What Is The West?
Cheryl Diane Kidder
I grew up on westerns, watched them every weeknight before bed: Wild Wild West, The Virginian, Shane, The Searchers, The Rifleman, Have Gun - Will Travel. The Virginian and Paladin both wore all black, one handsome, one not so much. Clearly western heroes came in all forms and I never crossed myself off that list. I never saw myself as the femme fatale, the woman in danger, or the unappreciated farmer’s wife. I was James West, Ethan Edwards, Shane, Lucas McCain, The Virginian. I was Paladin.
I learned about cattle drives, shootouts and riding out into the middle of nowhere, hell bent for leather. In westerns, there was no closing of the frontier. Westerns were forever, no matter the crowd of homesteaders hovering in the background during a shootout, no matter that wagon train headed for points west was bound to arrive at its destination—after the closing credits—and those souls who survived the trip most likely would put down roots, build cabins that turned into towns, into cities, into laws imported from the east. Cabins that did their best to mimic the Victorian styles of their inhabitant’s place of origin.
I watched westerns and understood that the best place to be was out in the middle of it, despite rattlesnakes, swollen rivers, or waterless deserts. That was freedom—riding the range with no fences, no boundaries, no law. Law itself was an ever-changing, dynamic notion. The west had its own law.
In my dreams I rode horses that could fly over the landscape—a landscape never without water, never crowded, a landscape I defined with my own ideas of right and wrong. In my westerns Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty were my parents with too many rules, spent too much time indoors, were tied down to one place, one life. Always impeding my burgeoning attempts to create my own life, my own west.
I was Shane slowly walking my cream Palomino out past the creek to the foothills, bound for the glorious snow-capped mountains just within view. I knew what that boy’s voice calling my name was all about: he was the child I would never have if I followed that trail, if I didn’t put down roots, take on the trappings of the Starrett family—cabin, garden, corral and endless miles of fences.
I was Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter, taking that slow ride out of town on a gray horse, the town I’d just laid waste to in the background.
I was John Wayne walking away from the Jorgensen’s cabin, framed by the dark of the door in The Searchers.
I knew where I belonged and where I didn’t. I knew who my heroes were and would always be. I knew I was born in the west. I know I’ll never live anywhere else.