The Northwest strikes me as a better place than the Southwest to live in—fewer people, better hunting, plenty of invigorating Arctic air and the cold dry snow—but the Southwest, probably, offers greater advantages for the Western writer. The presence of the Spanish and Mexicans, the more developed Indian populations, and the clashes between these and the Yankee pioneers and soldiers in the region give its history a more dense and interesting texture than that of the north; the winning of the Southwest was contemporaneous with the rise of the popular culture industry, which was quick to exploit tales of gunfighters and Indian wars; while the populational shift to the Sunbelt in the last 30 years has given Americans a familiarity with the Southwestern culture and landscape that they do not have with the cold and remote Northwest, which for them means grizzly bears and bison, Yellowstone Park, and snow-blocked highways in June. I published three books set in Wyoming before the unpleasant truth dawned that it was probably easier to sell one with a Southwestern milieu, and I headed south with the new book almost finished to find inspiration on location for completing the last few chapters.
In good Western writing the landscape, besides serving as backdrop, is both the third-person narrator and the hidden central character as well. But just as novelists (unlike painters) rarely work with the living models for their representations in front of them or even within casual reach, the best place for a writer to write may not be “on location” but at a distance, forcing him to recreate the country he is writing about rather than simply describe it. Ed Abbey wrote some of his best evocations of the Southwest from his pad in Hoboken, New Jersey —and vice versa. Laura Ingalls Wilder—by all odds the greatest writer of the American West—wrote her eight books removed hundreds of miles from their geographical setting, and 50- to 60- odd years from the events they relate. In my own case, lack of time and money, not aesthetic planning, explains the completion of a 757-page, 146,553-word typescript about a horseback journey of over a thousand miles—from Moab, Utah, to northern Mexico —described entirely from memory, except for a stretch of approximately 100 miles between Holbrook, Arizona, and Quemado. New Mexico. Of course, even working from an informed imagination, I paid (not a high price, as it happened) for my presumption. The Little Colorado, draining the high plateau country south of the Petrified Forest, was less than a tenth the size I had imagined it—although I had everything else right, almost, the trickle of red viscous water in its tiny canyon being a perfect miniature of the river I had described. Back to the drawing board: Novelists know how to get around inconvenient impedimenta like this. I imagine astrophysicists, though not car repairmen, work the same way.
The wide shallow valley through which the Little Colorado flows past St. John’s, Arizona, on its way from its rising in the White Mountains to its rendezvous with the big Colorado where the greater river enters the Grand Canyon, was covered in early June with soft sea-colored grass and blue sagebrush lifting into dark green juniper breaks, resembling the African veldt. St. John’s, which is approximately one-third Mormon, one-third Catholic, and one-third Protestant (Baptist, Assembly of God), has three restaurants. I chose the Catholic one (it had a saloon adjacent to it and served booze) and was waited on by a girl of 20, who belonged to the Assembly. “I’d never leave, I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” she said. “There’s not much in St. John’s, but you’ve got what you need. You’ve got your Circle K, your IGA, your. . . . ” Since the littleness of the Little Colorado did present a literary problem, however minor, I asked her if the river was ever known to get up any. “Oh yes,” she said, “in the monsoon season. It just flows everywhere then.” I hadn’t known that Arizona north of the Mogollon Rim was subject to monsoons and asked her when they began. “June 24th,” she answered promptly. “They last through the end of August and then, right away, it’s fall around here.” I was impressed with the preciseness of her meteorological knowledge until Jane Coleman, over 200 miles south near Portal, informed me that June 24th as the date for the start of the monsoon season is folk wisdom in Arizona. Still, here was part of the way around the problem, anyway. Add a daily cloudburst to the story and Jeb Stuart Ryder and John-Wayne Bilagody could be floating around in the river, as previously described, without loss of accuracy or verisimilitude.
Jane Candia Coleman, recipient of a couple of Golden Spur Awards and the author of two novels, Doc Holliday’s Woman and I, Pearl Hart, as well as several short story collections and volumes of poetry, is married to Glenn G. Boyer, the world’s foremost authority on Wyatt Earp, whose family he has been acquainted with from boyhood. I had been in touch with Jane by phone since late winter, but she and Glenn run a dude ranch of sorts for visiting Earpomaniacs (Glenn’s term) and others, and we had been unable to get together on a mutually feasible date for a meeting. Now it was late September, the typescript of my own book, “The Last Westerner,” had been completed for a full month, and still I had not met Jane and Glenn, or visited the Peloncillo and Chiricahua Mountains to refresh my memory of another piece of country I had already finished writing about. From Las Cruces I made a call one evening to eastern Arizona where Jane was locking the house for the night, while Glenn turned the mastiffs out to prowl. No Earpomaniacs were expected for another couple of weeks, and for once the timing seemed right. We arranged that I should arrive around five in the evening, Arizona Standard Time, at the ranch, where a blue gate with a large sign on it (BEWARE OF DOGS: HONK FOR ADMITTANCE] would be standing open at the end of the drive. I had word of Glenn’s dogs from David Lawrence, a friend in Los Angeles, and it seemed a good plan to approach the Coleman-Boyer residence protected by a suit of the Ford Motor Company’s strongest four-wheel-drive armor.
I threw a tent and other camp gear in the truck bed and drove west from Las Cruces on Interstate 10 toward the Arizona border, with the temperature in the mid-90’s and a 25-mile-an-hour breeze blowing from the southwest. Between Las Cruces and Deming, a distance of 52 miles, there is little to see but the vast sotol and mesquite plain stretching away to the Florida Mountains and, north of the Floridas, the granitic hound’s-tooth called Cooke’s Peak, elevation 8,404 but appearing much taller above a landscape as flat and uniform as a Wal-Mart parking lot. West of Deming the view becomes more compelling as the mountains of the Gila show on the northern horizon, the Burro Mountains face off against the rugged topography of New Mexico’s bootheel, and, in the West, the Peloncillos and Chiricahuas take shape along the Arizona line, with Mt. Graham standing like a tilted blue coffin behind them. It is another 58 miles to Lordsburg, 14 on to Road Forks, and six to the state line and Stein’s Ghost Town, which I am hoping to add to the literary map of the United States. Here Jeb Ryder, John Wayne, and the Mexican revolutionary brigade make a run for it across the tracks and the night-time highway, alarming a party of Mexican picnickers who mistake them for ghost riders. A question; Which side of the highway do the railroad tracks run on? (I couldn’t remember.) And another: What is the country immediately south of the interstate like? (I remembered rolling desert hills, with a few poor ranches among them as well.) In the case of Stein’s, all was as I recalled the place from several years ago, except for the length of highway between the ghost town and the summit immediately west of it. Another tuck to be taken here. I made a few notes and sat up in the creosote hills for a while, listening to the thunder of hooves on gravel, the squeal of mules, and the shouts of the Mexican families as, calling upon the Blessed Virgin to protect them, they abandoned their cook fire and fled into the darkness. You don’t make any money and today getting published is a crap shoot. But writing novels does add another dimension to life, even if it’s only your own.
From Stein’s Ghost Town south to the Coleman-Boyer ranch immediately across the Arizona border from Rodeo, New Mexico, made the last 31 miles. Being observant people, novelists give good directions, and I found the place without difficulty; the blue gate, however, was chained and the hand-lettered sign bigger than life. Que hacer? I am unafraid of dogs, but then a mastiff is not a dog, he is a legend—almost a supernatural being. HONK FOR ADMITTANCE, the sign said. So I did. When nothing appeared but two blue ticks or heelers coming down the drive with their tails wagging to give me a friendly Western greeting, I got out of the truck, opened the gate, and drove through. I was walking back to close it when a big man wearing boots, jeans, and a hunting vest over a snapbutton shirt appeared around a corner of the house. “Hello Mr. Boyer,” I said. The inside pocket of the vest concealed a pistol, of course.
Jane and I introduced ourselves in the perfunctory, ironic wav of people who have been talking on the telephone for months, and the three of us went indoors for drinks. I had been in the house an hour before I saw it was a doublewide, with rooms and an expansive sunporch built on. “People have come out here in the middle of the night,” Glenn said. He reached beside his chair and drew up an enormous revolver, Smith & Wesson’s original .357 Magnum with an eight-and-three-quarter-inch barrel. “No one’s going to surprise me where I can’t get hold of a gun.” If Second OK Corral is so far a battle of the books only, that is because the anti-Boyer gang lacks the courage to send their bullets where they shoot their mouths toward. In The Suppressed Murder of Wyatt Earp, I Married Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp’s Tombstone Vendetta, and other works, Glenn Boyer has tried to keep a promise he made many years ago to Wyatt’s niece, Estelle Miller, to promote what is true in the Earp legend. For Glenn his vow entails, in part, portraying Earp neither as thug nor popular saint but rather as a decent and courageous man who possessed the ability to inspire men to follow him. In this effort, he appears to have succeeded. “That [this] view is now generally considered accurate by most Earpomaniacs can be attributed to one man —Glenn Boyer,” the Tucson Weekly concluded recently. “Even if they stole it, or plagiarized it, or failed to credit him for it, or even claimed he made part of it up, it’s the one tale everyone else is trying to tell.” “Everyone else” means, especially, Casey Tefertiller, author of Wyatt Earp—The Life Behind the Legend, who claims Boyer has been “discredited,” and Gary Roberts, a Georgia professor offended by Boyer’s want of “historical method,” his literary approach to writing history, and his refusal to share much of his research with people who treat him rudely. Of course, there are others. “I often get love letters like this to greet me in the A.M.,” Glenn said, handing over an email print-out. “It makes my whole day, as you can imagine.” The letter was an illiterate screed from one Tori Benz, apparently a librarian or researcher of some sort, calling Glenn a liar, a phony, and a hoaxer (which he self-admittedly is, in the manner of H.L. Mencken, Mark Twain, and others). “You’re a lucky man to have enemies who look like that,” I told him, putting aside the Tucson Gazette with its photo of Professor Gary Roberts, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, Tifton, Georgia. Glenn let the mastiffs in, and we were introduced. They were very polite animals and did not slobber much, but it was like having two bears trying to rest their heads in your lap while you tried to drink scotch and soda. They seemed like overkill in the case of Dr. Roberts, though.
In the morning there was no sound except the southwest wind coming around the lower end of the Chiricahuas and up the valley toward Rodeo, bending Glenn’s young cottonwoods over as it passed. We went for breakfast at a cafe in Portal, at the mouth of the big canyon opening out from the mountains ten miles south of where George Scarborough received his fatal wound 98 years ago. After breakfast Jane and Glenn went for their mail at the post office, and I drove ten or 15 miles into the mountains by way of the canyon, up to an elevation of 7,000 feet. These were the green but dry-looking, pine-brushy sky islands of the Southwest, almost vertical extrusions of pink granite covered with patches of green lichen. In a high park thinly grown with juniper I stopped and sat under a tree, looking out through the canyon mouth below to the tawny eastern desert and the purple bergs floating just above it on the heat waves. Beautiful country to witness, beautiful country to explore, and while I played no part in its creation, the fact of having written about it made me feel, almost, as if I had a small one.