In search of the real Wild West on America's Great Plains

Wild West – we all feel something when we see or hear those words. But why? How much is true and how much is fantasy? Our editor Neil McQuillian took to the (very) open roads of America’s Great Plains to find out.

At Century Club bar in Buffalo, Wyoming, classic rock growls gently on the stereo as men in plaid shirts and baseball caps play pool. An old-timer in a cowboy hat chews tobacco at the bar. I sip my beer and inspect a brutal painting of “Custer’s Last Fight” on the wall by my stool: in the foreground, an Indian scalps a soldier, the flap of skin unfurling neatly like the tab off an old-style can of pop. Thunder rumbles: I’d driven through a gathering storm to get here.

This would do. I’d spent the last couple of weeks exploring the Great Plains states of North and South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming, tracking scents of the Old West – and in Century Club, this underpopulated dive bar, I reckoned it was about as strong as it was going to get. I let the vibe wash over me then ordered another beer and let it wash over me some more, enjoying it while it lasted.

For I’d come to realise during my travels that the Old West (or Wild West – they’re interchangeable) is mostly a dream that comes and goes – a set of ideas that have dripped into our brains, leaving a colourful residue of quick-draw shootouts, whisky and dice, whip-cracking cowboys and whooping Indians. Each of those elements still have their contemporary truth, but that misty feeling you might get when you think of the “Wild West”? That doesn’t really have any basis in reality.

Those Wild West ideas have their roots in that long period in US history from the early eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries, when the nation was expanding, pushing westward from the original Eastern seaboard settlements. The challenges encountered by the pioneering frontier folk along the way – nature, Native American tribes, bandits – necessitated displays of character (resolute, resourceful, actions over words) that are now part and parcel of the American self-image.

So why, with the West well and truly won, with those struggles now over, does the notion of the Old West still hold such a prominent place in our cultural psyche that we can be inspired, like I was, to go road-tripping in search of it?

Cinema. That’s why. First came those countless cowboy-and-Indian or Western movies, with relatively simple tales of revenge and struggle and frontier justice, then their slightly more complex successors, which continue to be made. Even just counting the more recent movies, the states I was travelling around could lay claim to classics such as A River Runs Through It, Dances With Wolves, The Hateful Eight and The Revenant.

However genre-bending some of these movies get, they share one common denominator: the landscape. And what a landscape. From what I’d experienced – Badlands, prairies, canyons – the landscape of the American West was surely what the silver screen was made for. Indeed, the Western movie’s popularity went hand in hand with the development of widescreen formats such as Cinemascope. For as long as the landscape is in place, the Westerns are probably going to keep on coming.

For while the human edge of the Wild West has been tamed, those landscapes have wings too big to clip. In Great Plains, Ian Frazier quotes a friend saying “The sky is like a person yawned and never stopped!” And it’s true. The landscapes are intimidating. In fact, notwithstanding the ravages of fossil fuel-hungry companies, humankind remains wonderfully puny in relation to them, relegated to a bit-part role. Our interaction with them is about tending rather than taming.

It’s about re-wilding, even: over in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, the authorities reintroduced wolves in 1995, a move which (perhaps counter-intuitively) has enriched the park’s ecosystem. By eating the deer who eat the vegetation, the wolves helped the park to re-green, which brought in beavers and birds and reptiles. By eating the coyotes, the wolves helped the rabbit population to grow, which in turn meant the eagles and other birds of prey have been more inclined to visit.

South Dakota’s Badlands are also part of a national park – yet they’re still just as bad as they were when French settlers christened them les mauvaises terres à traverser (bad lands to cross).

And while they absolutely are mauvaises (mauvaises to the bone), they’re also chest-clutchingly beautiful, an eerie moonscape of granite columns, canyons and spires.

You can practically hear the bandits’ gunshots twinging off the rock.

Mountains, meanwhile, are still mountains – so in Montana’s Glacier National Park, exploration to the more treacherous areas is facilitated by ranger tours.

And buffalo, of course, are still buffalo. Even if their numbers have, sadly, plummeted to a tiny fraction of what they once were, the management of the herd at South Dakota’s Custer State Park means that once a year the locals are treated to the spectacle of a grand buffalo roundup. It’s complete with its own communal chuckwagon lunch (just about the friendliest interpretation of Wild West ways you’re likely to experience).

But the trick to enjoying some proper Wild West dreamin’ is to hire a car. It just has to be a road trip. Driving makes a movie of these landscapes, the scene unfolding slowly in widescreen beyond the car windows.

Buttes, ranging away to the horizon, rearrange themselves in a hypnotic dance as you crawl along the endlessly straight Great Plains roads. Oil pumps stud an expanse, their arms moving elliptically, snake-charmingly. A storm forms in the far distance and just waits, the odd lightning bolt fired down as a warning shot, turning the red brown landscape sandy gold for an instant. You reach the rain wall eventually. You have no choice. The road is straight and it’s the only road.

So by the time you reach town, you’re dazed, ungrounded, out of time. You step out of the car and onto the street and it’s like you’re stepping right out of a cinema’s dark auditorium and onto the screen.

Really it’s these long drives that lets the cowboy movie stuff work its magic: the Wild West yarns spun by towns like South Dakota’s hard-drinking Deadwood, with its classic Western streetscape and links to Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok; and charming, film-set perfect Medora, North Dakota, where wooden sidewalks creak beneath your feet and the wilderness that inspired Theodore Roosevelt’s conservationist bent practically whispers to you from the town’s edges, tempting you out to explore.

Of course, I’ve not mentioned an older Old West. The really Old West. The West of the Native Americans. Their story hasn’t been told quite the same way as that of the pioneer heroes. It’s not a story that’s easy to swallow, and it still gets airbrushed out of the Old West narrative.

I rode the 1880 Steam Train through South Dakota’s Black Hills, and the commentary honoured the miners and prospectors who had been here before us – but not the Native Americans, for whom the Black Hills are sacred.

So sacred, in fact, that they refuse to this day some $1bn or more offered them by the federal government for the land. They do not recognise the US government’s ownership of it.

So if – when – I go back, it will be to engage more deeply with the Native American understanding of the Old West landscapes. I caught glimpses of their culture when I was there – from prayer cloths at sacred sites like Devils Tower, Wyoming, to the impassioned protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. And, unlike the pleasing fiction of immersing yourself in a Wild West daydream, it seemed to me that the Native experience remains very, very real.

For more information on the Great Plains, visit http://realamerica.co.uk. Neil’s trip was organised by Bon Voyage who offer fly-drive holidays to Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming; find out more at www.bon-voyage.co.uk.

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