I received a postcard from a friend who’s traveling through the American West. I don’t have time to explain what a “postcard” is to those of you unfamiliar with actual physical pieces of mail, but think of it as a photo of a place that someone has traveled, with a message written on the back. Quaint, I know, but they used to be quite popular.
The photo on that card was a typical scene of the Old West. It showed the interior of a saloon, complete with mounted elk and bear heads, rickety wooden tables, big painted mirror behind the bar, and a couple of gen-u-ine-looking cowpokes leaning at the bar with their booted feet on the rail. Yep, pod’ner, a taste a’ the OLD WEST.
The Counselor and I have been to lots of joints like that, although we’ve passed-by far more than we’ve visited. I distinctly remember one, the Buckhorn Inn, in Pinos Altos, New Mexico, down in the southwest corner of the state on the edge of the Gila Wilderness. We had heard that it was not only a piece of original Westiana (if that wasn’t a word before, it is now), being a long-ago stagecoach stop, but that it had great food, too. The food did turn out to be quite good, though I’m a little unclear on what we had, since it was too dark in there to read the menu or, once your food came, to make out what it was. Seems they took the whole “genuine” thing to the extreme, providing about the level of lighting you’d’ve had indoors in 1878 or so, and that wasn’t much (of course, before Rural Electrification, that condition may have persisted in places like Pinos Altos until the 1930s). For a while we thought we’d wandered into one of those restaurants whose gag it is to have you simulate blindness, to appreciate what truly unsighted people experience, where the wait staff often are blind, themselves. But, no, there was enough of a glimmer here and there to make out old daguerrotypes on the walls, and mounted dead animals hanging overhead. I think I had chicken. It tasted like chicken.
Probably you’ve wondered — if you’ve traveled to places like the Buckhorn — how the proprietors establish and maintain that atmosphere of utter authenticity in those old Western haunts. Under Western Skies is here to explain, because I not only know the answer, but I have been to the source from which it springs: The Western Hyperbole Mine.
You’ll forgive me if I am not at liberty to disclose the location of the Ol’ Hype, as it’s called by those in the know, nor can I reveal all the secret processes that result in the creation of countless outlets of authentic Western Experience, but I am at liberty to reveal at least a few of its hitherto close-guarded secrets.
I was there on assignment with a two-person video crew, and the three of us stepped out of the smallest turboprop known to mankind onto the tarmac of the smallest airport I’ve ever reached by a commercial flight. We were in the western high desert, and Salt Lake City was two flights behind us. There were no connections beyond this little strip; it was literally the End of the Line. We had rooms at one of the two motels in town. Just my luck, my motel was the one that didn’t have the local casino. I hiked over to the casino after dinner, anyway, and I can honestly say that I was both charmed by the feeling that I had penetrated to the absolute heart of the American Scene, and dismayed by the tawdriest casino in the known universe. It was, in fact, such a poorly run joint that I made money that night. (It doesn’t even appear in Sanford Wong’s Pi-Yee Press that rates every known blackjack game in the U.S.). The little town’s main business is the Ol’ Hype, plus a lot of local farming, much of which is hay that’s grown there and trucked to the racetracks and horse stables of southern California.
It was April, and the morning dawned icy cold. The night before, I had failed to notice that almost all the cars in the motel lot were facing a certain way. I noticed it that morning, though, because my car, parked in the conventional manner, had a frosted-over windshield, while every other car had been parked to face the rising sun, which had sublimed away the frost. There’s a lesson in paying attention to the locals.
My crew and I had breakfast at the motel, and headed for the Western Hyperbole Mine, about 8 miles away. Here is what we saw (Click on photo to enlarge).
That is a hole a mile wide, half a mile across to the far side, and a quarter of a mile deep. The dots you see on those horizontal lines are trucks moving up and down, into and out of the bottom of the mine. Here is a closer photo of one of those trucks:
Its tires are approximately 14 feet tall. It’s about 20 feet up the ladder into the cab. In the previous photo, the road on which those trucks travel is one hundred feet wide, in order to accommodate two-way traffic up and down. In those trucks, the operators of the Ol’ Hype haul up the ore they collect in this vast hole in the ground. Yes, HERE is where the West gets its atmosphere, because THIS is a big hole FULL of atmosphere! It’s air, but air of an extremely rare and rarefied variety. It is the raw ore from which the owners of the mine refine atmosphere, ambience and style that turns countless ordinary shacks across the American West into paragons of the Western Ethos.
The origins of the Ol’ Hype are lost in legend, but apparently, back when the West was Being Won, some itinerant prospector discovered a source of pure Western Atmosphere emanating from a crack in the ground. Today’s vast mining operation is the result.
I cannot show you the details of loading these mammoth machines full of Western Atmosphere down in the bottom of that pit — that’s one of their proprietary processes. I can tell you that constantly, around the clock, Western Atmospheric Engineers are sampling, testing and assaying the aether of this immense reservoir of Genuine West-ness, and, based on the results of their tests, they rate the pockets of atmosphere by a long series of gradations: from “Hokey” and “Jokey” to “Corny” and “Raw,” all the way up to the “3 B’s (in ascending order):” Bushwa,” “Bunkum” and “Bodacious.”
Not what you expected, is it? Nope, me neither. But there it was. 30 or so monster hauling machines, running day and night, hauling raw Western Atmosphere to a state-of-the-art processing plant.
When the big trucks reach the refinery at the end of the long climb out of the mine, their precious cargo is piped into a vast complex of pipes and refining processes (all very secret: we didn’t shoot any video of that portion), and then the various grades of finished atmosphere are pumped into big tanker trucks for delivery to purveyors of Old West Hyperbole across western Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Montana and Idaho.
You’ll see them, if you’re vigilant. A big tanker truck — unmarked — pulls up, almost always in the wee hours of the morning, idling on the black top parking lots of little shacks and shanties, restaurants and truck stops. A guy gets out of the truck, drags a hose from the rear of the tank to a coupling on the side of the building, closes the connection, opens the valve, and dispenses … atmosphere. The owner emerges in the pre-dawn chill, signs the clipboard he’s offered, and with a screech of air brakes and a puff of black smoke from the twin diesel stacks, the trucker is heading down another long black road to the next stop. His work here is done. A couple of hours later, the tourists and the locals alike will pull onto that same asphalt slab and wander in past the mounted black bear in the vestibule, under the canopy of mule deer antlers and plop into a booth to have huevos rancheros or chiles rellenos, never knowing that it all came from the bottom of a vast pit in an unknown corner of the Great West.
So, the next time you’re passing through Abilene, Cody, Missoula or Dodge City and you stop for pancakes or burgers, look around you. Everything seems just right: the branding-iron wall sconces; the lariat-rope edges on the furniture; the vintage chuck wagon implements hanging on the wall. “Man,” you think, “This place has an atmosphere right out of the Old West.”
Now you know how they do it.
© 2011, 2015 Brad Nixon