Like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, I have nothing, in short to recommend me but being an excellent walker. I can walk for miles and miles as long as I have a good book in my ears and it’s not too cold. (Heat I’m fine with, but cold? No thanks. When I get cold, it takes forever for me to warm back up, and it physically hurts me to be chilly. I’ve been known to cry angry tears when I’m freezing.)
Since the COVID madness, I’ve ramped things up, walking four miles a day on average, and the more stressed or mad I get, the longer my walks become. In fact, I rage-walked 6.83 miles one day last week because I was OVER IT ALL.
I’m not ill-informed, stupid, selfish, or stubborn; I just don’t believe in a piece of cloth’s ability to solve a natural pandemic, and based on all the flip-flopping and conflicting statements, I don’t believe the “experts” really do either. I do believe completely in Ronald Reagan’s quip that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” As someone who grew up in a foreign country that was sort-of free (there were elections, but the outcome was predetermined; you had to be very careful not to criticize the government; I lived through a failed military coup when I was 12 and remember the countless police checkpoints after the coup was put down), I was raised to believe in the Constitution of the United States and its purpose: to protect her citizens FROM the government by limiting its powers. This idea that we are now beholden TO the government instead hurts me deep in my soul.
But I digress; back to books and walking. My go-to audiobooks these days have weirdly been of the Wild West variety (not my typical). I listened to a book about Doc Holliday that I LOVED (called Doc, by Mary Doria Russell), which made me want to load up the car immediately and head to Dodge City and then on to Tombstone. (Hey! A new bucket list item!) A couple of days ago, I finished a book by Larry McMurtry (of the Lonesome Dove fame) called Zeke and Ned.
What an unexpected joy! The story was great, the characters fantastic, and the setting a pleasant surprise; because Zeke and Ned are part Cherokee, they live in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, a town very familiar to me as that is where I received both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree and started my college teaching career (at the former Cherokee Female Seminary, now known as Northeastern State University).
An even more unexpected delight was the reference to Siloam Spring, Arkansas, the town just over the border where I teach, shop, and yes, walk. I’d never heard any book before mention Siloam Springs, and though it was only briefly discussed as a place where the men went to gamble, it was still very cool to imagine a writer of McMurtry’s status noticing the town enough to put it in the book.
I’m not sure why I’m so attracted to Wild West stories these days. Maybe it’s because I relate to and long for the fierce independence of the characters of old, be they sheriff, outlaw, prostitute, or farmer. I imagine the bemused expressions on the faces of these scarlet fever, smallpox, and dysentery survivors as they are told to stay home for an illness that has claimed less than .26% of the population. Then they’re informed that if they do go out, they must cover their faces “to protect others.” Their response would likely be to laugh uproariously before reminding the mask mandate-giver that only bank and train robbers cover their faces.
I am also drawn to the old-fashioned style of writing in westerns, regardless of the author. For example, in Zeke and Ned, a character is raped, but instead of every gory detail that television, movies, and many contemporary books in other genres love to provide, the terrible event is relayed simply by the observation that the woman “was outraged” and scoundrels “treated her rough.” My horror and sorrow for the character was not lessened by the lack of voyeuristic explanation.
I love all the “-some” words in westerns—“bothersome,” “troublesome,” “tiresome,” “worrisome,” “winsome”—and that usually the most swearsome words are “hell” (usually preceded by “aw”) and “damnation.” Other non-swear swears abound—“tarnation,” “I’ll be blasted” (or “hornswoggled”), “darn-tootin,” “by ginger,” and “jumped up Jehoshaphat.” I’ve always believed that excessive swearing shows a limited vocabulary and lack of creativity; saying, “Now git—you’re as ugly as homemade sin, and that mug of yourn is curdling my milk” is so much more interesting than “eff you.”
I appreciate, too, the manners and codes of honor in these books. Everyone knows his or her place and someone is always on hand to gently (or not-so-gently) remind those who forget. People in western novels talk, but they also listen, and if they disagree, they at least offer courtesy in the disagreement. Nobody is screeching to get his or her way—opinions are presented, and then that’s the end of it. Conversation is just that–a “talk between two or more people, in which news and ideas are exchanged” (Merriam-Webster). It’s not a must-win-at-all-cost argument, which these days seems to be all conversation is anymore, at least on the internet.
Finally, though everything doesn’t always end “happily ever after,” justice is always served. The bad guy gets his comeuppance; you can bet he’s going to end up shot or hung for the outrages and rough treatments he indulged in. Order is restored. The brothel madam with the heart of gold marries a man who treats her right, and if the cowboy hero dies, it is with his boots on and his reputation grown as big as a Texas sky. The hero’s faithful horse and even more faithful dog remain alive and unscathed, either to ride the hero off into the sunset or to sit quietly by his grave, mourning his loss forever. When the last page is turned (or read, as in an audiobook), I can sigh with satisfaction and trudge back to the chaos of this world, my feet sore, the heel pads almost worn to bone, my heart hoping for a return to stability and justice and freedom.