That afternoon I decided to drive into Ashcroft. Just before I crossed the tracks leading onto Railway Avenue a young cow from the Highland Valley Cattle Company stepped onto the road, bouncing on its hooves.
I parked beside a wooden sidewalk and got out. Silence, except for the sound of a saw mill across the river. The sun burnt my face. No one was around. I went walking on the wood board sidewalk in the silence and passed an old man slumped forward sleeping on a bench.
Then I heard a train coming. I felt it in the boards underfoot. In the dirt siding along the tracks the afternoon wind was lifting a black cloud of dust a hundred feet into the air; and out of that dust, with a rumble of engines so deep it was almost subsonic, a Canadian Pacific train pulled by three locomotives thundered toward me, growing larger and more vivid in the dust until it seemed like one of those movie sequences in which an old photograph turns from black and white into colour and then comes to life. The black dust turned the sun into a dim dime of light, and as the train’s whistle deepened behind me and the blue and red Alberta and Saskatchewan wheat cars clanked past, drapes of dust thirty and forty feet high blew across the street.
I walked into the tumult. Harried by the wind, tumbleweeds flew across the street and cottonwood seed slid crossways along the asphalt and drifted up against the sidewalk like dirty snow. I walked to the edge of town, and with the wind abated by trees I walked through the graveyard and stood between two cottonwoods from which high streamers of seed spumed. There at the edge of a cliff stuccoed with boulders I looked down at the Thompson River that twisted below me in the sun like a blinding S of chrome. It was flowing south, into that country of sage and ponderosa pine where a cotton button moon stood now.
After a while the wind died. The desert air became transparent. Little white clouds hung in a sky so blue it seemed like an emblem of childhood. I walked back into town and got a place at the Ashcroft Motel; and around six, after washing up and having a hamburger and coffee I went roaming.
Eventually I came to the library. It was in a small building on the edge of town, just above the river, across the street from a blacksmith’s shop. I went inside. And there I found what I had found in every library I’d been in in the past few weeks travelling in the BC Interior: a revolving rack packed with dog-eared Westerns. On the shelves behind it newer Westerns, some hard-backed, stood in tight rows.
I walked up to the librarian in the blinding sun reflected through the glass doors. She lifted her head and studied me.
“Can I help you?”
A teenage girl in a denim dress watched me. Beautiful and dark-eyed, she held a book to her chest, her pose naive. Wisps of hair fell across her tanned forehead. An old man sitting in a chair stared at her with eyes so pale they looked white.
“I think so,” I said. “I was wondering if I could get a library card.”
“You staying in town for a while?”
“I am. I just got a place at the Ashcroft Motel.”
“I thought you might of been a tree planter. Okay then. Let’s see if I can remember how to do this.”
Back at my room the low desert sun had hung a web of light from wall to wall. I lay on my bed and opened Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West. And over the next few days McCarthy’s Western inflected my experience of Ashcroft the way Doctor Zhivago had inflected my first serious love affair twenty-five years earlier. When I opened the door of my darkened room in the morning, the hot rectangle of light that poured in and bleached all colour from the tiny cacti growing in the dirt just outside – the morning desert light that bounced off the mesas and made the river a saturated blue – that light seemed to have poured out of the pages of my book.
McCarthy had set Blood Meridian in the Mexico end of the same desert that surrounded Ashcroft. But more important, he had written a thrilling book, and I read it at times with intense happiness. As I walked through town in the hot afternoons, staring at the cowboy hills that framed the town’s wooden buildings, treasuring the silence, noticing the shimmering space that seemed to surround each person on the wide streets, what McCarthy had written and what I saw seemed not identical but similar, the way that in a dream a landscape will appear which is similar to a real one and in precisely that twist of similitude reveal the real landscape’s emotional essence.
I had thought the Western had died out. So how could this brilliant late novel be explained? One evening while I was walking along the river the answer came to me. It was late spring; the river was in flood, with branches and parts of bushes and even uprooted trees riding in the brown current. A big branch rushed past me; it still had leaves on it and white flowers among the leaves. In the twilight those flowers looked like little sails, and as the branch passed down the river and became smaller and smaller, the flowers and leaves blurred until at last the branch turned into a dark shape riding the waves.
I thought: Like a sailing ship. And as with sailing ships, which only as they had become obsolete had revealed their magnificence, the Western as it had slipped into the past had revealed an unexpected grandeur.
Nothing showed this grandeur more than the darkness that ran through Blood Meridian and the other of McCarthy’s Westerns that I now started to read, All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing. (Cities of the Plain hadn’t yet come out.) The night I finished The Crossing, I wrote in my journal:
In the modern world a sense of tragedy is almost not possible. Economically, we live in a capitalist society committed to a happy view of life; and politically, we live in a society in which the state is in the end responsible for us. We are all equal in the eyes of the state; and we are all consumers. Our popular culture – and above all TV – reflects this. What does our individuality matter to television? All it cares about is what we are as a crowd. By the millions we repose on our couches, constantly being cajoled to be cheerful and buy, constantly being assured that we have a second and a third and a fourth chance in life. And because they mean nothing in so cossetted an environment, we accept images of violence completely lacking in restraint.
The Westerns I’m reading oppose all this. They show an archaic world, where individual action is irrevocable and where the protagonists ride toward what they already know is their fate.
In my Westerns I had found the ancient arena of tragedy. But that wasn’t all. What most thrilled me in McCarthy’s books – their stunning embodiment of the nonhuman world – I soon found echos of in books as different as Edward Hoagland’s Seven Rivers West and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. It was as if now that the wild had started to disappear it had become for these writers luminous with an internal light. Tragedy and a kind of rapture interpenetrated in my books and give them a tone like nothing else I knew of in contemporary fiction. All the books were permeated with sadness. But they were also continually touched with a present-tense joy, the strong momentary happiness you feel as the sun rises and the morning’s warmth brings you the smell of grass.
I had first known that happiness as a boy. And it was with a sense of that boy in front of me that I’d go for a walk in the morning with one of my books in my pack. I’d go up into the mesas across the road that led to Cache Creek and sit looking down at the town. It lay so small below me I could fit it in a circle made by my thumb and finger. I’d listen to the grasshoppers. I’d read McCarthy or Lonesome Dove. And I’d journey back to my childhood.
When I was a ten-year-old in Alberta, part of the fascination of cowboy stories lay in the idea of “sign.” You knew that the hero was a hero not just because he looked like a hero and carried a gun. You also knew it because he could get down on one knee and read the earth. Of all his abilities, this one was the best. It gave the cowboy that aura of power that children envelop anyone with who has a technical competence beyond their own.
The drama was always pretty much the same. If he was on a horse, the cowboy would let out a low whistle, stop, and get off. Then, with the sharp attentiveness of Sherlock Holmes or Captain Cyrus Smith in The Mysterious Island, he would gently finger the broken branch he had spotted or else roll a cigarette as he studied the barely legible trace of a week-old hoofprint. You could almost hear the wheels going around in his head as he pondered this scrap of information.
At such moments the cowboy would be as quiet and abstracted as a mechanic. But whenever these moments appeared in cowboy stories I would tense up with delight. Because here was the clue; decipher the clue and the whole story would snap into focus.
This thrilled me. And it thrilled the first audience for Western stories, too. It provided a new image of nature, one in which an intense interest attached to its tiniest details, to “a tree stump, a beaver’s den, a rock, a buffalo skin, an immobile canoe, or a floating leaf,” as Balzac put it in a passage in which he expressed the enthusiasm of Parisian readers for the books of James Fenimore Cooper that were then coming out.
In fact, the details of landscape that readers found in the first Westerns fascinated them in exactly the way clues fascinated them in the first detective stories. That was what the interest of “sign” was all about. It was a modern interest, and the cowboy hero was a modern type.
In the cowboy story you found an image of a man at work; and while his work was exotic, it remained work nonetheless. The cowboy could ride a horse, read sign, hunt; he could rope cattle, mend fences, and talk with Indians. His competence was total. And for me as a boy – just as for the old men who read Westerns in Ashcroft, walking slowly to the library from shacks and mobile homes that squatted like frogs on the banks of the Thompson – for them as for me, this competence was one of the most important aspects of his character.
Hence the fact that the classic cowboy story presented the hero’s world as a kind of working environment, as actual as the writer could make it. Everything I had loved as a boy in Alberta – the falling snow that turned the air grey; the strong pressure of the river against the cowboy’s legs as he broke the force of the current for his pregnant wife holding him on the downriver side (that wife would later die); the forested hillsides that smelled of pine and cool air; the fires he made, circled with rocks on which he baked his trout – everything was presented with a deliberate matter-of-factness, as if no matter how wild and grand the landscape the cowboy only noticed it out of the corner of his eye, if he noticed it at all.
Of course, I didn’t mind it when the writer allowed landscape description – a sentence or two flushed with a sunset. I wanted the cowboy’s world to come alive. Above all I wanted the story to show me things that as a boy in Pocahontas and Hinton I yearned to see in print: what a charging bear looked like, how stormclouds developed as they came over the palisades, how you could keep warm outside while snow whirled through the night. (You slept beneath a leanto covered with a canvas tarp that reflected the fire’s radiant heat onto your back, and imagining it I could feel the warmth of that reflected heat and how the wind made the snow fly in every direction and how towards morning the snow would stop and the night sky would fill with stars.) Like the men in Ashcroft I wanted a hero who couldn’t just shoot but also rub down a horse and tell the difference between fox and rabbit scat. And in the most engrossing Westerns – the ones that most pulled me in – I got what I was looking for.
But what gripped me was only in part the detective-engineer side of the cowboy. Even more I was enthralled by the warrior side, the freebooter, roving mercenary side that connected the cowboy hero to a long string of heroes that went all the way back to The Iliad.
Like Odysseus (and all the picaresque heroes descended from him, including Conan the Barbarian and Han Solo), the cowboy was a freelance. And the shabby, down-at-heels quality of the freelance was often brought out in Westerns. But the cowboy was different, too. Already at the age of eight or nine I could see that the cynicism that tended to go along with this shabbiness wasn’t really part of the Western hero. Even in a mediocre comic book like The Two-Gun Kid that I read with Tonio Celeya near the muskeg past the Hinton mill, the hero evoked something somber, something redolent of the harsh world around us, something that drew on the badly drawn yet still powerful landscapes through which he rode and that set him apart from the other comic book characters whose stories we followed.
And that summer in Ashcroft reading McCarthy’s masterpiece I disovered the same thing: an archaic power as terrific as that in Homer’s poem of war. Some writers I would later read deny this side of the Western hero. They assert, for instance, that the cowboy’s attractiveness lies in his air of leisure, as if he were a Peter O’Toole in boots, a kind of aristocrat who goes around shooting people and repairing widow’s fences. But I had known even as a boy that the cowboy hero "fronted" like an aboriginal convict facing a judge: his foreknowledge of death was the central fact he carried always before him.
This was given iconic form in the hundreds of cowboy movies I saw between the ages of five and ten. The old men who read Westerns in Ashcroft had just come back from the war then; like me, they were ready to appreciate dust, an austere landscape and an archaic kind of violence. We would wait for it, and it would happen.
It was always the same. The cowboy rode slowly into town, one hand in his lap. All you could hear was the wind. On that tall 50s screen, the black and white dusty streets, the blank windows, hitching posts and bare false fronts all shouted danger, but the point of these scenes, the thing that gave them their indelible power, was that they defined the cowboy. It was just this he was meant to do – to live at just this pitch of tension and with just this much at stake. Quietly he pushed through the saloon doors and made his way through suddenly silent groups of men until he stood at the bar and in a soft voice ordered a drink. And when he finally straightened and drew he slaughtered with the same clarity and intention as Achilles on the plains of Troy.
This is the first of two parts
2723 words, June 2, 2004