The West's mythmakers are now its newcomers

  • John Clayton

  If you heard about the man who kicked off his campaign for governor by swinging a medieval battle sword on horseback in the middle of downtown Billings, you probably thought, "Only in Montana."

Glenn Schaffer posed at the offices of the local paper in February on a stallion named Big Dog Thunder Horse, and said that his campaign motto would be "Honor, Above All Else." He cited Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, as his example. Announcing that he would campaign across the state with his horse, he said, "I will not ask for money, but for water and shelter for me and my steed." The Billings Gazette put his story on the front page.

This was my first reaction: Here’s a typical Montana character. But later I was struck by a different fact buried deep in the article: Schaffer has lived in Montana only four years.

I thus see him as the latest example of an under-appreciated trend: the newcomers who feed off — and thus feed — our Western myths. Do you see the West as the frontier, a place where you can reinvent yourself? Then you’re probably from the East. Do you equate wilderness with unspoiled purity? Then chances are you’re from a coastal city. Do you see the concept of honor on horseback as proving your electability? Then maybe you’re a recent immigrant from Pennsylvania.

When I moved to Montana 14 years ago, I was gung-ho for its mountain image. I bought cross-country skis and a mountain bike. I acquired a dog and hiked constantly. I felt inferior for not being a rock-climber, telemark skier or winter backpacker. But then I met Montanans who hadn’t made the two-hour drive to Yellowstone in decades.

As a newcomer to my small town, I quickly volunteered to serve on boards and committees to preserve and strengthen our community. And I soon learned that without the newcomers’ enthusiasm, many such organizations would wither and die.

I developed a passion for Montana literature, and then learned that my fiancée, who grew up in eastern Montana, preferred Dostoevsky. The more time I spend here, the more I alter my picture of typical Montanans. Because the more time they’ve been here, the less they’re interested in horses or cowboys or wilderness or quaint small-town cafés. Instead, they want snowmobiles, Harleys, economic development and the new Olive Garden.

Friends tell me of similar situations around the West. In Wyoming, newcomers embrace the horse-packing image; in New Mexico and parts of Colorado, they build with adobe; in Utah, they repeat the Ed Abbey stories. It’s the people from elsewhere who most love and sustain the old myths. Of course, I’m speaking in broad stereotypes here, but I do so for a reason: It’s really interesting when they meet. Just as the intersection of two ecosystems — say, forest and meadow — creates the richest habitat for wildlife, I find this intersection of myth and anti-myth to be a home for a vibrant culture.

When he taught in the environmental studies program at the University of Montana, Don Snow told me he thought the school’s great reputation came from the way it took environmentalists and turned them into Montanans. He said that with great pride, with respect for both types of people and the way exposure to differing perspectives can enrich one’s life. We live at the intersection of myth and reality, and everybody gets confused as to which street is which. So we get some strange combinations, like "modem cowboys" and "Harley rodeos."

When Glenn Schaffer gets on his horse, he’s part of that mix. And when we report or read about people like him, so are we. It doesn’t matter whether Montana really has any more characters than anywhere else. The point is that we want it to. Montana has attracted people who believe in characters, or wilderness, or individualism, or cowboys. Those beliefs fuel a culture we love — and perpetuate.

I celebrate Glenn Schaffer not just because he’s unusual. I admire the way he has grasped the heroic elements of his own Montana vision. After all, 102 years ago another Pennsylvanian grafted the concept of honor onto a horseman. Owen Wister dubbed his creation "The Virginian," and so created the cowboy myth.

John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes from Red Lodge, Montana, where he is a local columnist who covers a lot of dog stories.