The West loses an unsentimental guide

  Historian David Lavender was the best sort of guide a traveler in the West could have: A quiet man with a wry sense of humor, he was passionate about this region, refused to romanticize it and was happy to share his knowledge if asked.

He was never sentimental about the West, writing about cowboys: "Although they were slaves to a particularly stupid and unattractive animal, they became symbols of the West's vaunted freedom."

His death on April 26 at age 93 deprived us all of a treasured companion --a companion most of those he guided across the West never met.

I met him at a bookstore in 1995. I’d picked up a copy of "The Way to the Western Sea" several years earlier, and found myself swept along the trail of Lewis and Clark by his graceful prose. It was the first full-scale account of the Corps of Discovery's trek across the American West from 1803 to 1806, predating Stephen Ambrose's best selling "Undaunted Courage" by nearly a decade.

My enjoyment of David Lavender’s Lewis and Clark book led me to seek out others he had written and later inspired my own journey along the explorers’ path. I am grateful to him for leading me along many other trails, for there is scarcely a corner of the West’s history that he did not explore during a career that spanned half a century.

Born in Telluride, Colo., in 1910, he grew up on a cattle ranch and later moved with his family to Denver. His family’s roots in the Southwest run deep: Lavender Peak, a 13,160-foot summit in the La Plata Mountains, is named after his brother; Lavender Canyon, on the edge of Canyonlands National Park, is likely named for his stepfather, a rancher who also ran a stagecoach line. His grandfather was chief justice of Colorado.

Like many Westerners, he headed east as a young man, earning a bachelor's degree from Princeton University in 1931. He returned to the West after graduation and attended Stanford University’s law school for a year. He came to Ojai, Calif., in 1943 to teach English at Thacher School, a private college-preparatory school in the hills about 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles, where he worked until his retirement in 1970.

It was while teaching at Thacher that he wrote most of his 38 books. The collection of essays called "One Man's West" is a gem. It chronicles his experiences on his family's ranch and mining for gold. Others include two Pulitzer Prize-nominated volumes: "Bent's Fort," examining the role of the commercial fur trade in the opening of the West, and "Land of Giants," about the settling of the Pacific Northwest.

He once said he did not regard himself as a historian, but rather as a writer fascinated by history. He made the distinction out of modesty, I suppose, perhaps believing that he and his work lacked appropriate academic credentials. But there was as much scholarly rigor in his work as in any conventional history text. His books have the added value of reflecting his keen appreciation of personalities and the details of daily life in a vanished time.

A book reviewer once praised his work as having "the rhythm and gritty detail of a yarn told around a campfire."

He was surprisingly sanguine about the greater popularity of other Western writers. When I asked if he were annoyed by "Undaunted Courage" -- especially after Stephen Ambrose was accused of plagiarizing him and several other authors -- he said, "Ambrose, unfortunately, among historians, does not have a very good reputation."

Then with tongue in cheek and a smile in his eyes, he added, "But I do not feel it necessary for me to join the roster. I should just pout."

Lavender won many awards during his long life, including the Wallace Stegner Award from the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado. When he and I first met in that bookstore in 1995, he had just launched a second career, writing children’s books about history -- he confessed he could no longer sustain the concentration required to produce full-length scholarly works.

I bought a copy of the volume he was promoting that day, "The Santa Fe Trail," and asked him to sign it. He inscribed it, to my lasting delight, to "a fellow wanderer on the Western trails."

There are many such wanderers. For decades, David Lavender was our guide, and we will miss his unflinching vision.

John Krist is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a columnist for the Ventura Star in California.