A friend of mine recently asked a group of us gathered round her firepit if we thought there might be any silver linings in our pandemic year.
My wife had a good answer.
“This has been the year when the call of an owl or a sky at sunset has often been the most momentous thing of our day,” she remarked. “During this past year of solitude and introspection, I think people have spent more time in nature among the simpler things.
“And we’ve looked to these things to fill our souls with hope.”
I think she’s spot-on. We’ve all cut away the fat of the world some and dwelt more in the vital, reacquainting ourselves with the reassuring wide opens all around us. Visits to open space and state parks and trails and waterfalls and lakes are all up mightily in the last year.
When I’m not outside soaking up the West, I’ve found myself armchair exploring with that Shakespeare of sage, Zane Grey, to sustain the reacquaintance. I’m finding that no one captures the pull and power of the Western landscape quite as well as Grey.
For example, in "The Mysterious Rider," he wrote: "But here, after the first few moments of exquisite riot of his senses, where fragrance of grass and blossom filled the air, and blaze of gold canopied the purple, he began to think how beautiful the earth was, how Nature hid her rarest gifts for those who loved her most, how good it was to live, if only for these blessings."
And in "Riders of the Purple Sage," Grey speaks perfectly to our longing for a return to former lives: “As he spoke the west wind softly blew in his face. That west wind was fresh, cool, fragrant, and it carried a sweet, strange burden of far-off things — tidings of life in other times, of sunshine asleep on other walls — of other places where reigned peace. It carried, too, sad truth of human hearts and mystery — of promise and hope unquenchable.”
I mean, right? Just the balm I think we need in this time of isolation and shrunken horizons.
Grey's love of wildness kept him roaming these mountains all his life. “Surely, of all the gifts that have come to me from contact with the West, this one of sheer love of wildness, beauty, color, grandeur, has been the greatest, the most significant for my work,” he once said.
Other writers may be better at drama and action and slam-bang plots, but I haven’t found any Western wordsmith who can hold a candle to Grey for sublime descriptions of where we live.
“I sat there for a long time and knew that every second the scene changed, yet I could not tell how,” he wrote in “The Plainsman.”
“I knew I sat high over a hole of broken, splintered, barren mountains; I knew I could see a hundred miles of the length of it, and eighteen miles of the width of it, and a mile of the depth of it, and the shafts and rays of rose light on a million glancing, many-hued surfaces at once; but that knowledge was no help to me. I repeated a lot of meaningless superlatives to myself, and I found words inadequate and superfluous. The spectacle was too elusive and too great. It was life and death, heaven and hell.”
The West that lives in our collective imagination was created almost single-handedly by Grey. He invented the Lone Ranger and hundreds of other prototypical Western characters. His 90-plus books, which have sold over 40 million copies, crystallized the frontier myth we all carry of a vivid landscape inhabited by cowboys, outlaws, wild horses, and noble Indians.
He also gave this mythological West a home along the southern margin of the Colorado Plateau, which is where all his books took place, so that the landscape we live in today lives on as the quintessential West in the minds of much of America.
More than 112 movies have been made from Grey's vision of the West.
And as if to reaffirm our reattachment to this mythical landscape during the pandemic, Hollywood has reembraced such Western movies of late.
“Hollywood Renews Love for Westerns: The Good, the Bad and the Binge-Worth,” declared a recent headline in the Wall Street Journal.
Studios are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on dozens of new Western series and films, neo-Westerns and even space Westerns, many shot on location in Colorado, New Mexico and Montana. ViacomCBS Inc. is planning several new serialized Westerns based on the success of “Yellowstone,’’ starring Kevin Costner. Netflix has two cowboy-theme movies coming out soon and Angelina Jolie is filming “Those Who Wish Me Dead” for Warner Bros, due out in May.
“The Western is American as apple pie … this timeless battle of good versus evil,” Chris McCarthy, president of ViacomCBS’s MTV Entertainment Group, told the Journal.
Why are Westerns rising again, and why have the simpler joys of nature reasserted their pull on us in this dark and broken time?
My guess is it is because the soaring peaks and endless skies of the West take us far away from our woes and speak of continuity to us. Their grandness and timelessness put our puny problems into perspective.
As usual, Zane Grey probably said it best: “The so-called civilization of man and his works shall perish from the earth, while the shifting sands, the red looming walls, the purple sage, and the towering monuments, the vast brooding range show no perceptible change.”
He saw the West, in the end, as the native home of new beginnings, where us humans, in the shadow of that abiding natural beauty, “may rise on stepping stones of our dead selves to higher things.”