MY PERSONAL WEST
MATHEW P. MAYOSix-Gun Justice asked a posse of contemporary western scribes why it is they write about The West. What qualities of history, culture, or geography inspire them to spin yarns set west of the 100th meridian?
Spur Award-Winner Matthew P. Mayo answered:
Below is a modified, abbreviated version of the Introduction to my 2009 non-fiction book, Cowboys, Mountain Men & Grizzly Bears. It sums up much of my take on the American West. And yet that, too, changes every day as I think, read, and write about the West, which continues to be a constant source of enlightenment and inspiration to me.
I grew up on a dairy farm in northern New England. And, just as with people I’ve come to know who grew up on Western ranches, I wouldn’t trade such an idyllic upbringing for anything. Well, maybe summers on a Montana ranch. And for that, I blame Mom and Dad. They were raised during the heyday of TV Westerns and I grew up hearing from them all about Annie Oakley, Matt Dillon (for whom I’m named), the Cartwright Clan, Rowdy Yates, Paladin, and so many more. It’s almost as if these characters were distant cousins who’d gone West and done well for themselves.
Whenever reruns came on our little black-and-white set, I was glued to Little Joe’s every move. I just knew that nothing could be finer than life in a log cabin, a pinto horse saddled and waiting outside—just in case—and a saloon a quick gallop down the road. (Riding heifers in a bony Vermont pasture isn’t quite the same.) I also read stacks of Louis L’Amour’s frontier tales, saw the Duke on the big screen, and vowed I would one day live out West.
With the encouragement of my wife, Jennifer, it eventually happened. I’ve had the great good fortune to be able to not only live in the West but to study it, delving into its rich history with both arms, and to write about it in fiction and non-fiction forms. And the more people and places and events I learn about, the more fascinated I become.
The great era of westward expansion in nineteenth-century America humbles me like no other, especially when I read about the hard work, hardships, and heartaches that so many people endured to travel West, often with little more than hearsay and blind faith to guide them, their talismans a family bible and the memory of a loved one back East they knew they would never again see. And still they headed West. In droves, singly and by the thousands on wagon trails through rough, unforgiving country.
As I’ve researched various projects, I’ve turned up unexpected gems, tales of bold pioneers, of natives steadfast in their devotion to traditions thousands of years old, and of settlers who built and rebuilt towns and cities in blind devotion to their ideals. For every Custer, Crazy Horse, Hugh Glass, Wyatt Earp, and Sacajawea, there are countless others for whom circumstance and time have conspired to bury before their tale has been told. Their stories are no less impressive, and sometimes are even more so, given that they carried on in silence, in hopes of finding that perfect valley for raising crops, that overlooked stream bursting with beaver, that claim veined with gold.
Everyday life in the Old West bore little resemblance to the Hollywood back lot sets of the TV shows of my youth.
Indeed, life in the nineteenth-century West was truly gritty—by definition, that which is tough, filled with courage, and uncompromising. But the nineteenth century American West was also a place of wonder and change—opening like a promising flower for white European explorers and conversely becoming a barren, forlorn place for native people. Another segment of the population fell squarely in the middle—the explorers who saw the promise of the land before them and then lost everything in their quest for it.
Theirs is a powerful lesson, for who among us hasn’t fallen flat on his or her face a time or two? The trick, as these admirable people have taught me, is to push ourselves up out of the gravel, wipe our bloodied noses, and head for the horizon.
It is this bold spirit, desire for freedom, and yearning for new, unfettered experience that is the heart of my personal West.
Matthew P. Mayo is the award-winning author of thirty-plus books and dozens more short stories. His novel, Stranded: A Story of Frontier Survival, won the prestigious Western Heritage Wrangler Award for Outstanding Western Novel, the Spur Award for Best Western Juvenile Fiction, the Peacemaker Award for Best Young Adult Western, and the Willa Award for Best Historical Fiction. Learn more about Matthew at his website: