The plaque next to the room number read “Cabin Fever.” The beds were roughhewn logs and the queen size coverlets were red and brown, vaguely southwestern and new. A stone fireplace and an antler chandelier flanked a view of the parking lot and the interstate. The Best Western’s version of rustic was nice – faux wood and plastic antlers – but adequate and shiny.
I was up at five a.m., unable to sleep, trying to talk myself into a run. I knew my mother was awake in the other bed, and if she heard me stirring she’d guilt me into a run. We were nervous. We’d driven several hours to Montana the day before to meet my brother’s new family. My youngest brother surprised us all a few weeks ago with news that he’d eloped with his girlfriend and taken a new job in Austin, Texas.
My mother rolled over in the dark and asked me for my computer. She wanted to watch TV. It took me a minute to register –neither of us has cable and we don’t spend much time with the boob tube. But we’d heard the buzz about a new series featuring our small Wyoming town and we wanted to see what Hollywood had done with our secret western paradise.
Craig Johnson’s hero, Walt Longmire, is 6-foot-5 former Marine turned Absaroka country sheriff. He’s quiet and thoughtful, a sort of Wyoming Sherlock with a rifle and a Stetson. Johnson is a fixture in Sheridan and his novel’s characters look and sound like a mash-up of every rancher and county commissioner I grew up around. Johnson’s books are fun and he has captured the imagination of half the world with his western whodunits – “never underestimate the romanticism of the American West” he says.
I immediately noticed the details in A&E’s adaptation. Though the show was filmed in New Mexico, Johnson worked closely with the producers as an “executive creative consultant” and managed to nail many of the most western particulars: the battered sheriff’s truck even has those ubiquitous heather-blue seat covers. I’m not sure if I liked “Longmire” because I love this place or because it’s the rare TV show that I will make time to watch.
My brother’s new in-laws are enamored with his – our – cowboy childhood. They are familiar with the Cowboy trope; they’re from Texas, but Sam’s ability to saddle a horse, move cattle, and fix fence seems to have lent him golden-boys status. They want to see the grass lands we grew up on, to hear about our long days behind a cattle chute and in the dry pastures of Wyoming and Eastern Montana. I recommended they watch Longmire.
The irony of the western motel room is that somehow they – and A&E’s producers – got something right. A&E’s producers captured the complexity and starkness of western life: we live both in the romanticized, cowboy version of the west and in the complicated, starkness of the mountains and high desert. We live with and in the weather, beside our animals and our boom towns. We are connected by technology to the sophistication of Paris and Beijing, but we cling to our western ideals and cowboy style. I’m not sure why the Cowboy myth and American West have such universal appeal, though there is something great about the rugged idealism and isolation that a lone cowboy and a horse brings to mind. But it’s not always what it seems – like the faux Best Western log bed and Walt Longmire’s New Mexican Wyoming – we create our own spaces, pluck ideas from myth and from reality.