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WILD WEST MYTHOS
PART 1

Harry Oliver, Desert Rats,
and the Wild West Mythos

Desert Rat Scrap Book

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HARRY OLIVER AND THE WILD WEST MYTHOS

Desert Rat Prospector
Photo by Gayle's Studio, Palm Springs, Calif.

Grizzled desert-rat prospectors leading (or searching for) their trusty burros across burning desert wastes of rolling sand dunes or rocky crags and defiles. Wild cowmen and ruthless gunmen dressed in blackened denim and leather, shooting up mining-camps and cow-towns filled with wood-stick buildings bearing false fronts. Monosyllabic Indians surveying the white man's foolishness and uttering foolishness (or wisdom) of their own. Every now and then, some heroes intrude.

Or the Mexican villages: Lazy pueblos of white-washed adobes with sombrero-topped guitarists lolling in cantina doorways as serape-clad boys lead donkeys, and black-wrapped women glide past. Zorro is busily plotting freedom from tyranny. Et cetera, et cetera.

Posses chasing the bad guys. Head 'em off at the pass.

You've seen the western films or television shows, read the pulp paperbacks or comics or the glossy magazines, heard the cowboy ballads (sometimes driven by a modern beat). You know exactly what the Wild West was about, right? The cattle drives and range wars, the frantic searches for gold, the clash of cultures between cowboys and Indians, miners and Mexicans, prospectors and playboys, a morality play writ large across the landscape.

Yeah, right.

Attacking Indians circled wagon trains because that's the only way Buffalo Bill's Wild West show could perform in bleacher-lined sports fields. Mining camps didn't feature weekly, daily, hourly shootouts because most miners only had knives, and settled matters accordingly, if at all. "Soiled doves" didn't waft romantically through dance-halls because most prostitutes (generally non-white) were confined to their "cribs" and had a life-span of about 2-3 years in the trade, killed early by drink or drugs or disease. High Noon-type duels didn't happen; gunmen shot from cover. Et cetera, et cetera.

Your story of the Wild West comes from a screenplay. Your image of the Wild West comes from a studio lot. That image was created by guys like Harry Oliver.

Those guys built theme parks, like Walter Knott's Ghost Town and Calico, and Harry Oliver's Gold Gulch, up to the modern versions in Virginia City and Ponderosa Ranch and Tombstone and Old Tucson. Regularly-scheduled shoot-outs and train robberies; grizzled prospectors who'll let you set your young'un atop their burro for a snapshot, after a modest payment; gift shops pumping the tourists full of Chinese-made cowboy-Indian-miner souvenirs. It's a good business.

Yeah, right.

Sepia-tinted nostalgia of pioneer days masks the realities of the West: overpopulation, pollution, the smuggling of drugs and weapons and people, environmental devastation, corporate socialism, global warming, a vast military presence; all the good things of modern life, eh?

You don't need me to spell out the details; they appear daily in every newspaper in the West.

So then, why collect Desert Rat Scrap Books? Why obsess on Harry Oliver, a mirage salesman? Maybe because this distortion of history is itself an important part of our history. The Western pulp writers, the Hollywood crews, the politicians waxing nostalgic for Rugged Individualism while feeding vast subsidies to their corporate sponsors, all have stamped their patterns into the landscape, for better and (usually) for worse. They have shaped our reality.

And just what IS reality? I have a simple definition: Reality is whatever bites your ass. If it affects you, it's real, no matter how based it is on fantasy and delusion.

So, back to Harry Oliver. From a Minnesota farm he came to California and made a career of visualizing fantasies. Then he moved out to the desert, first Borrego Springs, then 1000 Palms, both of which were at the edge of desolation when he got there. And he built ancient adobe structures, and churned out more nostalgia, and then the modern world caught up with him.

I remember Old Fort Oliver, back before the I-10 freeway was built next door, and his good old dog Whiskers was shot in the head on Christmas Eve by party or parties unknown. I remember that Harry gave up on the desert and moved to a Los Angeles rest home, and the abandoned fort was looted and vandalized and condemned and replaced by a mini-mart. The fantasy couldn't stave off the reality. The mirage disappeared in the smog.

But I also remember when I was a little kid growing up at the east edge of Los Angeles County, in the Pomona of orange groves and cactus gardens and farmhouses painfully built from the alluvial stones that filled the fields — before all that was scythed to make way for freeways and housing developments and shopping centers. My father grew up in an earlier Pomona, of walnut groves and pepper trees and dairies. I remember being taken to Knott's Ghost Town and to Calico, and running around the Wild West sets, and heading for the Print Shops for the latest issues of Desert Rat Scrap Books and Tombstone Epitaphs and Calico Prints. Like playing wildboy in Injun Joe's Cave on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland — all wonderful, satisfying escapes.

Fun! Excitement! Tall tales and history! Lost treasures! Vast horizons! No suburbs!

And I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, and hiding under school desks in duck-and-cover drills, and wondering when the mushroom clouds would rise over industrial Los Angeles, over the airbases in San Bernadino and Riverside and Orange, over the missile plant right there in Pomona. And I surely wished for more escapes.

And now I see a political situation that is so grievous, so WRONG, that I long desperately for escape. Don't you?

So I stroll the streets of Virginia City and Old Sacramento and my local Mother-Lode Gold-Rush towns, I admire the pioneer architecture, stomp the dusty floorboards, finger the turquoise jewelry and clay pots and tin stars and hot-sauce bottles. I leaf through the old prints and papers, watch the kids being photographed atop the calm burros, listen to the dance-hall music wafting over the outdoor speakers, stop for a mug of sasparilla or maybe something stronger. Stop, and inhale the fresh air.

I go home, pull out the laptop and the latest Desert Rat Scrap Book I've found, and start entering the text. Harry pushed a lot of Western lore in his paper, and rather than it all being lost and forgotten, I'm putting it online. I'm doing what I can to preserve these bits of Americana, fragments from a storied past, flickering images in the ripples of the fun-house mirror that reflects The Wild West.

I try not to bite my lip as I key-in the speech of those monosyllabic Indians, those funny drunken Mexicans, those few dance-hall floozies, those quaint Desert Rats and Chinese and mule-skinners. I try not to notice the near-absence of women and African-American and Asian-Pacific and East European folks, I remind myself that this is just a 1930's screenplay.

I've escaped. I'm not stuck in a traffic jam or queued-up at a checkout line or security checkpoint. 100,000 disenfranchised voters in Florida, and GOP-owned vote-counting machines, they just don't matter. The upcoming Oil Wars and Water Wars and Migration Wars, they just don't matter. High Noon on the Gulf? Don't worry. It's 1859 and everything's fine.

Ain't it?

Ric Carter
— 6 February 2003

Click HERE to go to Part II


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