HOW WESTERNS SHAPED THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
“I’m hungry,” Mark announced. “Let’s find a place for lunch.”
Driving north along the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, we came to the town of Lone Pine, California. Choosing a restaurant can be risky when traveling, but when we peeked inside the Chuck Wagon Chow, it seemed like a safe bet that the food would be edible since it was filled with diners, but not overly so. We entered. Inside, an old west décor embellished the walls and hung from the ceiling: wagon wheels, rusty spurs, cowboy boots, a noose, saddles…all apropos for a town known for its filming location of dozens of Hollywood Westerns.
A Miss Kitty look-alike greeted us. “Howdy, folks. Welcome.” She wore an updo of strawberry-blond hair piled on her head that was held together with a band of jewels and feathers. A black corset accentuated her bosom and pantaloons that peaked from beneath a scarlet, ruffled satin and lace skirt over layers of petticoats. Black fishnet stockings tucked into black cowgirl boots dotted with multi-colored rhinestones completed the look. She grabbed some menus and a pot of coffee. “Follow me.” She seated us. “You folks here for the film festival?”
“We’re just passing through,” I said. “We didn’t know about the film festival.”
“Well, Hon. You might want to stick around for some of the events. They’re real fun. The theme this year is ‘How Westerns Shaped the American Experience.’”
“Coffee?” She held the pot in her hands.
“One of the gals will take your orders. Today’s special, is a Western Omelet.”
Loud laughter captured my attention. Next to us sat a group with a mixed company of about fourteen—each of them decked out in Western clothing and engaged all at once in a noisy conversation. I knew they weren’t the real deal because they looked dressed for a Halloween party, not for a day of ranching.
Mark whispered, “They must part of the festival.”
I tuned into the group and overheard the gist of a rant about the current state of political events. They were singing the praises of politicians of a certain persuasion opposite of my views. Scowling, puffed up with disdain and easy judgment I whispered to Mark. “Oh gawd. I want to leave. Their political discussion is going to ruin my appetite.”
“You need to lighten up, honey.”
One woman in the group laughed in a staccato Woody Woodpecker cackle. “Ha-ha-ha-ha-Hah!”
My judgment deepened. “I can’t take it, Mark.”
“You can turn down your hearing aids. I can’t. They’re right next to me.”
“Do you really want to leave?” He asked me in a way that meant he’d be grouchy if I insisted on finding a quieter cafe.
“I’ll suffer through it.” When Mark is hungry, it’s best to make sure he’s fed A.S.A.P.
A perky cowgirl trotted up to take our orders. Mark and I each ordered the Western Omelet.
Another cowgirl delivered orders to our adjacent diners, who then joined hands to pray.
Wondering about the open carry laws in California, I discreetly looked at our neighbors to see if they had guns strapped to their belts—real or pretend. Thankfully, none of them appeared to be armed. “Amen,” the group said in unison and let go of one another’s hands. The vibrant conversations cranked up again changing from politics to a topic much more intriguing: films. My indignation about their politics shifted to curiosity.
Our food arrived. I ate quietly while eavesdropping, trying to take in as much as possible. The cowboys had been stunt men in several Westerns, many of them filmed in Lone Pine. They were in town as presenters to commemorate the film industry back in the heyday of making Westerns. Namedropping was peppered throughout their reminiscences: Clint Eastwood, Maureen O’Hara, John Wayne, Barbara Stanwyck, Ronald Reagan, and Gene Autry…. I heard names of TV shows from my childhood: Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, Bonanza, and Wagon Train. Since I have a voyeuristic attraction to tabloid fodder, my ears especially perked up when they started to discuss on set love affairs, but the names of the illicit lovers eluded me.
My imagination went to work. I began to visualize these guys—now too old to be doing stunts—back in the day dropping from leafy trees onto strategically placed, saddled horses to ride off to rescue damsels in distress. I imagined them beating up the bad guys, chasing unruly Injuns, or flipping over a saloon’s second and third story railings to fight thieves or cattle rustlers intent on terrorizing the whiskey-guzzling patrons. I could see stunt men riding heroically next to runaway stagecoach, jumping onto to it, grabbing the reins of spooked horses, and saving the day once again. I pictured brothels with full-bosomed dames dressed provocatively and flirting with cowboys, and the local sheriff and his posse. I could see the good guys and train robbers duking it out on the top of a speeding steam train hurling down the railroad tracks, or men backing away down Main Street in either direction while blasting one another with six-shooters, one in each hand.
The group stood to leave. One cowboy accidentley bumped into me. “Sorry ma’am.”
“No problem. You’re part of the festival?”
“Yes, ma’am. We are indeed. Hope to see you and your mister join my cowhands and me at The Museum of Western Film History. We’re presenting this afternoon…doing some roping tricks, answering questions, and whatnot.”
“Thanks, but we’re passing through town. We’re eager to get home.”
Walking back to the truck I said to Mark, “Sometimes a bunch of random moments converge into bizarre circumstances.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s hard to explain.” I thought for a moment. “At the Chuck Wagon it’s like we had a glimpse into one of Molière’s’ satires… kind of a stellar example of conflicting realities and fantasies. I can imagine those pretend cowboys performing impossible feats in fictitious tales, and doing stunts for a movie star who eventually became the real president of The United States of America for two terms.”
“It’s convoluted the way people pine for a reality that never existed or never will exist or exists only in movies. Those stunt men talked about fake news, but support a lying, perverted, ignoramus, reality star president who “won” the election under suspicious circumstances. And that prez is now acting out a mockery on the world’s stage.”
Mark and I sighed simultaneously, hopped into our truck, and headed down the road, each of us with a broader understanding about ‘How Westerns Shaped the American Experience.’