Wednesday, 28 May 2014
‘The Old West is not a certain place in a certain time, it’s a state of mind. It’s
whatever you want it to be.’
Tom Mix, early western film actor
The American West was a notion, not a nation. It was a process, not a place. Or maybe it was, but it was no way to live. The exact boundaries of the Old West were where white men ran up against an alien continent, in space and time, on an ephemeral frontier. The collision annihilated native populations, and spawned completely new myths and metaphors. The borderlands were not an inferior stage of Western Civilization, awaiting the enlightening influence of the East, but a complex novel universe demanding clarity. It was the paradigm for a country that would eventually emerge from its conflicts.
The most formidable American western experience lasted less than fifty years, but its radical transmutation was more turbulent and consequential than many longer histories in other parts of the world. It was a pressure cooker cauldron of mineral, vegetable, animal, and human synergy. The minerality was elemental- radium, mercury, lead, copper, neon, iron, sulfur, uranium, carbon, oxygen, silver, arsenic, chromium, phosphorus, and gold. Bitterroot was sustenance and symbol. The native animal and human life of the West was displaced, replaced, and exterminated- sixty million bison to make way for European bog animals, billions of passenger pigeons for nothing, and ninety percent of aboriginal native Americans, out of an original population of possibly a hundred million, by accident and design. One of my patients was once asked by a student what his occupation was.
“I’m an Indian.” He said. “I’ve been an Indian my whole life.”
In 1750, the American colonies had a million people, and the West was the wilderness beyond the Allegheny Mountains. A hundred years later, there were twenty-three million citizens of the United States, and the West went all the way to the Pacific. The white frontiersmen who invaded the howling transformed and were themselves transformed by an unfamiliar, unforgiving horizon. Survival demanded a delicate adaptation. It cost some settlers their manners, and others their minds. Western savagery was measured by the degree of Eastern civility. The first frontier icon of the American West, struck the balance perfectly. Daniel Boone was a Revolutionary War veteran, early Kentucky settler, trailblazer, Indian killer, buffalo eater, bear wrestler, and a gentleman. I was happy in the midst of dangers and inconveniences.
Manifest Destiny was the arrogance of the age, at the price of a cowboy hat and change. Along with the homesteaders and hunters came pioneer women, gunfighters and lawmen, wagon trains and railroads, soldiers and explorers, miners and gamblers, newspaper editors and entertainers, preachers and lawyers, and the occasional dentist and doctor. They arrived through and to everything that heaven, earth, water and fire could punish their arrogance with- droughts and floods and blizzards and prairie fires and insect swarms and winds and financial crises, and epidemics. The wooden structures they built caught fire or rotted.
It was the hardship that created the myths, and the bigger the hardship, the bigger the myth. There were all kinds of ways for a man to die- slow from exposure or starvation, or fast, from a bobcat or a bear, or a brave or backwoodsman. The combination of aggression and alcohol and ammunition was brutal, often lethal. The cruelty of frontier life wove colourful slang and tall stories and comedic catharsis into a folktale tapestry, which grew into big legends, changing fast. The frontiersman lived a fevered phantasmagoria of fable, a coarse charming realm beyond conventional laws and logic, where the Eastern rules didn’t apply. The grasshoppers were so thick you could barbecue them like steaks. The Old West was a place of magic and wonders.
The light that filtered through the Paramount prism of the Saturday afternoon matinees in my old hometown theatre brought Canyonland arches and Joshua trees, the Big Empty, and the giant men that filled it- Indian scouts and confidence men and calvary captains and bank robbers. What happened on that silver screen of my youth lit fires inside me, of curiosity and incredulity, admiration and awe, and disgust and disapproval.
There is a Tocqueville conceit, possessed by all foreign visitors, that one can read America by travelling through it. Late in the summer of 2013, I set out to find the Old West, what it had been, and what had replaced it. Whatever it had been, the last gasp of it likely came out of Mary Hemingway’s lungs, when she discovered the vanishing point in her front hallway in Ketchum. The heart and soul of the town was its big annual festival parade of Lewis freight wagons. I wanted to see it, and type on Hemingway’s Royal Typewriter, in the den of his own private Idaho. Robyn and I spent two weeks driving the loop, around through what ever we could reach of what else we could find, in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, before heading back to Vancouver Island, through Washington.
The quest for my own wild panorama would turn wheels of fortune into a movable feast of Wagon Days. And if this don’t get your fire started, your wood’s wet.