America was the land of promise. Cities flourished, prosperity reigned supreme and everyone could find happiness in the wide open expanses. For many Americans this lifestyle still exists but our world is different now than it was when we first found ourselves here.
Lee Pitts is a columnist for The and Paso Robles Press who can be reached at [email protected]
I was reading a book about the ancient West called “Legends and Lies,” and it said Palisades, Nevada, was the hardest town west of Chicago. As a student of the West, I was surprised that I’d never heard of the area. In the mid-1870s, the town experienced over 1,000 showdowns, bank robberies, and Indian invasions, according to the book. The book then revealed that all of the episodes were staged in order to intimidate the weak-kneed Easterners who arrived by stagecoach. The easterners then returned home and informed journalists and anybody else who would listen about the perilous West. It was analogous to the Chamber of Commerce in Chicago publicizing the city’s high murder rate in order to attract visitors.
Many misconceptions about the West were invented by individuals who had never visited the region. Although Henry David Thoreau wrote about the glories of the West, he had never been west of the Mississippi. Annie Oakley, sometimes known as Little Miss Sure Shot, appeared in front of Kings and Queens throughout Europe, presenting herself as a lady of the West, yet she’d never been here.
The myth-making went on indefinitely. Half of all motion movies were westerns when I was a little tyke with my Roy Rogers six-gun and chuckwagon lunchbox, and there were 37 westerns on television when I was a little tyke with my Roy Rogers six-gun and chuckwagon lunchbox. From 1955 through 1975, Gunsmoke was a television series that aired for an unprecedented 20 seasons. “Gunsmoke was the depiction of the American epic mythology of the West,” stated Cecil Smith of the Los Angeles Times. Our own Iliad and Odyssey, based on classic themes of the dime book and pulp western as idealized by Ned Buntline, Bret Harte, and Mark Twain.”
All of those films, television series, and dime novels were primarily about a wild West that never existed.
We’re going to get through this together, Atascadero
Easterners have stared down their snobbish noses at the West for 150 years, despite the fact that it was our gold and silver that covered their debts incurred during the Civil War. They looked at us as if we were new kids on the block, despite the fact that white men had been exploring the West for half a century before the first colonists stepped onto Virginia’s shores. Miners, cowboys, saloonkeepers, gamblers, prostitutes, con men, mule skinners, and bull whackers were presented as a miserable assortment of miners, cowboys, saloonkeepers, gamblers, prostitutes, con men, mule skinners, and bull whackers. Easterners saw Westerners as the dregs of society who would have been imprisoned in the East. Regrettably, people still see us in this light.
“The West was fantastically rich in criminals, murderers, desperados, attorneys, Christians, Indians, Chinamen, Spaniards, gamblers, sharpers, coyotes, poets, preachers, and jackass rabbits,” wrote Mark Twain before being chased out of the West.
“Horses better bred than the ladies who ride them and dogs with pedigrees better than their masters,” said Owen Wister, author of the classic novel The Virginian.
The West was considered to be a perilous area where no one died of natural causes. “It was man’s land,” Elmer Kelton observed, “excellent for men and mules but hell for women.” “30 miles to water, 20 miles to wood, and 10 miles to Hell,” was how the West was described.
And the description stayed with me.
Today, America is really divided into two nations. There’s the West, where the federal government owns 93 percent of all land in 12 western states and controls more than half of the states west of the Rockies. In the northern states, however, it is less than 1%. What if the boot was on the other foot? How would easterners react? The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management employ 40,000 people in the West to manage 446 million acres, and the words “he has erected a multitude of New Offices and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance” from the Declaration of Independence could easily apply to Westerners today: “He has erected a multitude of New Offices and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”
Perhaps it’s time we took a page from history and greeted every plane full of easterners with a welcoming committee of murderers, desperados, lawyers, con men, mountain lions, gunslingers, and wild Indians, as they did in Palisades, Nevada, so they’d be scared and stay in Washington DC and leave us alone.
As an example:
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