Thursday, June 13, 2013


I love looking at old vintage images of what life used to be like on the American frontier. These small grainy squares of visual information are like silent storytellers around a campfire, telling jokes and repeating stories about life on this frontier... the way the hills and mountains rise up to an endless sky, the way livestock seem to be the most loyal and worthy companions, the way people always seem to be staring deeply into a wide open landscape who's dangers and treasures have given their lives meaning. 

And yet, looking at these old pictures makes it feel as though the true experience of the untamed frontier has been forever lost to highways, gas stations, rest stops... or perhaps simply to a preference for comfort and convenience. You can hop in your car and pass the same landscapes captured in these vintage images, but you don't get to test your ability to survive in it, you don't get the same sense of never-ending natural challenges, and you don't allow yourself to be formed by the unpredictable West. 

At the same time the experience may seem out of reach or lost to progress, there are people willing to reclaim it, live it once more, and reveal the vast amount of the west that are still wild. A group of four young men have recently embarked upon an expedition that will take them through the uninhabited frontier of five western states. Beginning in Arizona at the US-Mexico border, they will travel north through the Grand Canyon, up into Utah, through Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, all the way to the US-Canada border. 
Reviving the frontier
Ben Masters, Thomas Glover, Ben Thamer, and Jonny Fitzsimmons decided that they were going to take this trip not only to prove to themselves that they could, but to prove to the rest of the continental US that the freedom and risk of the American frontier still exists. 

Riding through the Grand Canyon, AZ
The riders, graduates in wildlife conservation from the Texas A&M University, took care to map out a travel route that ensures they will remain away from any man-made road or trail for 90% of their trip. Along the way, they plan to stop every ten days at pre-arranged ranches to replenish their supplies and rest for one night. 

The riders' travel companions are all mustangs. At the turn of the last century, there were millions of wild mustangs roaming the West. Today their numbers dwindle frighteningly-- less than 37,000 remain in the wild and 43,000 are held in captivity by the Bureau of Land Management, waiting to be adopted. The horses that the riders adopted were all born and raised in the wild; they trained them and began developing a relationship with them well before they began their journey. 
A man, a mustang, and the West
The riders claim that the decision to adopt mustang horses was based on the far that "they are tough, rarely go lame, have a good sense of self-preservation, and keep their weight." This practical reason for choosing mustang horses is later qualified by another, more personal reason. They wanted to offer freedom to some of these mustangs living in captivity, waiting to be adopted... they knew the horses wanted to return to the frontier just as much as they wanted to go for their first time. 

This incredible journey through the west has already begun, and you can follow their progress on a blog and Facebook page, updated regularly by the folks at Western Horseman. The riders carry a high quality camera with them and are taking phenomenal photographs of their trip. They are currently in Utah, recovering from a 42 mile, 3-day detour they had to make to recover some of their pack-horses (also mustangs) who spooked and ran for miles through high snow. 

When the riders and their horses finish their journey, a documentary about the experience will be released. Several cinematographers are following them and filming the trip... the forthcoming documentary will be called Unbranded.

I think that recovering the frontier narrative from the past is important. To feel that we are trapped in a completely discovered country - a country where all corners are mapped, developed, inhabited, and understood - precludes even the longing for adventure. The imagination, like the Mustang, must find new territory in which to roam if it believes there is no mystery left in the west... Our minds are branded by urbanity, chased away from the immense western region as if the strip malls stretched from sea to shining sea without ever being stopped by giant mountains, open plains, or great deserts. We make our stories in cities and forget that there is still so much wild here.

If we stop yearning for the chance to gaze deeply into the open landscape like the people in vintage photographs, the American West's mythic narrative will become a captive of those old photos, bound by grainy squares of nameless cowboys. It would be tragic to lose the sense that adventure and endless wilderness awaits us in our own backyard. To forget it would be to arrive, bewildered, at the vanishing point of our dreams.

What do you think about the "frontier experience"? Where is your frontier? What is the journey you must make through your homeland to connect to its mythic narrative? 

1 comment:

  1. you must see if you can find B. Traven's short story "The Cattle Ride" -- it is perfect for the sort of subjects you are looking at now.