Who put the West in westerns? Sounds like a bit of an odd question, but it might be a tougher question than it first sounds. The old west, the one of so many books, is both a place and a period of time. The where is the old west is a tough question, but by most definitions it is west of the Missouri River, south to Mexico and north through Alaska. The old west as a period of time, I see as from the end of the civil war until the introduction of the automobile in America. Commonly this time period is seen as from the Gold Rush to Wounded Knee, 1849-1890.
In Wyoming, we like to say we are the last of the old west, or that we are the real west. If that is true, the west of today refers to wide open spaces. That’s the reason California and most of the highly populated Pacific coast are no longer thought of as the west. Genre westerns often were set in California, gold rush, land grabbers and city builders all made good plots. Today the west coast still makes an excellent setting for movies and books, but none are thought of as westerns. Western’s weather set in the 1800s or present day need wide open spaces.
Today writers of westerns set in modern time seem to follow this idea. It is easier to write a western if there are wide open spaces involved, Wyoming and Montana come to mind here. Mountains, forest, wild rivers and long lonesome highways seem to make good modern western stories.
But the real west is defined by the cowboy. If a cowboy is involved, it must be a western story. Western romance sells millions of copies each year, the book covers usually depicting a cowboy, shirt unbuttoned, hat, boots, and beautiful women. Why do they sell? Is it the western flavor, the romance element, or the wide open spaces? I would guess it is a bit of all of the above. Today the sparsely populated west is full of romance and mystery to many people, especially people from metropolitan areas.
One of the reasons we live in Wyoming is because we love the empty areas. I know, this is not for everyone. We have to drive more than an hour to the nearest Wal-Mart and nearly two hours to a Shopping Mall. For many this would be a disaster of colossal proportion. Even worse, the closest hospital is a half hour away and to find a lawyer, accountant or college we must drive at least half an hour. But we trudge on. The reason we like it here, all of the photos on this page were taken closer than the nearest Wal-Mart.
Love the west!