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A Matter of Location

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On vacation, I recently checked out Silver City, NM. The trip required that I drop down, or drive south, from Albuquerque, almost to the border, turn west, and wind up, practically speaking, next to Arizona. It took me all day. The ride was almost "people-free" except for other motorists as well as close encounters in fast food joints along the way. I stopped for lunch in Truth or Consequences near Elephant Butte. The majority of the time, there is virtually nothing for the eye to see right and left, forward, or in the back-view mirror -- not, that is, for the seasoned New Mexican. If New Mexico is not the strangest state in the U.S. I would not want to "learn more". I saw huge solar panels on a shortcut to Deming, in addition to wind turbines. These are promising signs that indicate what could happen here with greater economic firepower. It also occurred to me that much of what was in the distance, such as mountain ridges and choppy foothills, once served as backdrop to many of the westerns I watched, reviewed, and published in the Examiner. Not far from where I stayed, in Lordsburg, was a ghost town. A silver boom brought in over three thousand prospectors. Now, there is nobody. That about says it all.

The main thrust of this article has to do with the use of so much nothingness in so many westerns. Not every single one was made in awe-inspiring Monument Valley. Many were produced in godforsaken places such as where I found a lonely Hampton Inn as well as further south in Mexico. But I could not help but notice in passing how much vacant space exists in the western states. Despite a great deal of hubbub concerning the ongoing invasion of our southern border, had things been different, more hustle and bustle, let's say, border crossings would hardly be a matter of heated contention. There would then be a more dynamic economic environment to gobble up anyone who ventured forth. People need jobs, but jobs need people. I spent nearly twenty years in the New York area, most of them in the city itself. I was always amazed at how no matter what one did or where one went, there were a half million people around. I did not think of this phenomenon in terms of people pollution. Not at all. People are your safety net. The eye and brain quickly surmise a situation based on what kind of human beings lurk about within the same vicinity. Good guys? Bad guys? Okay? Not okay?

So much crowding probably motivated me to see what it was like in the more vacuous regions. It did not require much schooling to see that water is the chief commodity that is sorely lacking. But after that, should this problem ever find a solution, people would also be needed. Today, a watery New Mexico is pure science fiction. But I believe it is possible to turn parched earth into fertile soil, since it has already been done elsewhere. Deserts can be reclaimed. It is also possible, in my opinion, at least, to change a climate to make it more hospitable. People say that something of the sort was effected in Phoenix, however inadvertently, by the creation of so many golf courses. So I am maybe not as far out as I at first appear. Nonetheless, to regain the original focus, the taming of the West, since this is either the appropriate or inappropriate term in standard parlance, took place in sparsely populated areas constantly subjected to a harsh, indifferent, relentless sun.

In these circumstances, a single character, whether from real life or invented, can make a significant difference. That is why several characters in westerns loomed larger than life. Where did they come from? New York, St. Louis, Richmond, Philadelphia -- it hardly matters. Men and women achieved fame and fortune, success and respectability, on the east coast. Then, shown time and again in the movies, they began their western life as the wearer of a hat to be shot off or, in the case of the fairer sex, someone in lace and curls who eventually acquired the know-how to wield a shotgun as handily as a bearded, unwashed rapscallion. It is difficult (and I can hardly be alone) to deal with so much vacant land. Maybe the rumors in circulation are true. The military conducts tests. Biologists genetically engineer strange hybrid creatures. Toxic waste is stored -- possibly not as worry-free as claimed. Dangerous commodities are mined. Or, my favorite, vast underground communities reside underneath, as though patterned after an H.G. Wells story.

What does all this have to do with the great American Western? Basically zip, except that not only did centuries-old Native American life come to a tragic end, but so did the dreams of frontiersmen and their hardy womenfolk, too. Life was tough in the West. It got easier, safer, and more profitable, but turned a corner, and never quite fulfilled its original destiny. It became something else. It differentiated but never coalesced into the greatness for which it was meant. So many miles and miles of wasteland: does this alone not speak of a poverty of ideas, lack of will, and a defeatist surrender to the basic elements? Where is the little red schoolhouse? Where is the General Store? Where is the beloved doctor whenever someone gets sick? Where is the Sheriff and his or her posse in the aftermath of a killing or theft? The idyllic simplicity of small, western towns, peopled by exemplary lives, that was for a season the object of every hope and prayer, has long since vanished.

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