November 29, 2008


by Stephen Bly

Ah, the romantic Old West. When anyone asks me whether I was born 100 years too late, I tell them, “Nope.” As much as I delight in telling western tales, the 1800s hold no idealistic appeal for me. Two reasons at least: health care. . .and sanitation. Cabin dwellings tended to be cramped, damp, and smelly. Dealing with the elements posed another constant challenge.

Having an ample supply of firewood concerned every pioneer, especially those out on the treeless grasslands. The frigid Arctic winds blew down through Alberta and blasted south of the Canadian border. Those early trappers, miners and cowboys and their intrepid women spent winters struggling to survive. Summers proved almost as miserable. Often no wind movement. Bugs swarmed. Skin cracked. Crops blistered. Kids slept outside on the porch covered with damp sheets to try to keep cool. Stifling heat especially challenged those who chose to live down in the canyons.

If the weather didn’t clobber them, sickness ambushed them at every turn. The primary
danger in the Old West didn’t come from gunfights, border wars, or Indian attacks. The unhealthy and primitive living conditions provided magnets for every known disease, and a few previously unknown. It was a harsh, hard existence. And I tip my cowboy hat to the men and women who roughed it out to settle the land for themselves and us all.

This side of the nineteenth century, I sure do enjoy the West. And I’ve traveled most every corner of it.

I don’t like writing about a place I’ve never been. So, I’ve loaded my truck many a time and cruised up and down umpteen roads in the eleven western states. I’ve spent way more hours on gravel and mud ruts than paved highways. Dirt trails off the beaten paths are my passion. Some might say much has changed in 100+ years. But there’s still plenty of unaltered land. The ghostly grandeur’s still there. It shouts out through the rivers and mountains, sage and prairies. I feel it in my bones, just like those early settlers did. I sense a bond with their history. Like the first time I sauntered from the hotel in Ft. Benton down to the Missouri River and stared at the slow moving waters. Or rode across eastern Montana that seems to roll on forever.

But I do prefer country living. Janet, a city bred gal, and I live in a tiny former mill town. Rustic, primitive. Only one paved street. At 4,000 foot elevation on the Nez Perce Reservation. No mall. No McDonald’s burgers for more than 45 miles. No rattlers or scorpions either. A fertile haven for historical and contemporary fiction writers to reside. The frontier’s still here. It just has a fresh coat of paint. . .in some places. Janet says she understands how very privileged she is to live in the cool, peaceful ponderosas with the scent of pine, especially whenever we pass a single-wide in the barren, desert landscape of Nevada. “You could have drug me out there,” she sighs. And we both know that in my early years that was a real possibility.

We’re not native Idahoans. We grew up in the beautiful, fertile San Joaquin Valley of California. I was raised on a ranch perched just west of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in a little farm town with the fanciful name from literature: Ivanhoe.

I must be more out of my times than I realize.

After several days camping in the high mountains of Colorado for research on my Stuart Brannon Series, I stopped by a nice hotel in a ski town and asked for a room. They had rooms, all right. However, the clerk informed me that I was not their type of guest. “Perhaps the old cowboy hotel downtown would be more to your liking,” he said.

Sure, I looked a bit grubby. That’s why I wanted a room and hot shower.

It’s the only time I’ve been refused service at a hotel, so I really can’t complain.

On the trail,
Stephen Bly

Coming again (hardback) January 2009:
The Land Tamers


Pamela J said...

The pictures at the top of this article sure bring back memories. No, I am not from that era! But I have the priveledge and the opportunity to see some little buildings like that every year if we choose to drive or walk up those narrow lonely backroad trails in our nearby mountains. I LOVE looking in those buildings and thinking about how those people lived - and survived. When you mentioned "camping in the high mountains of Colorado" I thought for a bit you were in "our" mountains. If you are interested, come by sometime and we will show you around.(in the warmer weather, please. I may love to look at the little rooms built into the side of the mountains but I don't claim to be tough like they were)
Pam W

Anonymous said...

Steve, It was fascinating to read a bit more in depth about what the early settlers endured. Obviously only the hardy survived!!! I really enjoyed this, and the photos. Speaking of hardy...thank you for marrying Mark and I 28 years ago on December 20th! You made it a memorable ceremony. Cheryl Wade, California, another Wild West

latina said...

I too love the western states. I do think it was hilarious that a published author couldn't get a room. You're supposed to throw a 'hissy fit' and let them know you are "somebody". I guess that's not really your style though. Did you at least leave them an autographed copy of one of your books? That would have been funny too.

Stephen & Janet Bly said...

Pamela: I've been about everywhere in Colorado, and loved it all. I get to Denver area at least once a year, but I don't camp out like I used to. Motels suit me fine--when I'm allowed in. :)
On the trail,

Stephen & Janet Bly said...

Greetings, Cheryl:
Hey, what a surprise to get your note on this blog. A howdy to both you and Mark. Has it really been that long?
On the trail,

Stephen & Janet Bly said...

Greetings, Latina (one of my favorite fans):
No, I didn't throw a fit or leave them a book. I guess I was too much in shock to do either. But I did find a comfy room and got my shower. . .and it provided an interesting end to my article, so all was not lost.
On the trail,

For His Glory said...

it's hard to believe people actually turn people away - doesn't God tell us not to give preferential treatment? and to not judge on appeareances? from the world we should expect no different i guess. it's good you are humble about it - they don't realize what opportunity they missed. i truly enjoy your books - i've recently bought some more and am hopeful to get copies of most. thanks for the history lesson, too. i use to think i wanted to live in "little house" days and have come to realize it would've been a hard life...truly enjoyed the blogsite, thanks for the intro.

Molly Noble Bull said...

Dear Steven,
I loved your article and your photos. Keep them coming.

Stephen & Janet Bly said...

Greetings, Glory: Thanks for the note and for supporting my books. Appreciate the kind words.
On the trail,

Stephen & Janet Bly said...

Thanks, Molly. Appreciate your taking the time to respond.
On the trail,

Teresa Slack said...

Refused lodging! That's funny. I'm glad you took it with a grain of salt. Hey, can anyone explain the history of that saying?

Stephen & Janet Bly said...

Howdy, Teresa! Thanks for your note. As to the saying, 'take it with a grain of salt,'--according to my sources (mainly Wikepedia), this phrase means that "a copious measure of skepticism should be applied regarding a claim".

The Oxford English Dictionary dates this usage back to 1647.

The phrase comes from Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia, regarding the discovery of a recipe for an antidote to a poison. In the antidote, one of the ingredients was a grain of salt. Threats involving the poison were thus to be taken "with a grain of salt" and therefore less seriously. An alternative account says that the Roman general believed he could make himself immune to poison by ingesting small amounts of various poisons, and he took this treatment with a grain of salt to help him swallow the poison. In this version, the salt is not the antidote, it was taken merely to assist in swallowing the poison.

So there you have it from those who claim to know, so take it with you know what.

On the trail,

Coming (again) January 2009:
hardback version