Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Where Did All the Westerns Go?

It was like returning to the Saturday matinee movies and the Western TV shows I watched when I was young. It was the 1960s with movies like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” with Clint Eastwood, and “The Magnificent Seven” starring more big names than you could afford today. There were TV series such as “Gunsmoke” and “The Wild, Wild West”. As a kid I had been completely mezmerized by their simple plots and black-and-white characters (literally, as we did not get color television until much later). I had always wondered where this rugged but colorful land was to be found. It seemed imaginary to me.
Today, I discovered the wild west terrain that I had once found so harsh and yet attractive. It started with Kanab, Utah, “Little Hollywood” as it was once called, a town I had never heard of before we stopped last night at the “Four Seasons” motel (unlikely to be confused with the more famous hotel chain of that name). Wandering up its main street this morning to find the recommended local breakfast hangout, we discovered plaques near the sidewalk every so often with the name, likeness and short bio of some movie or TV star that had been in town shooting one of a steady string of Westerns filmed there. These ‘shoots’ included everything from the original “Lone Ranger” TV series (1952) all the way to “The Apple Dumpling Gang” (1969) and dozens of others. The red-stained bluffs and sagebrush gulches near town were perfect for this now almost lost genre of films and television. But my imaginary return to the showdown sagas and dramatic, guns blazing, chase scenes on horseback did not end there.
North a few miles was Bryce Canyon, a geographic marvel that is more than just a miniature Grand Canyon. It is unique in its delicate spires and natural bridges and wind-carved passages. Breathtaking, it could not be described adequately in words or in any photograph. But even before we entered Bryce Canyon we snaked through Red Canyon, embedded in the walls of which stood silent vermillion-colored warriors, waiting to swoop down on unsuspecting travelers, as did the areas Native inhabitants 150 years ago.
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After our jaw-dropping visual encounters of the morning, and lunch at Bryce Canyon City, we headed northeast on Highway 12 where the scenery was so varied and fantastic it was hard to remember where we were. There were multi-colored rocky ravines, sheer streaked-red cliffs that hung ominously over our progress along the highway, lush green valleys where water had been diverted to fields of grain or alfalfa and barren mesas that grew only scrub and clumps of dry grass. The riding was some of the best we had encountered. It included sharp-cornered alleyways through rock ravines and knock-down gusts of wind threatening to push us off ridge-top roads. There were no guardrails, or anything else, between a slip on a shiny tar strip and becoming embedded in the rocks a thousand feet below.
Daydreaming is not encouraged when riding motorcycles, especially if the biker has Parkinson’s disease. But images of my Western heroes crept into my mental spaces, forcing out the Knight of the Open Road imagery. My Big Blue was now a lightning-fast Palomino pony as we pursued a fugitive from justice through rock-rimmed ravines. Unfortunately, free-range cattle were, and apparently still are, a part of reality to be taken seriously. Whether due to old-fashioned stampede or a simple bovine miscalculation of the speed of highway motorcycles, mishaps did, and still do, occur.
Regardless, the day was a glorious modern equivalent to the Western adventures I enjoyed so much 50 years ago. I have now taken in 430 miles (515 kms) of the Wild West and will not soon forget its beauty.

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