Saturday, November 19, 2011

I am a Western Man

I am a Western man. My temperament, the shape of my mind and soul, have been crafted and formed by the land and sky of the American West. It has taken me most of my life to figure this out. I lived for twenty-three years in the mountains and hollows of West Virginia and it was there that I began to suspect the truth of my nature. While beautiful in the extreme, I was never quite at home there. I suffered from what Larry McMurtry has called "sky deprivation." I always felt a depressive, claustrophobic angst while living there. There were too many trees, too little sky. When traveling back to Oklahoma and Texas on visits, I always found my spirits lifting when we crossed the Mississippi, just as I experienced the opposite as we drove past Morehead, Kentucky, returning.

I had a brief love affair with England during the early 90s. We almost moved there in 1991. It was only after a visit to my family burial plot in southern Oklahoma in 2005 that I realized what had attracted me to the North of England. Apart from the blistering heat, the landscape- with its pastures and woodlands, and its enormous sky- was very much like the landscape of certain parts of Yorkshire.

When we moved to central Missouri in 2007. a new peace settled into my soul. I would sit for hours in the early mornings, the late evenings, and the nights, drinking in the unbounded sky. Upon our return to Texas this year, my joy in the Western landscape has been completed. The landscape of childhood is the landscape of the soul. My return to my childhood landscape has been a return to my deepest and truest self. It has been a return to an inner peace that had long evaded me.

My love for the Western landscape, however, goes deeper. As a child I traveled thousands of miles across the whole landscape of the American West. From Fort Worth to Los Angeles, from North Texas to Idaho and Montana. This was because I was placed in the care of family who lived in these places. In 2009,my daughter, Kate, and I drove from Columbia, Missouri to Yuma, Arizona. I was revisiting places I remembered from my childhood travels (and one adolescent "March hare" hitchhiking trip, when I thumbed my way from Okemah, Oklahoma to Boise, Idaho in twenty-three hours). In the Panhandle of Texas, the high plains of New Mexico, and the deserts and mountains of Arizona, the bones of the earth are laid bare under an omnipresent sky. It was good to see it all again.

So, the landscape and skyscape of the West is etched into my nature as surely as my mother's and father's genes.

But, there is more to it than this. My people are Westerners. My great-grandfather, J.C. Smith came from northern Georgia, first to Texas and then to Indian Territory before the turn of the 20th Century. He was a horse and mule trader and farmer. My maternal grandfather, A.T. Brown, began his working life as a ranch foreman, a horseman and cattleman. They both lived in Oklahoma before statehood when it was still a "wild and wooly" place. It marked them both, and though different in size and temperament, they were neither of them men you would "mess with"-if you had good sense. They were Western men. And while they owed much to their Anglo-Celt heritage and blood, the West had imprinted them early and left them marked for their whole lives.

My daddy was the inheritor of all this. From childhood, he collected the stories and the songs of this region and its people. Imbued with with a voracious curiosity and an infallible memory, he stored away the history, the myths, and the lore of these Western people. Charming and humble in the presence of others, handsome and cheerful, full of interest and humor and compassion, the people would open to him their hearts and their memories in a way that they would not and had not to anyone else. When in his late twenties he began to hunt and collect arrowheads, his love for and interest in the West compounded. This he passed on to me.

Not that I was a willing recipient at first. Like all young boys, I was caught up with my own "long, long thoughts." But he was insistent without being overbearing. Part of this was unintentional, being the overflow of his own enthusiasm for the matter.

Item: I began learning to read as my daddy would stop to read to me the cast iron historical markers of Jack and Young counties, Texas.

Item: I began to love old and strange tools and relics on a visit to a Mr. Weldon in South Bend, Texas. He had a room filled with Indian relics, cowboy gear, and snakes and lizards preserved in glass apothecary jars lining the walls. I was five or six at the time.

Item: I began to have a sense of American history and the struggle of the Western settlers on a visit to old Fort Belknap, north of Graham, Texas. I can still remember the cold, misty November day, and the displays in the fort's museum as daddy read to me the various explanations and went on to explain that dark things had occurred in and around this fort on the Salt Fork of the Brazos. This was in 1957.

Item: Daddy took me to the Cooke County Public Library in Gainesville, Texas when I was seven or eight and got me a library card. The first books I checked out were about the men who won the West, and about the tribes who lost it. I became a young ethnologist and even went through a time when I resented my daddy for being "a white man."

He had infected me with the germ he was victim to. I would never get over it.

The second most formative influence on my "Westerness" was my daddy's younger brother, Kenneth. While serving in the U.S. Air Force, he was stationed in Mountain Home, Idaho in the 1950s. While there, he met and married Nora Reed from a little railroad town called, Orchard. Having no children of their own, they took me into their hearts. It is because of them that I saw so much of the American Rockies. We camped in the mountains, fished in the streams and lakes, hunted jackrabbits and trapped badgers on the sagebrush deserts, and reveled in it all, the beauty and grandeur, the starkness and fastness.

It is they who took me to Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons, to Yellowstone, and to the Snake and Salmon Rivers. It is they who traveled hundreds of miles out of their way, so that a thirteen year old boy could see Charlie Russell's studio and home in Great Falls, Montana. Once they took me into the mountains north of Boise to meet a family living without electricity and other conveniences in a cabin by a rushing stream. The father and husband was aged and had been a hunter and trapper from the early days of the 20th Century. We ate a fine meal of fried chicken and produce from their garden cooked on a wood stove by their spinster daughter. The raspberry's cultivated by that stream were the finest I have ever eaten and the water was cold and sweet. The stories, if anything, were even sweeter. I was formed and molded by these experiences and by their own enthusiasm for the West. They are still in Idaho, still in love after fifty-plus years, and still enthusiastic about the history, the landscape, and the promise of that big country.

Since my maturity the West has been one of the defining realities of my mind and soul. I have a wall of books testifying to this. My collections- of songs, of stories, of people, and of things- all connect in some way with this country. While I live, I wish to live here, and when I die I wish to be buried here in the family plot on the tip end of Love County, Oklahoma, formerly "IT" or "Indian Territory."

And, yes, I still have my daddy's arrowheads.