Okay, I don’t get Westerns. There, I’ve said it!
Yes, I love classic cinema and ‘appreciate’ the role the biggies like The Searchers and Stagecoach have played in popular culture. But, despite many a Sunday afternoon with my dad in front of How the West Was Won, or Shane I couldn’t get past the be-wigged white actors with their gravy-browning ‘injun’ faces or figure out why monosyllabic men with dubious social skills were supposed to be interesting.
It was all a bit, well, archaic and macho.
For kids of my era forays into the Wild West were more likely to involve Emilio Estevez and Keifer Sutherland, namely ‘The Brat Pack,’ being stroppy to the strains of Jon Bon Jovi’s ‘Shot Doooown, in a Blaze of Glory’ in Young Guns. Or Kevin Costner’s earnest and over-scored (John Barry, please write in a couple of bars of quiet now and again) nostalgia-fest Dances With Wolves.
But I was always fascinated by the wild beauty of the landscapes on show and, as I got old enough to understand it, by the complicated cultural legacy of the colonisation of North America.
Go West! (Don’t look down.)
So, a few weeks ago I was finally to be found gazing into the geological abyss of the Grand Canyon for the first time. There’s something elementally terrifying about a billion years of history staring you in the face, even in the tourist trap bits where they charge $6 for an ice-cream and some of the ‘native American’ souvenirs are made in Japan.
(But it is nice to see a common sense approach to the management of this dizzyingly awesome hole in the ground. If it was in the UK there would have to be fences at the edge and a sign every 100 yards saying ‘danger of falling’)
The best time to admire this geological wonder is early in the morning (stupid o clock due to jet lag meant 5.30am). At this time of the day you’re alone in the ancient universe of rock strata and sky and the silence is, well, worrisome. The scale of the spectacle made my head empty of words (weird for a writer, at the best of times). All superlatives soon became meaningless in the face of the rocks and sun and millions of years of forgotten stories.
If those stones could talk they’d have some tales to tell (perhaps of a grumpy Welsh girl five hours into hiking the Bright Angel trail, two hours from the top, repeating the words ‘Dear God, are we there yet?’) Then again, they might just keep it to themselves.
Go West! (look up and ahead!)
Next stop was Monument Valley, the iconic setting for many a John Wayne western. We took a jeep tour and it should have been twee when our guide Larson whipped out his Navajo flute and played a tune under the astonishing sky-hole of the Big Hogan red rock formation that looks like an eagle’s head.
Larson wasn’t twee, though. He was a 20-something Navajo lad with a love of his heritage and a fondness for muscle-cars and Metallica (to his delight Transformers III had been filming in the valley the previous week.) Larson, like Monument Valley seemed to exist between the stories of the Old West and the new. A place where you can stare at petroglyphs of long-horned sheep a 1000 years old, but the jewellery stand owners at John Ford Point all take Visa and Master Card.
These places are rewriting themselves in the 21st century with tourists like me in mind – it’s the new cultural currency – ‘authentic experiences’ plus wi-fi and air-con. I’m not complaining though. I’m still recovering from the sight of sunrise over the mighty red dust mittens and buttes. The West may not be so wild, (and a little weird) but it’s still pretty bloody wonderful.
Go West like a Greenhorn? Try my tips for armchair tourists.
Saddle up for the Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. Cattle rustling, romance, stand-offs, bad dialogue – it’s a genre classic (but probably not if you’re a Mormon.)
Keep a hankie handy during Bury My heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown’s original epic history of the West from the Native American perspective. Fascinating horrifying and poignant.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt.
Follow the titular assassins as they bicker and brawl in this picaresque take on the Gold Rush. Eli, the younger brother, has a pinch of conscience and a penchant for fallen women. Older brother Charlie is a sociopath with a drink problem. They don’t get on. Laugh-out-loud and wince more than once.
Saint Agnes’ Stand by Thomas Eidson
There’s no quick-draw romanticism in this bleak tale of faith and redemption. Relentlessly grim, it doesn’t shy away from the atrocities committed on a hapless wagon-train while questioning their motives for being there in the first place.
If you skipped the gritty, addictive HBO series Deadwood because you don’t ‘do’ westerns you’re an eejit! Stern-browed Timothy Olyphant is Wyatt Earp but it’s Ian McShane who steals the show as foul-mouthed whorehouse owner Al Swearingen (yeah, for those in the UK who recall him as roguish antiques dealer Lovejoy it’s a **** ****ing, revelation!
OR If you like your cowboys more languid try Justified. Timothy Olyphant also puts his long-legged, ten gallon hat-wearing self to easy use as quick-draw Marshall Raylan Givens. It’s cowboys versus rednecks in Kentucky with moonshine, purty ladies and a touch of old-time white supremacism to worry about.