When the United States completed the Louisiana Purchase, a question arose among politicians and citizens around the country. What exactly did Thomas Jefferson buy? Some of it was known, but, frankly, a lot of it was a mystery. Like today, mysteries led to wild rumors and speculation. Some thought that the land was filled with mammoth. Others theorized that giants walked the land. Even the reports of Lewis and Clark did not quell the wild stories about the land that they traveled through.
This began a long fascination with the western landscape among Americans. While some ventured into the region, the vast majority was content with staying in their comfort zone and leaving the visions of the West to their imaginations. While they read dime novels exaggerating the exploits of the people in the West, they were also fed exaggerations of the images of the West.
It is easy to see how someone in the 1800s could incorrectly imagine the West as they read a book that was designed to be as adventurous as possible. The visuals were left up to them, and they only knew what the writer wanted them to know. However, the 1900s brought the invention of films. Now, the story could unfold in front of their eyes. No more imagining. They could see the real West.
Unfortunately, that’s not exactly the way it happened. The first “westerns” were filmed at Thomas Edison’s studio in New Jersey. I’m not even sure it was in western New Jersey. When the motion picture industry moved to Los Angeles, things did not get much better because movies were filmed close by. In other words, a story that was based in Texas was filmed in California. As people watched, they began to assume that Texas, and the West in general, looked like the place they were seeing on the screen.
Last night, all of this came into focus for me as I watched television with some friends. Longmire, a new show about a modern-day sheriff in Wyoming, premiered on A&E, and I had been looking forward to it. To my disappointment, it was a weak attempt to copy th success of Justified, but I digress. My friends, who have never been to Wyoming, were talking about the scenery and how beautiful it was. I have been trying to convince them to take a trip to the West instead of their usual beach excursion, and they began to get excited about going to Wyoming and seeing this beautiful place.
Wyoming is beautiful. It is one of my favorite states. However, if my friends want to see the landscapes of Longmire, then they will need to go to northern New Mexico, the filming location. I thought it looked familiar because I was just there. Anyway, I had to explain that westerns are not always filmed where the story takes place and that it has confused audiences for decades. I wondered how many people will watch the show and think that Wyoming looks like New Mexico.
Today, another example of filming that confused the audience popped up on my television. The Searchers, starring John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, is one of my favorite movies. It follows a loner who goes on a decade-long trek to find his niece who was abducted by Comanche. I could write about this movie all night but need to focus on the scenery in which the action takes place. The director, John Ford, used his favorite filming location, Monument Valley, because of its grand vistas. In fact, I used a photograph of Monument Valley for the banner above.
The problem is that the story takes place in Texas while Monument Valley sits in Utah. Through the years, I wonder how many people think Texas, an iconic locale for western stories, looks like that. I can promise that it doesn’t.
People have always imagined the West differently. In the 1800s, misconception was understandable because technology and transportation did not offer easy opportunities to see it. During most of the 1900s, a trip into the West was also difficult for many. However, today, with interstates and internet, there is not excuse for imagining the West incorrectly. I urge everyone, if provided with the opportunity, to travel through it and see for yourselves.
Wyoming does not look like New Mexico, and Texas does not look like Utah. However, each of those places and all of the rest have a beauty all their own. Don’t be fooled by the movies and television because the West is more magnificent than they can show and you can imagine. Plus, it will all be in the right places.