Thursday, February 9, 2017

Why would anyone want to write westerns?

Yeah, why?

Since my original ancestor Captain John Whipple landed in what is now Massachusetts, his descendents have pushed westward. Even Commodore Abraham Whipple, the ship captain who fired the first shot in anger by the Continental Navy, moved westward into Ohio.

My own grandfather, Willard, born some 200 years after Captain John, arrived in Arizona as a young man. He worked making charcoal for silver refineries in Nevada until he had enough money to get a place in Arizona. The homestead he filed on near the current Fool’s Hollow Lake is a golf course, but when I was a boy, it grew corn.

All my dad ever wanted to be was a cowboy. But of eleven children, my grandparents chose Dad as the one child they would send to college. So his day job was educator; his regular job was ranching. And that’s where I grew up.

Show Low, Arizona, is still a small town as such communities go in Arizona. But when I was a boy, it was a little mountain community of some 350 families. I knew them all by name.

My uncle Howard was a full-time rancher. My uncle Orson was the local game warden. And my Dad was the principal of the local elementary school. There was no high school.

I listened to the stories of those who’d come into the country in the 1880s. Clyde Merrill regularly drove by our house with team and wagon. He never did buy a car. Aunt Sarah Mills, as we all called her, always said Geronimo tried to buy her from her father with four prime Apache ponies. And Bushrod Ellsworth (his real name was LaMell, but what man would want to go by that name?) found the burial cave of the old Apache chief P’Tone. Bushrod was our hero. He rode a sawmill carriage during the day, carrying 3-foot-thick Ponderosa logs into a whirling 4-foot saw that stripped the logs into 2-inch boards. Early in the morning and late in the evening, he pranced past our house on the hill riding a golden palomino horse with white mane and tail. Bushrod wore his curly hair long and held it back with a rolled red bandana tied in a headband. His shoulders were an axe handle and a handspan wide, and the fringed buckskin jacket he wore was made from mule deer hide he’d tanned himself. To us, he seemed like the last of the mountain men.

Growing up in Show Low, I had more cousins than one child has a right to expect. Sam was a year older. Wayne J six months older. Earl six months younger. Jay a year behind. Couldn’t we get into trouble? But that has nothing to do with writing westerns . . . or does it?

Together, we rode horses from before we could even walk. Together we held down calves while fathers and older cousins made the ear marks, branded them, and castrated the bull calves with freshly whetted pocket knives. Together we dug postholes and hoed corn and baled hay and chopped silage. Together we played and worked and grew. Our west wasn’t the wild west of our grandfather, but it was feet on the ground, head in the clouds west. The same kind of west that hardy pioneers carved into a place where their descendents could have a good life.

Many of the stereotypes of western stories lived in Show Low. Charlie Johnson owned the feed store. Lamar and Leland Nicklaus ran the grocery store, long before there was such a thing as a supermarket. Bill Huso had a Shell station on the corner, but in times past, it would have been a livery stable. The church house stood on the hill, actually an ancient Indian burial ground, in the same spot as Corydon Cooley had his White House, a ranch headquarters and bed-and-breakfast rolled into one.

Cordon Cooley and Marion Clark built a ranch in a valley where a good-sized creek flowed from a malpais canyon and meandered through nearly ten miles of meadows before dropping into another canyon to the north. Cooley had been a scout for the army at Fort Apache, some 20 miles away. Clark was a teamster. Less than three years from the start of their partnership, Cooley and Clark found it impossible to work together. One had to leave. In a Western novel, the standoff might have been a shootout, but in real life, Cordon Cooley suggested they cut a deck of cards to decide who left and who remained. “Show low and win the ranch,” Cooley said. History does not record the card that Marion Clark showed. But Corydon Cooley showed a deuce of clubs, winning the ranch and the right to stay. From then on, it was the Show Low Ranch, which grew into the town of Show Low.

The cabins the pioneers lived in still existed back then, though they were falling apart. Corrals built half a century before still held cattle. Fields first plowed by hardy pioneers still produced corn and alfalfa and wheat and oats and vegetables for the table. The orchard my grandfather planted gave us plums, pears, apples, and currents. The applesauce my mother made turned into apple pie and apple cobbler and a dish she called Brown Betty.

I got a bicycle for Christmas when I was in the third grade, but my preferred method of transportation was Old Spot. Spot was a three-color paint that was three years older than I and somewhat wiser. No matter what direction we travelled in, he always knew the way home, and for some reason, his pace toward home was at least twice as fast as when going away. Spot took me to my first paying job, watering the plants at the Paint Pony Lodge. We’d arrive at 6 a.m. and work until nine, for 25 cents an hour. Good pay in those days.

The route to the Paint Pony took me past Bill’s Bar, where the cowboys drank and by the Malapai Inn, where the gentlemen imbibed. Those, along with the Blue Moon dance hall, were the social centers for many adults. I never got to go inside, but I looked in the doors many times. It looked like fun. And sometimes fun turned into fights.

In time, Spot retired and a little roan mare named Pocahontas took his place. She and I rode together. Chased girls together. Caught them together. But when I turned 18 and Pocahontas was six, I went away to college. I never really returned, though I went back home for summer break. When I did get back, Pocahontas and I would ride to the east section to the promontory overlooking Long Lake, and drink the clean Arizona air while we watched the prairie dogs that dotted the slope leading down to the lake. I wrote a piece about that once. Maybe you can read it some time.

I’m a Whipple, and our DNA sends us west. Mine took me all the way to Japan by way of Hawaii. While in college and since, I devoured western novels. Zane Grey. Owen Wister. Gordon Shirreffs. Clair Huffaker. Max Brand. Ray Hogan. Louis L’Amour. And the classics, of course. The Ox Bow Incident. The Big Sky. Shane. The Searchers. I first listened to Gunsmoke on radio (no TV in Show Low) with William Conrad as Matt Dillon. I still remember the line, “I’m the first man they look for and the last they want to see.” Apparently Conrad didn’t fit the image so James Arness became Matt Dillon on Television. Watched lots of those programs. Bonanza. Alias Smith and Jones. Branded. The Rebel. High Chaparral. Wanted Dead or Alive. Paladin. Of course there are more.

People often ask me why I live in Japan. My answer is, “I like to live with my wife.” I also like to write novels that I hope bring back some of the lives my grandfather and other Arizonans of his generation lived. So far, my novels are mostly set in Arizona, on purpose. I know that land. I’ve ridden the hills and valleys, climbed the cliffs and canyons, and hunted in the mammoth Ponderosa forest that covers the great Mogollon Rim. I hope my readers catch the authenticity of Arizona and the West from my writing. I hope to make my home state live. And I hope I show all its people, black, white, red, and yellow, as they should be portrayed.

That’s why I write westerns.

One last piece of trivia. The first capital of Arizona in 1863 was Fort Whipple.


  1. Nice read, I even had to look up Show Low and read a bit about it. Once someone lives in cowboy country it is impossible to ever get completely away. I still write one and read about a dozen westerns each year.

  2. The West is in my blood, but so is sailing. Commodore Abraham Whipple gave me that, I guess. That said, I've not written about sailing yet.