spouse who left us the way the old-time Westerners hurt for the loss of a friend, a child, a mate. When we look tragedy and betrayal in the eye. We find the West's truth not only in how it was "won" or lost, but in "how the West was fun!" In the pleasures of a hayride, the joviality of a shindig, the magnificence of nature and the quiet of a starlit night. In the giddiness of horseback romance, and a barefoot child's delight.

The world belonged to the Indian and the pioneer because they fully engaged it, wrestled and made love to it. And this life becomes ours to the degree that we notice it as they did, suffer and celebrate it, never turn our back on the real world or the vagaries and possibilities of the human experience. We can reclaim what our forerunners held dear: the possibility of an unembellished truth. The chance for adventure and the lessons of a vintage hunt. A view of the mountains that magically derails all thought and chatter. The taste of canned peaches in the middle of a long, long winter.

If ever it was so, we no longer live in an age when personal courage is sufficient to vanquish every foe. This and coming generations face the further gutting of the US Constitution, an end to privacy and curtailment of individual rights, global corporate hegemony, the continued destruction of the natural world, creeping artificiality, the corralling and developing of the last open space. The bad guys may well wear white hats, if they wear any hats at all—sometimes dressed up as our providers and protectors, pretending to be our friends. And in many cases our most formidable adversaries dwell right here, in the contested fields of our inner selves: arrogance and insecurity, fear and anxiety, delusion and denial. It is they we must first defeat, as we learn through our life experiences and outdoor sport to honor a world of real blood, to pay tribute to and then emulate a most demonstrable heroism.

The West is proof something good survives all foolishness and mistakes, compromises and betrayals, the most horrendous theaters of battle and the various violent expressions of nature and man. We need not ignore the paradox, the twists, the complexities of history in the pursuit of clarity, resolution and role models. Nor need we deny the ugly and destructive things of this world in the search for something of the beautiful and creative, noble and gracious within every living thing—or to behold the glow in every empathic glance, shining in the smallest gestures of human kindness, emanating from every brave and selfless act.

 

"If the good Lord's willin' and the creeks don't rise, we'll see you 'fore long. And 'til then. . . ."

—Hank Williams, "The Health & Happiness Show"

 

The West continues to be a very real place, with spirits every bit as alive as they were in days gone by. The mountains still beckon to us like cathedrals or castles in the sky. The rivers still call our names in the hushed tones of rolling rock and shifting riverbed sand. And yet it is far more than a retelling in the texture of gravel washes and weathered adobe walls, far more than the ghosts of times gone by. The frontier still exists in our hearts and in our minds, wherever we live, wherever we call home. Adventure still awaits those who heed its enticements and are willing to take their chances. The sands of time that can seemingly so easily obscure the past are blown aside by the Western winds churned by the passion of our inquiry. "Come with me," the man on the old radio program announces. And "Come with me," the swaying pines just outside our doors seem to say. Come to the place where we're required to follow and to live our dreams, to brighten and excel.

Why is it that even back then some took refuge in mundanity and mediocrity, safety and assurance, while others cleaved to meaning, adventure and distinction—risking their situations, their jobs and their hearts again and again? What is it that caused and still causes some to mistrust their feelings and needs, while others are unable to ignore their instincts and callings, insistent on exploring the unmapped territory of their promising dreams? If we are to go beyond mere ideas to the flesh and reality of our dream—to the fullest living of what we believe—we must actively seize it again and again. "You have to strive every minute to get rid of the life that you have planned," Joseph Campbell once prompted, "in order to have the life that's waiting to be yours. Move, move, move!"

We must take time away from work to get outside and do the things we most enjoy, with the people we care most about. Get in touch with our wilder selves, playing with the kids or grandkids without any self-consciousness, and no matter who's listening, go ahead and howl when we're happy! Risk losing shallow relationships in order to go deeper with everyone we meet. Look into our selves and our loved ones for reasons to trust and hope, look even to the troubled souls of our enemies for signs of good. Recognize clear wrongs that we strive in our own ways to rectify. Or, as Davy Crockett once put it, "Be sure you're right, then go ahead!"

For as long as there has been a West, most Westerners have lived by a code. Sure, elements of that code varied from person to person, and there were some striking differences between that of Indians and cowboys, magistrate judges and border ruffians. But then they also tended to share a number of principles in common, such as: Never put your faith in written agreements. A man is only as good as his word. In battle, use whatever tools and means available. Put on your best feather headdress or Stetson if you're entering a fight in which you could die. "Don't blow on your partners" when others want you to bear witness against your friends. Never lead your pursuers back to your village or home. When escape is impossible, run straight at whatever and whoever is hounding you. When stuck in a box, do your best to break out. If you're going to be hanged anyway, the classy thing to do is to compliment them on their rope. Make prayers to God (or "the Great Spirit") when facing every new challenge, for the strength to do the right thing. Make offerings for every lesson and test, as well as every reward and every blessed day. Savor the yip of the coyotes, when you finally lay down beneath the stars to rest.

Some of the above are what you could call the great Western cliches—but they were real values acted out in real events, values that are just as applicable to our existence today. Our lives, too, are opportunities to exceed our perceived limitations, to do acts of service, to not only resist evil but also to promote the good. To act out of integrity, make hard choices, take chances and distinguish ourselves. We too have it in us to be as impassioned as the Indians when we're defending the sanctity of our homes. As determined as a frontier hunter whose children need to eat. As resourceful as a pioneer woman, making do with whatever she has on hand. As loyal to each other as Butch and Sundance. As unerring as Hickock, and as enthused as Teddy Roosevelt. As quick to break convention as Annie Oakley, or as dogged as ol' Ben Lilly. As fun-loving as country boys and girls with favored slingshots. When push comes to shove, we're capable of the courage shown by the citizens of Northfield, Minn., protecting their town and their futures from the depredations of the James-Younger gang. When there is work to be done, we can be as persistent as a dry land farmer. And why not indulge in just a touch of class, like that exhibited by Black Bart, Bat Masterson or Gentleman Jim? The wit of a Doc Holliday or Billy the Kid? Facing overwhelming odds like Elfego Baca or Nate Champion?

One doesn't have to be in a life-and-death situation to start acting as if things really matter—because they do! "Many persons have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness," a deaf and blind Helen Keller wrote. "It is not attained through self-gratification [alone] but through fidelity to a worthy cause." True contentment comes through familiarity with our authentic selves, intimate relationship with one's people and place, the satisfaction of honest hungers, and the fulfillment of our most meaningful purpose. Nor do we have to be attacked physically before there's a need for us to stand up for ourselves like the hero of a Western: facing down an abusive supervisor, even when it may be the only available work in town. Risking a loss of income in order to demand more free time. Being totally honest in relationships and paying the price. Knowing when to be fierce, and when to be nice. Giving every task all we've got our "best shot."

Dale Evans said it well, you know, when she penned the theme song for the Roy Rogers Show: "Some trails are happy ones, others are blue. It's the way you ride that trail that counts."

Here's wishing the best of the West in you.

 

Jesse Wolf Hardin is a prolific essayist and amateur historian, hosting retreats at his river canyon sanctuary near Reserve. The above piece is altered and excerpted from his new hardback book Old Guns & Whispering Ghosts: Tales & Twists of the Old West (Shoot! Pub.), featuring numerous southwestern New Mexico stories and more than 300 color photographs. For a copy signed by the author send $39.95 plus $4 shipping and handling to: J.W. Hardin, Box 688, Reserve, NM 87830, or see www.oldgunsbook.com.

 

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