Archive for February, 2009

February 24, 2009

An Alien Land; or, Happy Birthday, Arizona!

by cowboylands

Arizona was birthed by treaty and the Territory of New Mexico on February 23, 1863 (how did they have time to work this out in the middle of a disastrous Civil War?). Pretty, shiny things brought prospectors and settlers, drove out Native American tribes (again), and opened the state to a future of retirement communities, faux frontier towns, and a really amazing historical museum

If I could redraw the map of this state, mine would only show

the gash of the Grand Canyon

my uncle’s and cousins’ homes in Phoenix

Monument Valley

a couple of hot hot springs the location of which I won’t be disclosing

saguaro groves just about bustling with desert wildlife–including the lone desert tortoise I happened to see only because I leaned over just so–

green organpipe cactus groves gold in the settling sun

Tombstone’s white gravestones and the earnest re-enactors who must think they have died and gone to heaven to be able to shoot the Clanton boys every hour on the half seven days per week


Monument Valley

that big crater

the steep cliffs of Canyon de Chelly, so red against the green brush of the valley

the wide spaces passing from horizon to horizon

and Monument Valley. 






February 22, 2009

There Will Be Blood, Biscuits, and Big Hats

by cowboylands

A recent trip to Tennessee revealed many truths. 

Carter House (1000 Bullets)

Truth 1: There was a lot of blood spilled in Tennessee in the Civil War, and it spilled copiously on soil that now holds playgrounds and parking lots, historical markers and suburban lawns. Stories of battles (in this case, the famous Battle of Nashville) seem to be at the tip of everyone’s tongues. I can barely recall movie plots without resorting to Wikipedia, but in Tennessee, everyone seems to be able to recount vivid images from long-ago military encounters–so vivid that in the middle of a tour of a plantation house-turned-field hospital I kept peering out the windows, expecting to see the two-mile-deep Confederate line with its flags and bands and generals who were fated to be shot dead and brought to to the shaded porch of the house after the battle. Blood dripped from the wounded soldiers, gushed from under the doctors’ saws, and seeped from the piles of amputated limbs. The owner of the house had sanded the parlor floor, but the upstairs rooms still showed the dark stains. 

Carnton Plantation (Front)

Truth 2: On a lighter note, biscuits–light and fluffy and sweet–are the food of choice there, especially at the Loveless Cafe. Renowned for its fried chicken and catfish (planks of white meat so long you could build a boat out of them), this restaurant on the side of a busy highway keeps the biscuits coming. Why the Southern shout-out on a western blog? Children, please. If you know your history, those settlers living on the frontiers before the Civil War were living in Tennessee, making biscuits and trying to get along with the Chickasaw and the Cherokee. After the War Between the States (as the altercation is called elsewhere than the Northern territories), ruined farms and land goaded families to drift to find a better place. 

Truth 3: And Nashville is the land of the cowboy hats. Not the dusty, sweaty kind that you would find in Wyoming, but the sparkly, designer-stained, leopard-print-patterned kind you will only find in the home of country music. The sparkly, designer-stained, leopard-print-patterned kind of country music. I happened to be sitting behind a woman with a big cowboy hat on a tour bus. The kind of tour that passes around Cheez Whiz and crackers for snacks. The kind of snack that makes a Moon Pie look haute cuisine. Right, the woman on the bus. She stood out in a land of soft-spoken and friendly people. She was brash and smelled of hair spray. She came from New Jersey, so I felt better, knowing that this pleasant state hadn’t birthed her. 

Sheri Lynn and Brenda Kay of Nash-Trash Tours. 

Nashville is a town where George Jones rode his lawnmower to get a drink (his wife had hidden the keys to his car). It’s a place where country stars get little homes so they’ll seem like the rest of us–the part of the rest of us who won’t have to declare bankruptcy. It’s a place where the honky-tonks display the shiny parts of being a cowboy in neon lights and jukeboxes. It’s a place with whiz-bang grits and sage waitresses who recommend the sweet potato pancakes. 

Well worth the visit!


February 16, 2009

Limited; or, The Wild West Made Mild

by cowboylands

The usual happened on my way to the old Fort Hall and the Bannock County Historical Museum. “Usual” being that I had a certain goal in mind–look at strange-ass western stuff–and instead realized how much stranger the world is than we know. All this whilst looking at a replica fort and tipi, and faux Western town. Awesome. 

The BCH Museum itself is airplane-hangar big. I can’t say it was my favorite historical museum–too organized. But it had the requisite cowboy cuffs and scribble-scrabble papers, among a stagecoach, a buggy with artfully arranged hat, a section on the military men and women of the town, and a dentist’s office. The docents were talkative, my stomach was full, and the day was bright.*

Then I stepped into Fort Hall next door to the museum and on the other side of a corral of buffalo and antelope (grazing amiably). Its dark, cramped quarters and cluttered trading post, as well as the dusty and insect-chewed hides of animals hung carefully in authentic ways as bedspreads and rugs, made me realize how nice it was to be able to walk outside the confines of the fort without fear of marauders or rightly pissed-off Shoshone-Bannock warriors. 

Beside the fort was a carefully tended gravel drive. Empty buildings, faux Western-town style, ranged along the gravel. One place wasn’t empty. It held a floor of dead flies. WTF? A mystery.  

They might have been for a festival, or a reenactment. They could have held informational displays. Who knows? The forlorn vibe was palpable, until I figured out I was imbuing the feeling to the structures. A wind picked up, and I tried not to tune it to a spaghetti western chord. It’s just a group of buildings, I told myself. Little, empty buildings. But I couldn’t shake a sadness. Of all things, at the uselessness of these buildings. 

Not much in Pocatello is useless. A college town, Pocatello takes pride in its development from pioneer settlement to county seat. The displays show domestic arrangements. Nice suits and shoes. Tools. Transportation. The few Native displays show the arts or (in a sly commentary on comparative religion) a short description of the Sun Dance. 

The world of the museum and the fort, and how it fits into the town, are better than fiction. Better than my fiction…

Pocatello, et tu? Another small town that once again shows me the limitations of my movie-fueled imagination. 


*If you ever suddenly find yourself driving through a dust storm in the middle of Idaho, and have to pull into a town named Pocatello, I recommend Buddy’s on East Lewis Street. Fuhgeddabout about the Armageddon-ish orange light and the plastic bags and aluminum cans scudding along with the wind–get a basket of garlic bread, a heap of pasta, a glass of wine, and enjoy. 


February 9, 2009

Beauty, Eye, Beholder

by cowboylands

“…the beauty of things that can’t be known for sure.”

Mining Equipment (Throat Obstruction Demo), Mining Museum, Silverton Colorado © 2008 es

These words absolutely do not address the queasiness I feel when I wonder about the motivations of a certain plumber-cum-Republican mascot. Instead they describe the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a larger-than-life cabinet of wonders beside an L.A. freeway. I haven’t had the pleasure of dipping into its collection of radiographs, objets d’Napoleon, micromosaics, and absolutely dense notes that can only be deciphered if you are letting go of all preconceived notions and simultaneously holding on to them for dear life. But I am reminded of the MJT when I dip into objets d’West at small museums on main streets throughout the western states. 

Gambling Table, Idaho Museum © 2008 es

I find items of touching delicacy, such as a tiny pair of white gloves, sitting close to grotesques like a grinning mannequin festooned with the spaghettied wires of a hair waver.

Mannequin, Oakley Historical Museum, Oakley, Idaho © 2008 es

On one shelf, a framed shadow box could hold dark butterflies and flowers. When I peer at the strangely fuzzy wings and petals, I see that the loops and curlicues are made from human hair, which had been—a small, typed card reads—tatted, crocheted, and prepared by the family of a man named George Page Whittle. The hair art of the nineteenth century has its odd, strange (and creepy) beauty. 


Hair Picture, Oakley Historical Museum, Oakley, Idaho © 2008 es

Hair is at once the most delicate and lasting of our materials, and survives us, like love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death, that with a lock of hair belonging to a child or friend, we may almost look up to heaven and compare notes with the angelic nature-may almost say, “I have a piece of thee here, not unworthy of thy being now.” 

The Godey’s Lady’s Book of May 1855

February 4, 2009

Dances with Fools; or, the Worst of Election '08

by cowboylands

It’s county historical museums like the ones in Oakley, Idaho; Florence, Arizona; Pecos, Texas; and Silverton, Colorado, that should be a part of the stimulus package!

Mining Museum, Silverton, CO ©2008 es

They are fusty and musty and cluttered and jumbled, but filled to the brim with the kind of  real life that Joe the Plumber has seemed to forgotten. (Damn, I wasn’t going to swing back into politics in this post but the crud that clogs up the Internet…!)

Will we someday be calling him President Plumber? See if you can read between the lines in this interview in the New York Daily News:

And no reason to be subtle, [Wurzelbacher] said, as long as folks inform themselves. “I don’t believe there’s two sides to every story. It’s black and white,” Wurzelbacher explained. “There’s right and wrong.”

Goddamn it, I can hear the John Barry score in the background (Dances with Wolves, folks*). Let’s all give a big cowboy sigh of dismay. The more you inform yourself, the more you realize, appreciate, and understand the complexity of the world, and your place in it. That doesn’t mean you can’t kick ass, but let’s be informed about our ass-kicking. For example, I would not normally use my Lucchese boots to kick his ass, but I would, if it drew attention to one of my favorite places, El Paso, a town that no one likes (which is where I purchased said awesome boots with the mean, pointed toe). And can we get out of the whole black and white issue? Let’s be enlightened. Ever since 2008, we are in color, buckaroos and buckarettes, in living color! 

Historical Museum, Oakley, ID © 2008 es


As for his own political career, America will just have to wait six years until his son grows up.

“I don’t know if the American public deserve me,” he said, “but my son definitely deserves my time now.”

Joe, if I may call you Joe (you can call me never), it is the prurient interests of the American public that has gotten your Nike’d foot in the door. On second thought, he’s right. There are no two sides to this issue: Mr. Wurzelbacher, please to back to sitting in front of the tube. 

Historical Museum, Pocatello, ID © 2008 es


*What a schmaltzy theme. I hope people understand the disdain. OK, it does get the job done–“a man looking for America finds himself”–but does he have to give economic advice to Republicans along the way? 


February 1, 2009

Bad Day at Black Rock, Chicago Style

by cowboylands

In politics there is plenty cowboy derring do-do. On days–sometimes weeks–of arid blog-writing time (good for wrangling the novel and etcetera), I take heart when good friends send me snippets of the kind of stuff you can’t write, unless you’re Howard Breslin and and Don MacGuire, putting together a taut script for the psychological western Bad Day at Black Rock, a killer study in racism, served straight up, neat, in classic 1950s style. 

(Back to the subject. But it is a good movie.)

It pleases my sense of fairness that Democratic governors can be as clueless about ethics as Republican ones, and so I decided to do a better-late-than-never Blogojevich post, especially because he walked right into what I’ll have to call “The Cowboy Trap.”

What seems like years ago, on January 23, 2009, Associated Press reported that the pre-impeached Governor Blagojevich compared himself to “an honest, hardworking cowboy and said he was about to be lynched by a band of black-hatted political insiders eager to raise taxes.”

Lordy, how wrong he is came clear when the article went on to describe:

Blagojevich, a fan of Western movies, drew a long analogy Friday between his situation and that of a cowboy falsely accused of stealing a horse. His story ended with one cowboy suggesting the accused thief be hanged, with the other suggesting he first be tried, then hanged.

The cowboy who calls himself (or herself) hardworking and honest probably has a better sense of how to run a ranch than a state, but the idea that Blogojevich equates himself with a hired hand is less likely than his drawing a parallel between his actions and those of a lone sheriff against a passel of vigilantes.  

The Alpha and Omega of politicians using these kinds of situational comparisons is that they are talking about MOVIES. As in SCRIPT. CINEMATOGRAPHY. DIRECTORS. ACTORS. By John Sturges’s thumb (director of Bad Day at Black Rock), these politicians are talking about fake dirt, fake sweat, and fake blood. Oh, right, as in the writing adage, you “write what you know,” after all. 

I suppose I shouldn’t be too hard on him–he did get impeached (and interviewed on major networks)–but every time a politician gets drilled between the eyes or caught fussing with income taxes, I can’t help but feel like the actor on the left in the following photo, from Dodge City, a late-1950s tourist trap in Long Island.


“Keep your hands up where I can see ’em, bucko, or I’ll drill ya full of lead!”

Aaah, that felt better. So much better that I’ll leave you with a Bad Day at Black Rock trailer Bad Day at Black Rock tour, posted by a knowledgeable fan on Youtube. He shows some stunning vistas and brings up some good stuff–notably, that a lot of what people tell you could be hocus pocus.