I’ve gone for a few runs at the Arizona dude ranch, where we’re staying. But frankly I’d rather hike in Saguaro National Park right next door. Because, after all, when will I ever get a chance to hike here again?
The desert climate makes it tough to run in any case, especially if you’re not acclimatized. I can’t carry enough water to go very far, and there’s no refuge from the sun, wind and my own bad judgment.
Here’s what I’ve learned. If you visit these here parts and plan to run, do not run within three hours of a roast beef Sunday brunch. A more prudent length of time to wait is three days.
The beef, mashed potatoes and palate-scouring horseradish were excellent. And they remained excellent for hours. Because I limped for eleven kilometres that afternoon, and I could taste them every damn inch of the way.
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We were driving to a restaurant in Tucson, one night, when the subject of cowboys came up. I wondered aloud about Europeans’ odd fascination with the frontier mythology: Italian spaghetti westerns come to mind, where Clint Eastwood made his career. But also Germans’ near-obsession with cowboys and especially Indians. (Theme parks devoted to Indians are still in business. Once a year, devotees wear feathers, sleep in teepees.) There’s a writer of cowboy adventure books from the 1920s, I said to my audience in the van — “Surname of May, I think” — that had a huge influence. Many of the themes he wrote about dovetailed with Germans’ growing appetite for “authentic folk” and nature, for the cult of the body, violence and race, which eventually led to the rise of fascism (hello “Yellowstone”). But after so many years I couldn’t quite dredge up the German writer’s full name.
Also, I could hear my pompous self, lecturing and blundering in near-total ignorance, into touchy territory. So I did everyone a big favour and shut up.
Magic Tom in the Adirondacks
In Park Extension, where I mostly grew up, we played cowboys and Indians all the time. For afternoon TV, we had muscular John Ford westerns, or Roy Rogers cheesecake. In summer, a local TV entertainer for kids, Magic Tom, took his show on location to a dude ranch in Upstate New York. Frontier Town featured bloodthirsty Indians, daily shootouts at four o’clock sharp, and fistfights that spilled out of the local saloon. I dreamed of going, but for a kid from Park Ex, this was next-to impossible.
Our book club recently read Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, which is a masterpiece among cowboy books. (Or so I’ve heard, since I’ve long since moved on from all that.) You need to suspend plenty of disbelief to read Lonesome Dove, and also judgment. You need to look past the book’s casual assumptions about Blacks, Mexicans, Indians and women (in alphabetical order). Not to mention its views on colonialism and justice, on society and civilization, on nature and wildlife. Lonesome Dove is set in the 1870s, but it more clearly reflects the views of the 1980s, when McMurtry wrote it.
And yet, if the views in this book seem retrograde fifty years after it was written, how much more alien seem the views held by ordinary folk (by that I mean white males) 150 years ago.
So how to enjoy a book that would likely be offensive and even unreadable for most African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, feminists and Indigenous People? You enjoy it by being a white male of a certain age. By having played Cowboys and Indians in more innocent (i.e. ignorant) times.
It’s hard not to like Lonesome Dove. It’s so damn charming, so cunningly written and packed with mythical figures and action. I read McMurtry’s essays for years (he died in 2021), and loved his dependably funny and informal Texas drawl on the page. But beneath it all he was a highly educated, deeply intellectual dude. He knew what he was doing but, like all of us, he was a prisoner of his time and generation.
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After we returned from dinner, I googled German writer of pulp westerns. His first name was Karl, and I was wrong about when he wrote. Karl May was born in 1842, so he was a cultural force long before the 1920s. He began his career as a con artist and wound up serving time in prison. Then, without ever having set foot in America, he began writing westerns. And he was so good at spinning yarns that his books have since sold 200 million copies. He’s the best-selling German writer of all time.
Generations of German kids, especially boys, devoured his books. Young Adolf was a huge fan. Later, when Adolf became more famous, he recommended the books to his generals. You can see how frontier stories would set Adolf’s boyhood imagination on fire, and how this could lead to further musings about a world unfettered by laws and civilization, where scores were settled with guns, and the stakes and struggles were simple and stark.
But, in fairness to May, you can find whatever you want in any book. Karl May was sympathetic to the Indians, admired Jews, and was a committed pacifist.
How does one enjoy books like Lonesome Dove or Huckleberry Finn? What about a kids’ book about a gay couple taking their toddler to her first opera, or a Dolly Parton lookalike contest? How do you keep these books from being locked in a basement — or worse, burned?
These here subjects are complicated. Too complicated for a city feller out for a ride on his blog — a feller whose eye even now is wandering to the word count at the corner of his screen. Time to move on out.
12 thoughts on “The Western World”
I love reading you. x M.
Thank you! Hi to Jean.
It’s gorgeous out there! I think I may have even stayed with Molly at the same ranch when visiting my oldest friend who lives in Tucson.
Sending love to you and Shari and the boys,
Hi, Debbie! It’s Tanque Verde Ranch, which is pretty prominent in the dude ranch “industry.” All the best to you and the growing family.
Thanks again for this… I travel through you guys 😁… Please tell me you got yourself a pair of boots just like the ones featured in your blog.
And are you bringing back an array of delicious meats for valentine’s day… Always préfères meat to chocolate, you?
Have a good evening luvboyds
Yes, I have the boots and I’ll be using them for running. We’ll meat when I get back.
Enjoy reading your story Spyro and yes, we are set in our time and age. Hitlers fascination with Karl May is new to me, almost wish I do not know now!
Did Karl May also have an impact in Holland? I don’t know. The Hitler thing is interesting, and I find it very funny that he would recommend these books to his generals. But as I said, you can find whatever you want in books, especially books that made a powerful impact on you (usually when you’re very young). Thanks for reading!
Not in that way. Every child / boy did read Winnetou and Old Shatterhand however! Still have them in the bookcase
Fascinating to hear about this. Of course now I will have to find English translations of one of those books. Thanks.
Thanks for this Spyro. Plenty to chew on.
There is a short film by Kent Monkman (an art film I guess you’d call it), at the National Gallery in Ottawa, based on the German fascination with cowboys and “Indians” called Dance to Miss Chief. https://www.kentmonkman.com/film
In Ken Burns’ most recent series, The U.S. and the Holocaust, he delves into the connection between Adolph and U.S. treatment of indigenous peoples and the fascination with westerns and the influence this had on the treatment of Jews. Maybe I’m not summing that up quite right. So, I’ll do YOU a favour and shut up. 🙂
Yes, the landscape…
This is all very interesting, Alison. You can bet I’m going to follow up on that Monkman movie when we get home. Also glad you have further corroboration about the German interest in westerns and in learning from the masters how to successfully repress and erase Indigenous nations. Incidentally, the Nazis also sent a delegation to the southern states to study and learn from Jim Crow policies. No reason for you to shut up. Everything you offer is good and interesting.