24 December 2013

Sending Friends & Neighbors Seasonal Greetings

Whether you are surrounded by family or riding a lone trail, take a moment to gaze at the stars. Be humbled, and grateful for their presence. One of them shines on you.

May the New Year bring a peace of spirit and a determination to do good in this world.


24 November 2013

The Englishman Who Brought the Grand Canyon to the World

When the first US government survey team set eyes on the Grand Canyon its leader reported that the region was “altogether valueless”. When Fred Harvey saw it less than forty years later, he knew it would make him a fortune.

Fred Harvey was a man of vision. He left England in 1850, a fifteen year old seeking his fortune in an America gripped by gold-rush fever, but he got no further than pot-washing in a New York restaurant. He learned fast, though, most notably how the emerging middle class aspired to a luxury lifestyle, and he became determined to provide it for them. 

His own first restaurant fell foul of the American Civil War, but with the cessation of hostilities he joined one of the new cross-continental railroads, immediately seeing how the provision of good quality fare at restaurants and hotels enroute would benefit passengers, the railroad and, most importantly, himself. The Fred Harvey Company was born.

A fastidious man, Fred Harvey was appalled by the conduct of his male waiting staff drawn from the cow-towns of what, in the 1880s, was the height of the Wild West. He advertised in eastern newspapers for young women, 18 to 30 years old, of good character, attractive and intelligent and paid a stunning salary of $17.50 a month, all found. His specially trained ‘Harvey Girls’, attired in black with a white apron, reminiscent of the staff attendant in an English tearoom, brought a sought-after decorum to long distance travelling just as the West was opening up to a new industry – tourism.

Fred Harvey understood the merits of preserving the landscape and the way of life of its indigenous peoples, even to the extent of organising ‘Indian Detours’, a forerunner of the cultural tourism we know today. If the participants weren’t always authentic, few patrons knew the difference.

The Grand Canyon, the prize of the Southwest, beckoned. By the late 1890s it could be reached by stagecoach from the nearest railhead at Flagstaff, but that took a bone-jarring eleven hours with little in the way of comfort to greet travellers who managed to reach the south rim. When a spur line was mooted, Fred Harvey decided he’d have a hotel of splendour to meet it. Alas, he died in 1901, not living to see it open. 

El Tovar, early 1900s
The rustic El Tovar, built in the style of a European hunting lodge in stone and spruce, remains the Grand Canyon’s most prestigious hotel, its elegant entranceway a few steps from the rail terminus and a mere 20 feet from one of the most awe-inspiring views in the world. If you want a room there mid-season, you’d better consider booking it two years in advance.

The Fred Harvey Company finally took possession of all concessionaires on the rim when the Grand Canyon was granted National Park status in 1919, and the ethos of its founder has been preserved ever since. There are no garish billboards or signage, no tacky gift shops or litter. Even the pernicious automobile, just beginning its ascendancy when Fred Harvey died, has been contained by some judicious planning and the use of a free low-emissions shuttle bus service. 

There are still horses, of course, or at least sure-footed mules, waiting to take the adventurous down to the Colorado River. Even in Fred Harvey’s time Bright Angel Trail had enough of a draw for a photographer’s studio to be sited on its lip. Kolb Studio still stands guard and is now a bookshop and exhibition hall showing many of the Kolb brothers’ early photographs.

Every visitor, then or now, wants to witness a sunset over the Canyon, to try to capture on camera the changing colours of the buttes and mesas as they turn through pinks and reds to hues of mauve and purple.

If dusk is full of shared murmurs of awe and the clicking of digital cameras, a dawn is full of silent reverence as small groups gather on the overlooks for the first glimpse of the Canyon bathed in the light of a new day. No one says a word. Hardly a breath is taken as the ambient light rises to reveal skeins of pale mist woven around the ghostly shapes of rock formations millions of years old. In a diamond flash, sunlight breaks the horizon and the piercing rays slowly make their way one mile down to illuminate the hiking trails and ultimately the Colorado River.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Fred Harvey gives you… The Grand Canyon

26 October 2013

Today in 1881… Fact became Legend became Myth

There are no silver stars for guessing that today marks the anniversary of what has become known as the Gunfight at the OK Corral. The fact is that such a gunfight occurred; the how and the why and the who are what turned that fact into a legend that has become mythologized in its constant retelling, mostly on the large and small screens that dominate our view of what was the ‘American West’.

 Life at the time was no walk in any park, as an almost contemporary photograph of Tombstone attests. The town came into existence around 1877 due to the productivity of its silver mines, estimated at $40m-$80m in just over the 10 years of its heyday. 

Tombstone: date disputed 1881 or 1891
"Decent folk" certainly tried. There were four churches, a school, ice-cream parlour, bowling alley and an opera house, but alongside over 100 saloons, 14 gambling halls, numerous dance halls and brothels, and situated only thirty miles from no-questions-asked Mexico, anyone attempting to uphold the law certainly had his hands full. 

Wyatt Earp

Vigil Earp was the City Marshal as well as Deputy US Marshal for the area; Wyatt Earp no more than a temporary City Deputy on whom his brother knew he could depend. Yet it is the younger Wyatt who claims the mark in history, probably due to his life extending into the era of the movies. 

The silent 'Westerns' certainly fascinated him, and he became an advisor to both William S Hart and Tom Mix, eager to hear first-hand of life during their childhoods. Standing in the shadows were John Ford and a very young Marion Morrison, aka John Wayne.

But it seems Wyatt never spoke directly of the Gunfight. It wasn't until after his death in 1929 that a biography was published in 1931 by Stuart Lake, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. It might have been fictionalised, but it gripped the imagination. A year later the Gunfight at the OK Corral eased onto the big screen as Law and Order (dir Edward Cahn) with Wyatt Earp masquerading as 'Frame Johnson'. 

The rest, as the saying goes, is legend and mythology.

Photograph reputedly of Wyatt Earp 19 months after the Gunfight.
Photographs courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

31 August 2013


As I watch the pictures continue to come in from the devastating wildfire in Yosemite, and consider the plight of the brave souls trying to bring it under control, I’m reminded that Nature has always had its way.

1871 was a hellova fall for fires. The best known, the Great Chicago Fire, started on October 8th, burning for three days. Although the story of a cow kicking over a lamp in a barn turned out to be fiction, the wind the fire produced to feed itself was fact. Over 300 died and 100,000 were made homeless, yet this was nothing to what was going on elsewhere.

Wisconsin, like other states in the region, had been suffering an outbreak of wildfires due to the extended dry conditions. Near Peshtigo one took lethal hold to become a firestorm. Of the town’s 1,749 residents, more than 350 were later buried in a mass grave “primarily because so many had died that no one remained alive who could identify them”. Twelve communities were destroyed, leaving well over 1,200 people dead or missing.

Coincidence can be disconcerting. The same day the cities of Holland and Manistee in Michigan, and Port Huron, all fell to the same fate, adding another 200 deaths. Four days later Windsor, Ontario, joined the list.

Today we talk of $billion devastation. Considering our crowded communities, perhaps we should be grateful the figure is merely dollars and not death toll.

26 August 2013

Looking at Outlaws

The derring-do - or mostly just the goddamn awfulness - of folks history has labelled Outlaws, has always been a large part of the Western writer's research. From snippets of their sorry lives come the secondary research as to the why and the how that makes up the motivation driving a wholly imagined character.

So I was pleased to come across, by accident as often these things happen, the blog of The American Cowboy and his post which lists a whole host of lesser known varmints.

And no sooner do I turn around than I find that Tom Rizzo has a post about the exploits, or lack of them, of the Jennings Gang.

Do check them out. Both well worth the read.

14 July 2013

Review: The Devil's Work by Paul Bedford

Being an ex Black Horse Western writer, I tend to keep an occasional eye on this UK imprint (publisher Robert Hale), the last of a dying breed, and recently an old name surfaced - Paul Bedford.

One of his first novels - a true historical rather than Western genre - was passed on to me some time ago, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. A Most Dark and Bloody Land by his alternative author name Paul Ayton, is set in 1844 with a young British Army Officer, Thomas Collins, being sent out from Her Majesty's government to the fledgling Republic of Texas. He's to negotiate terms with President Samuel Houston for the British Empire's procurement of cotton. Sound far-fetched? Not a bit of it, as Paul Ayton emphasises in the book's Historical Note.

For some reason Paul eschews a digital footprint of his own, but the cover, and that of two sequels A Most Deadly Foe and A Most Damnable Campaign, can be found via the site of Western re-enactment group The Searchers.

So when I heard that he'd had a Western genre novel accepted by Robert Hale, I called in to my local library and asked if they'd consider purchasing it. The Black Horse Westerns have always, as far as I am aware, been destined for the library market, and I saw no reason why others shouldn't enjoy good writing in a genre mostly ignored. 

As can be seen, Robert Hale doesn't believe in going overboard with its covers, but don't let that detract from a good read. 

When town marshal Rance Toller is called to a gun-toting drunk in the town's worst saloon, he notices a stranger biding his time in the warmth. Experience tells Toller that the quiet man poses the bigger threat. Not so. Greed, lies and betrayal pose the biggest threat of all and, while away in the snow helping the widow of a murdered homesteader, the town of Devil's Lake decides what's in its best interest might not include Rance Toller.

It's a cracking read in the classic style of Western that the imprint maintains. Go order it at your local library and spread the experience. As ever, more information can be found on Amazon.

29 June 2013

Riding the Rails and the Range

After last week's desperate measures, this week has proven to be somewhat of a golden gateway for UK terrestrial television. Series 1 of  Hell on Wheels is crossing our screens with a good head of steam.

I was in New Mexico when I first caught episodes of this tale of building a railway across the continent after the Civil War: revenge, racism, intimidation, mysogeny, graft... the story of everyday folk, all carrying a lot of emotional baggage. It'll be interesting to see if the multiple storylines rise above their basic descriptions.

John Ford's The Searchers certainly managed to, and still does nearly 60 years after it was made (1956), despite this week's TV guide's crass description of John Wayne's character as being in a "relentless search for his young niece". Watch the movie, mate. It didn't gather its 5 stars merely for the spectacular filming in Monument Valley. And while you're at it, read the book by Alan le May. A riveting use of colloquial speech.

The Searchers was, in fact, my first view of Monument Valley in both photograph and on screen. It made a great impression, so much so that when my young eyes laid sight on a map of the Southwest I traced not only its features but its names: Painted Desert, Mexican Hat, Vermilion Cliffs, Gila Wilderness, Grand Canyon. The surprise is that it took me so long to visit them.

23 June 2013

Feeding the Horses

Yes, I know. It’s been a long while since I fed these horses. This is what happens when my other writing persona starts flapping like a buzzard with a broken wing and takes up all of my available time. Then life shoulders in and before I know it I find myself laid up and in need of a bit of Old West to watch.

Shoot, Cowboys and Aliens doesn’t quite hit the mark, does it, but what can I say? It was on offer. My partner on the couch took delight in combing the internet to list all the historical inaccuracies and continuity issues I’d missed. Some kin are just supportive that way. However, what did catch my eye was the scenery, hence the reason for this blogpost.

Parts of the movie were filmed around the Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico, where the mesas can’t decide whether they want to turn into badlands or into a northern outpost of the Painted Desert. We journeyed through the area a few summers back, drinking in the colours of the country and the huge skies.

It was here that Georgia O’Keefe travelled from 1929 onwards and made her  permanent home after WW2, to concentrate on her art and in so doing raised international awareness of the beauty inherent in the New Mexico landscapes.

Unlike Western artists Charles M Russell and Frederic Remington, born in the same decade – the 1880s – Georgia O’Keefe was an artist very much in the modernist style. She lived to be nearly 100 years old and moved to Santa Fe during her latter years where there is now the Georgia O’Keefe Museum dedicated to her work.

So, y'see, good can come from somewhat suspect Old West DVDs. Have you ever watched some for the scenery?