Chasing Sunsets

Bushwhackers cheating at cards with a “captive” President Lincoln at Lil’s Saloon in Calico Ghost Town, February 2009.

I grew up back East with a romanticized view of the West, fed by a childhood obsession with the Lone Ranger, Zorro, and classic western movies. Whenever tedium, frustration, or restlessness overtook me, I would escape into the forbidding cinematic landscapes of Sergio Leone, where gritty gunslingers would square off against each other to a dramatic score by Ennio Morricone. Somehow the “Wild West” seemed like a place where problems had simple solutions, courage and individualism were rewarded, the past didn’t matter, and dreams could come true.

Such a perception certainly drove the growth of the West in American history, from the Oregon Trail and the California Gold Rush all the way to Hollywood and the Silicon Valley in our time. I was no different. When my father announced in 1977 that we were moving from the Shenandoah Valley to southern California, I was ecstatic. I had images of movie stars and Mickey Mouse, suntanned surfers and endless summer. No more shoveling snow in winter, no more scraping mud off galoshes in spring, no more sweating all night in drenching summer humidity. I would be footloose and fancy free in La La Land.

The trip west in August of that year provided enough awe-inspiring sights to reinforce such optimism. From the vast expanses of west Texas to the Painted Desert and Grand Canyon, the West seemed to live up to everything I expected it to be. I had never seen mountains in Appalachia over a few thousand feet in height, so when my eyes first took in the massive dome of Sandia Crest outside Albuquerque, I thought I had landed on another planet. The warm, vibrant colors of Santa Fe and Sedona, the thrill and terror of sudden flash floods, the brilliant artwork of Hopi and Navajo artists, and my first taste of authentic Mexican food all intoxicated my senses.

This rapture was soon checked by the vast, scorched landscape of the Mojave Desert, which we had to cross in August during daylight hours to reach our final destination on time. Several hours of nervously watching the temperature gauge on our rented Ryder truck and pit stops in 100-degree roadside rest areas were followed by a grueling ascent up the slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains. When we finally reached the top of the crest and beheld the sea of smog stretching out below as far as the eye could see, my heart sank. This was not the West of my dreams. I had arrived in an overcrowded, noisy, congested, polluted inferno.

To be fair, this was the Inland Empire during summer rush hour, which even in 1977 was intolerable. If I had arrived at sunset on a Sunday or amidst the green hills and wildflowers of early spring, I might have had a more favorable first impression of the place. Nonetheless, my maiden view of southern California was not a Ma Joad moment out of The Grapes of Wrath. After we finally made it to Long Beach and settled into our new rented home, my initial shock did not wear off. Orientation week at my new high school of 3,000 students was overwhelming (having come from a school in Virginia a quarter of that size). I got lost on campus and stumbled home in tears of bewilderment.

I did find my bearings eventually, making new friends in class and learning my way around. While not everyone was a movie star or a surfer, I did get to see Hollywood and spent the summer after graduation riding the waves in Huntington Beach. I got to meet Mickey Mouse when I visited Disneyland and later worked there as a custodian on one of my college winter breaks. Summer was not endless in California, but there was little humidity (at least in those days) and I did not have to shovel snow in winter (I visited the snow in Yosemite and Mount San Jacinto instead). I went off to college in the northern part of the state and realized that California was actually several states in one.

My interest in the “Old West” had not abated, however, and when I finished my second graduate degree in 1991 and moved to Kansas to begin my working career, I took with me the images of the recently released Dances With Wolves. During my fifteen months on the prairie, I felt a little like the character of Lieutenant Dunbar, stranded in an alien yet fascinating place and seeking a new “tribe.” I found it in the stories of my ancestors (see my blog entry on “Climbing the Family Tree”), and returned to California in the fall of 1992 ready to begin my life anew.

I lived for six years in Sacramento, working in office jobs and exploring the historical sights of the surrounding region. There were and are many shadows of the Old West there, from Old Sacramento and Sutter’s Fort in the state capital to the Empire Mine and Columbia State Historic Park in the Sierra foothills. I visited them all and enjoyed their educational and inspirational value. I spent some time with my late cousin Agnes in her historic 1852 farmhouse in the hills above Sutter Creek and listened to her stories of Gold Rush California as well as family history anecdotes.

During my time in Sacramento I became involved in the reenacting hobby, and attended some events in historic western locales, including Nevada City and Murphys. Some of these areas still evoke days gone by with their wooden sidewalks, historic storefronts, and forested country roads. When I moved to Bakersfield in 1998 to begin my teaching career, I determined to continue my search for signs of the Old West. My new living history impression of artist correspondent permitted me to render each event in whatever likeness and direction my imagination took me.

One of my favorite venues was Fort Tejon State Historic Park, a restored 1850s outpost in the mountains south of Bakersfield. I joined the Fort Tejon Historical Association and participated in monthly reenactments there over the entirety of my seven years in the area. The fort was only a half hour drive from where I was living and working and many drawings of my sketch portfolio were completed there (see the image below). The adobe and wooden buildings, ancient live oak trees, and well-kept grounds were inspirational to me as an artist and still attract thousands of visitors every year.

Charcoal sketch I completed as Harper’s Weekly artist correspondent James Allen Davis during a Civil War reenactment at Fort Tejon State Historic Park in Lebec, California. Copyright (c) 2004 Torin Finney.

After my partner Jill (who came up with the title for this blog entry) and I began reenacting together at the end of 2004, we chose several southern California venues with a connection to the Old West, including Wooden Nickel Ranch in Menifee, Old Town Temecula, the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum in Vista, and Calico Ghost Town near Barstow. These sites have restored 19th century buildings and machinery and hold annual events that highlight local history. Costumed reenactors and performers entertain large and enthusiastic crowds. Imagination has been combined with commerce, just as it was when the West was young.

Jill making rope at Calico Ghost Town with our friends Lyn and Joe. Photo Copyright (c) 2010 Torin Finney.

Near the busy Las Vegas Strip is Red Rock Canyon, a dramatic and breathtaking wilderness area that boasts many natural and educational attractions. For three years (2006-2008), Jill and I attended a reenactment at scenic Spring Mountain Ranch at the foot of the mountains there and presented to a local Civil War round table group. As you can see from the sketch below, I found the setting of the event extremely inspiring. The crisp mountain air, wild burros, restored ranch buildings, and pristine desert vistas lent themselves to imaginary western journeys filled with danger and daring. It was hard to believe that such a wild place could be found so close to the bustling boulevards and crowded casinos of “Sin City.”

Panoramic sketch I completed in 2007 during the annual Civil War reenactment at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park near Las Vegas, Nevada. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

In June of 2009 Jill and I visited the central plaza of historic downtown Sonoma, once an important outpost of Spanish and Mexican Alta California. General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo (1807-1890) once owned tens of thousands of acres and held great political and economic power in the region. We visited the presidio he built there as well as his home at Lachryma Montis, all that remains of his once vast estate. The Bay Area cities of Vallejo and Benicia are named after him and his wife. Vallejo’s story is a sad metaphor for what happened to the thousands of Spanish-speaking people whose lands were annexed by the United States in the wake of the Mexican-American War and the California Gold Rush.

Old Town San Diego, which has been California’s most popular state historic park for the past fifty years, attracts thousands of people every month to its restored adobe and wooden frame buildings, special holiday events, and scores of specialty restaurants and shops. Old Town has been a favorite destination of ours for many years. Like Sonoma, this state park at the other end of the network of historic California missions presents a different version of the Old West, focusing on the commerce and culture of the early Californios and their impact on the growth of the area. It combines education with business and tries to preserve a time in California’s history that has largely passed into legend.

Jill and I have been coming to Old Town together since 2005. Here we are in front of the historic Cosmopolitan Hotel in 2008, ten years before we retired to San Diego from Orange County. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Of course, most of these sites have been restored and refitted with modern conveniences to meet the needs of contemporary tourists. The rather nasty side of the “real” Old West of cholera, dysentery, illiteracy, corruption, swindling, violence, theft, starvation, drought, prostitution, and racial intolerance is not something most visitors are looking for. Calico, for example, went from a booming silver town in the 1880s to an abandoned wasteland twenty years later, its population decimated by disease, disappointment, and despair. This is not the West that appears in movies and dime novels.

But people see what they want to see, and the West of the silver screen is still popular. From recent remakes of The Magnificent Seven and True Grit to this year’s feature film reviving the story and original cast of HBO’s Deadwood series, tall tales of lawmen, outlaws, settlers and soiled doves continue to command large audiences, both at home and abroad. For all its failures and faults, the American West still represents wide open spaces and exciting possibilities. For my part, I have no plans to leave it anytime soon. As an adopted Westerner, riding off into the sunset has become a way of life that works for me.

Business card Jill designed for my correspondent impression from a photograph taken at Calico Ghost Town in 2007. The website she created for me can be accessed by clicking here. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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