Miles from Nowhere: In Search of the American Frontier – Dayton Duncan (1993)

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In the past few years, I’ve become really interested in the history of places (both the place that I live and also those of the places that I visit), and I enjoy learning about the different narratives that make up the more complete picture of a place. So, when I came across this title at one of the FoL book sales, I was intrigued.

I’d also been interested in seeing how many of the titles that I’d purchased at last year’s FoL book sale I’d actually read, and realized how very small and paltry that number was. And — I’ve also started my Fall Book Buying Ban which means making a concerted effort to read more titles from my own bookshelves. I did this last year and it was pretty fun so thought I’d start it up again.

Plus I’m heading to England next month and I can always find some interesting titles over there. Need to get some space freed up in the shelves for those treasures who cross the Atlantic on the home trip.

So, all this to say that reading this particular title was good on several different levels!

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This title is one that examines America’s contemporary frontier (as in the “Wild West” frontier). As the publisher writes in the back cover copy: “[T]he sparsely populated American frontier – declared as “closed” by Frederick Jackson Turner a century ago – remains open…” and this book explores the history and current (as in 1993 current) status of “frontier counties” (i.e. counties that have fewer than 2 people per mile population distribution wise). In other states across the U.S. and if you live in a metropolitan area, this stat may sound impossible to have in this day and age, but for a lot of Western counties (a la old cowboy film scenery), it’s very much of a reality.

I live in West Texas (in the Panhandle, really), and the county where I live was one of those frontier counties until a few years ago. You may have heard of the saying, “Big Sky Country”, and that is where I live. The topography is pretty flat, you can see for miles, and the sky is huge and uninterrupted across the horizon. There’s a joke around here that says “the country is so flat, you can see your dog running away for two weeks!”… Arf. Arf.

I love it here, and miss the view when I visit cities (especially NYC which I love but is also claustrophobic for me after a while). I’ve lived here for quite some time, but there are still some days when the region catches me by surprise (e.g. if I see a working cowboy complete with spurs and hat at the grocery store like I did the other day). When that happens, it’s like seeing a living piece of history and I really appreciate the link to the past.

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Driving around the Western states, author Dayton Duncan introduces the reader to some of the people who choose to inhabit these frontier counties. Most of his focus stays on the more typical pioneer states (such as those in Texas, New Mexico and others), but he does include states as far away as Oregon and California since they were the destinations for many of the families who traveled the Overland Trail in their covered wagons and on horseback.

(It’s amazing when you sit down and think about it. The pioneers and their families knew that they would probably never go back from where they came – how brave is that especially when one considers the complete lack of information that they were working under!)

As he drives around to meet the folk who live here and to cover some of their history, Duncan maintains his respect for the townsfolk without having to resort to stereotype and lazy reportage. As the miles go by, he writes about topics as diverse as the extinction of the buffalo herds and the process of choosing where to put a SuperMax prison facility to the known history of the nation’s First Peoples and Billy the Kid (both the legend and the evidence that’s left). Billy the Kid was a real person, but it varies as to how long he lived, where (and how) he died, and what his legacy may mean. (Actually, the place touted as his burying place is on our way west to the mountains near the Texas/New Mexico border.)

This was published by an academic press, so it wasn’t an easy read (in terms of how dense the material was), but it was really interesting to me. There was a lot of overlap between historical events at the time (slavery and pioneer travel for example), and a lot of the history that Duncan relates was new to me and I found it fascinating. (For more about one particular African-American frontier town in Kansas, see here.)

I’m very glad that I pulled this off the shelves to read, and am now digging around my TBR to see what other little treasures that I can dig up….

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