Wandering the West
April 7, 2009
There’s nothing like getting out on a trail, in a canyon, down a river, or on a mountaintop. But you can’t be everywhere, except in a book. Last week I picked three of my favorite writers of the west, guys you’d love to ride the river with: Ivan Doig, Louis L’Amour and A.B. Guthrie and suggested their books were great ways to experience the west in your favorite reading chair. Here are three more.
Tony Hillerman grew up in Oklahoma but became a newspaperman in New Mexico, where he fell in love with Navajo culture. Hillerman traveled the "rez" top to bottom, talking to Navajos, and especially Navajo spiritual leaders. Then he practically invented a new genre of murder mystery, one that blended murder with clues buried in the culture, beliefs and religion of the Navajo people. These are quick reads, though not a quick as a typical John Grisham legal thriller because it takes awhile to absorb the intricacies of Navajo beliefs. What you read of Navajo life is accurate. The tribe itself honored his work for its accuracy and his ability to explain the culture to his readership.
His 18 Navajo mysteries feature Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police. They see cultural and mystical clues in the dirt and clothes and other items at the murder scene and unravel each crime with a combination of CSI and medicine man knowledge. Try "Dance Hall of the Dead" or "The Skinwalkers" for starters. "A Thief of Time" takes place around the Utah reservation border town of Bluff, along the San Juan River. Nearly everything Hillerman writes about takes place around the Four Corners where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona join, so it’s a good way to soak up the place from your reading chair.
Wallace Stegner called Salt Lake City his hometown but really it was all over the west, wandering with an itinerant dreamer of a father who never found his place to put down roots. Stegner was born in 1909, so his youth was back when homesteads still being settled and the Depression tested everyone. Stegner became a writing professor and mentor to a whole generation of other great writers, like Larry McMurtry, Thomas McGuane, Wendell Berry and Edward Abbey. Stegner wrote both fiction and non-fiction. The fiction takes place from California to Vermont, and his non-fiction mostly tells western stories. Stegner was a thoughtful guy his 30 books are not potboilers. "Angle of Repose" won the Pulitzer Prize, telling a family’s multi-generational life in the tough mining towns of the west, places not unlike the Park City of that era. Also try "Big Rock Candy Mountain," an autobiographical novel about trying to find a place in the west. A couple of his better non-fictions are Utah-centered, with "Gathering of Zion" about the Mormon Trail, and "Mormon Country." His biography of John Wesley Powell the first to descend the Colorado River, is called "Beyond the 100th Meridian" and it’s a classic.
Edward Abbey was a Stegner student who discovered Southern Utah, especially the Moab and Canyonlands area, in the 1950’s and started writing. If you love the Colorado Plateau country, two must reads are "Desert Solitaire" a collection of short stories, and "The Monkey Wrench Gang" a laugh out loud funny, profane novel about a band of merry eco-pranksters who "monkey wrenched" their way around coal mines, dam sites and power plants that he thought were ruining pristine country. Abbey’s friends just fantasized about creating mayhem (or did they?) but the book inspired a whole movement of real eco-mayhem.
There are plenty more Abbey works, but those two stand out as capturing the Colorado Plateau country just north of Hillerman country. On a filming trip to Moab years ago I stopped in to have dinner with an old friend, Ken Sleight, at his Pack Creek Ranch, a bed and breakfast just south of town. Ken said Abbey was working on a book in an old cabin where he’d written books for years. Since he was a pretty ornery guy at times, I asked Ken to see if he’d ask Abbey if I could interview him. The answer came back an emphatic "Hell no!" But the next day, as we were saddling up horses to take a trail ride with Ken, Ed moseyed in and asked if we’d mind if he rode along. Mind? A trail ride with Cactus Ed? You betcha! And after four hours of hard riding, drinking warm Coors out of the saddlebags, and getting comfortable with us, Ed let us take out the camera. It was one of his last interviews. He died in 1989.
Recommended Stories For You
Ed, Wally and Tony are all gone now, along with Bud Guthrie and Louis L’Amour. But they left a shelf full of great books that will take you around the west for years to come.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.