Seeking the Old West

Gunslingers. Buffalo. Cowboys. Horses. Native Americans in war paint. Women clad in petticoats and not much else. Clergymen and priests clutching bibles, swinging crucifixes. Wide open spaces, land for the taking.

The images keep coming. An icon of the American story, the myth of the West provided Hollywood with fodder for decades. And before that, publishers of newspapers and magazines on the East Coast grew wealthy printing stories that drew people to ditch everything and hit the road west.

Manifest Destiny. And the frontier.

American historian Frederick Jackson Turner considered the frontier to be that “belt of territory sparsely occupied by Indian traders, hunters, miners, ranchmen, backwoodsmen and adventurers of all sorts,” forming “the temporary boundary of an expanding society at the edge of substantially free lands.” His paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” delivered at the 1893 meetings of the American Historical Association in Chicago, laid out much of his thinking. And his “frontier thesis” became a framework for many future historians.

And novelists.

And filmmakers.

And circus performers.

And New Agers.

It’s hard to find signs of the Old West these days, places that have stood the tests of fire and gun battles.

On a recent trip to Arizona, we stopped in Williams, AZ, on the famous Route 66!

And a morning spent trudging around Montezuma Wells rewarded us with a view of a dwelling embedded into rocks, overlooking a bubbling green water source, where daily thousands of gallons of water surge from an underground source.

And the various, numerous, omniscient washes, empty and dry, except during monsoon season, suggest the Old West by their very nature.

Unpaved, dusty roads remind me of my grandmother’s tales, told to me as we sat close together in front of the highboy dresser in her house. Her childhood in early 1900s Globe, Arizona meant dirt roads, powdery reddish dust flying into the air, especially when sudden dust devils swirled through the landscape.

Sharing the terrain with wildlife brought home the realization that – under normal circumstances – wildlife stays hidden, ensconced under leaves and bushes and tree trunks, invisible to the naked eye. Mostly. But in the west, the open landscape reveals hidden lives.

This guy lives at the Sonoran Desert Museum outside of Tucson, making it easy to capture his likeness forever. Yet, many nights, walking near the washes, we stumbled across coyotes, bobcats, and signs of snakes scurrying across the wash behind our temporary quarters.