I’ve been watching a lot of John Wayne movies lately -- not because I’m a fan, although I’ve enjoyed some more than I expected.
I’ve mainly been watching as research for a memoir I’m working on that explores how growing up in the West affects people, particularly men. It’s also a story about the power of narrative, a subject I find fascinating.
Few narratives have influenced American culture more than that of the West. Almost every Western, whether book or movie, presented a situation where a community was threatened by some evil entity, often Native Americans, but sometimes just a greedy bastard trying to take advantage of the citizens and their good-hearted generosity. The solution is almost always John Wayne, Clint Eastwood or The Virginian stepping forward to take charge, save the day and restore the peace.
In other words, nothing like real life.
But people have been sucked into this narrative for decades. The mythic West still finds its way into the national conscience when it comes to politics or business, and now video games. People want to be saved, and they want to believe there are people (mostly men) who have that kind of influence.
When I toured the counties of Montana for my latest book, "Fifty-Six Counties: A Montana Journey," I noticed something else about the Western narrative: When you live in a small community in the West, your exposure to the world can be limited, depending on the effort you make to expand your horizons. And for many people, there’s not a lot of reason to expand their horizons. So even with the amazing resources provided by the internet, people in small towns often limit their exposure to what is comfortable and agreeable. It’s a natural human tendency, I think. But when you have an entire community that is comfortable with what it has always known, or always believed, it can be stifling.
As a result, if you live in a small community and happen to be different somehow, or have views that are contrary to most of your neighbors, it can be incredibly isolating. With today’s political climate being so combustive, this has become more true than ever.
When I was 10, my father quit his teaching job and took a position managing a ranch near the Montana-Wyoming border. For the next two years, I learned first-hand what it’s like to be snubbed in one of these small communities. The people who lived along Pass Creek were not mean or ill-intentioned, but most of them had lived there for decades—generations. They had learned from their ancestors that this country is hard, that most people who move here probably won’t last. So although they were friendly to a point, they also made it clear in subtle ways we were not entirely welcome; they didn’t expect us to be around for long. The men who worked for my father ignored most of his instructions, in part because they resented him getting the job many of them wanted.
My sister and I went to a one-room school, and although I never felt as if the kids didn’t like us, they had their own ways of letting us know that we would always be outsiders. During my second year there, when I was one of two fifth-graders, with no sixth-graders in the school, some of the other boys came to me at recess and said, “Since you’re the best soccer player, we think the teams should be you and the little kids against the rest of us.”
It was clearly an unfair split, but to say otherwise would have made me the subject of ridicule, so I agreed. Plus, they had appealed to my competitive nature. I wanted to prove that we could win. But for the next several months—every recess—they kicked our asses. We never won a single game.
Because I was the kind of kid who turned experiences like this into motivation, it didn’t affect me as much as it might others. Even so, it stayed with me for years.
With Montana having one of the highest suicide rates in the country -- in the top five every year for the past 40 years -- I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that this kind of community dynamic contributes to that phenomenon. There are few things more isolating than being rejected by the people around you; few reasons to feel as if anybody cares.
My Uncle Lee tells the story of one of his neighbors in Carter County, a man who grew up bullied in their one-room school. Although he was huge as a kid, and smarter than most of the other kids in the school, Dan did not have the personality to stick up for himself when his peers mistreated him.
“He could have pounded any one of those kids into the ground,” Lee has told me.
Instead, Dan spent most of his school years as the brunt of jokes. He dropped out before graduating from high school.
A lifelong bachelor, this man never left the area, living alone on the family ranch where he grew up, although he showed very little aptitude for raising stock or crops.
“He would occasionally call me and ask my opinion about buying land in certain parts of the country, even once in Argentina,” Lee recounted.
Lee served in the Peace Corps in two different South American countries, and advised Dan against buying this land because it was a volatile region.
A few years ago, Lee met a woman who worked for CARE, and when he told her where he was from, she told him that the largest single contribution to CARE by an individual came from a bachelor rancher in his county. After making several guesses, Lee was astounded to learn that his friend Dan made this donation. She went on to explain that when they suggested presenting Dan with a plaque for his generosity, he insisted that they keep the donation anonymous. When Dan died, neighbors were surprised to learn that he barely owned any of the ranch where he grew up … he’d sold that land off years before, and simply lived there while he invested in property all over the world. His will stipulated that his estate be donated to the Salvation Army, and to the astonishment of those that knew him, his estate was valued at $55 million.
There are two ways to look at this story. Dan proved to be a man who found a way to thrive in a world that barely acknowledged his existence. Although he was well-liked by most of his neighbors, he was never fully accepted in the community. He quietly succeeded in a way that most people would envy, but to what end? Lee says he can’t remember Dan ever having a romantic relationship. He died alone, and perhaps he found joy in ways that none of us will ever know. Making money must have given him some satisfaction but not in the way it would for others, many of whom would use their wealth to elevate themselves in their community.
The other view is that everyone has their own way of contending with this kind of isolation, and Dan happened to be a man who managed to find a healthy one. But there are so many others that aren’t gifted or disciplined enough to find that kind of solution. What he accomplished is even more amazing when you think of his circumstances.
Without the internet, and living 60 miles from the nearest library, he must have done most of his research by mail and phone.
But for every Dan, there are thousands who seek their solace in alcohol, drugs, gambling or other self-destructive ways; or, in the worst case scenario, a shot to the head.
Living in Montana provides its own unique challenge. People save for years to come and spend two weeks in this place because of its beauty, its opportunity to experience some of the most exquisite gifts of nature. Montana is a place that provides peace and quiet that has become increasingly rare in today’s society.
But that kind of solace has a dark side that some people are ill-equipped to handle. And the old narrative that a person needs to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and just get through it seems to have outlived its usefulness. It seems more clear than ever that there are a lot of people out there who need help.
As part of my research, I recently read an excellent biography of John Wayne by Scott Eyman. One of the most fascinating passages in the book was a story about Wayne learning that he had lung cancer.
He was surprised to find himself sitting in that doctor’s office alone, thinking, “How would John Wayne handle this?”