Dreams of the Sierra Nevada

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Published Jan. 22, 2007
The blond-haired boy lay on the floor, watching the Lionel train pass before his eyes. The train was pulled by a black “steam” locomotive that issued smoke from its stack created by drops of oil placed in the stack. The cars had a western theme — one was silver with clear plastic sides displaying bars of gold, another was a flat car with logs made of wood (not plastic — it was the 1960s), and another was a box car in which a good guy and a bad guy fought a perpetual shoot-out. The box car had a square opening at each end out of which the shooters alternately emerged and ducked back down, operated by levers connected to the wheels. The boy lay on the floor to get a realistic view of the train, dreaming of the Old West as the cars carrying gold bars, logs and bandanna-clad fighters passed by.
Years later, his hair turned brown, the boy ran an HO gauge train set around a more complicated layout on a table. A Tyco 1890 4-6-0 Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe green-and-red steam locomotive pulled graceful brown coaches on the outer track while a Western & Atlantic dark gray 4-4-0 pulled Civil War-era freight cars. He kneeled on the floor so he could watch the trains from eye level.
That boy was me. As long as I can remember, I’ve loved the West, the Civil War and railroads of those eras. Even as a preschooler, watching that Lionel O-gauge train, I felt a connection to the Old West, brought to life in my mind by those train cars. My mother’s father also loved the West and the Civil War, so from birth I was exposed to books about the war and the frontier and to 19th-century swords, cannon balls and bullets.
In high school I discovered Time-Life’s “Old West” series, which was heavily advertised on television in the 1970s. I subscribed after receiving an advertisement in the mail that showed nine books, and I assumed that nine books would complete my set. I was foolish in my ignorance. Books came every other month — and kept coming and coming. I later learned that only nine books were shown in the photo because the series was still being written and published. I also reckoned that Time-Life knew better than to show the entire set, even if it had been complete, knowing the number of volumes would scare off potential subscribers. My friend and I made up fake titles — kerosene lamp shades, cloud formations, quilt patterns of the Old West — as we marveled at my growing collection, which eventually stopped at 26 volumes.
The West never loses its fascination for easterners. Even in its heyday, from the end of the Civil War through about 1890, it was the subject of travel guides and dime novels. While still living, scouts and gunfighters were romanticized and fictionalized. Shown a cover of a novel that portrayed him fighting off Indians with one hand and rescuing a maiden with the other, the scout Kit Carson said, “That thar may be true but I hain’t got no recollection of it.”
That romanticizing of the West was a central theme in one of my favorite movies, “Cat Ballou,” the 1965 parody of westerns starring Jane Fonda that won an Oscar for Lee Marvin. Fonda hires Kid Shaleen, played by Marvin, and forms a gang of outlaws who use a plan described in a dime novel about Kid Shaleen, now a drunken, aging gunfighter, to rob a train. Though a comedy spoof, the movie was a loving, detailed portrait of the West as it was being civilized and included musical narration by Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole.
We still look at the West through the eye of the romanticist. People have an image of the cowboy as a free-spirited gunfighter. In “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” Toby Keith sings about Matt Dillon, the Texas Rangers and Jesse James, but they were lawmen and outlaws, not cowboys. A cowboy herded cattle: he worked long hours, breathed dust, smelled hot sweaty cattle and horses, and was away from home and family for months at a time. “Cowboy” seems to be used these days to indicate any man who wore a cowboy hat and rode a horse, but what it amounts to is a dream of freedom and life in the wild, far from the constraints of civilization, which we at once crave while trying to break free.
I never dreamed of being a cowboy. I never wanted to work that hard. But I still look at my HO 4-4-0 pulling a string of passenger coaches, and I dream that I’m riding the Virginia & Truckee, somewhere in the Sierra Nevada, going nowhere in particular.

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