I’m going to indulge in a little reminiscing about historic sites, summer vacations, dinosaurs, and gunfighters. Normally these subjects wouldn’t be sharing the same space, but in my case they share a complicated autobiographical conjunction. If that sounds bizarre, well, that’s life for you.
For most people who love history, geography evokes the past. Visiting a region or looking at a map will cause your historical mind to kick in and make associations with past people, events, cultures, and so on. The deeper your historical knowledge of a particular place or region, the more richly detailed the mental historical map that you can impose on the actual one. When I look at a map of South Carolina, I see the Revolutionary War playing out. When I drive across Virginia, I see Union and Confederate armies. You probably have your own historical associations that you impose on particular places or regions.
For me, having this tendency is a comparatively recent development. My passionate childhood encounters with history were pretty few and far between. I didn’t turn into a full-fledged history nut until I was old enough to vote. Dinosaurs took up all the neurons I could spare. Most young dino fanatics start to cool in their enthusiasm when they become teenagers, but that was the age range in which my dino-fever intensified. Hollywood had a lot to do with it. The first two Jurassic Park films bracketed my high school years; the first movie opened the summer before I became a freshman, the sequel on the weekend I graduated.
In 1993, the same year that Jurassic Park whipped my dino-fixation into a fever pitch, my mom decided to start writing about gunfighters in the Old West. For the next few years, our family vacations coincided with her research trips to the western U.S., a part of the country where none of us had spent much time before. Since the West is also home to some of the greatest dinosaur graveyards in the world and scores of natural history museums, I’d have the chance to indulge my dinosaur obsession along the way. Furthermore, my dad was a history teacher, so we also planned to hit some battlefields and other sites. Something for everybody.
Thus was born a venerable Lynch family tradition, the Great Summer Western Circuits of the 1990’s. My parents and I would stockpile books, snacks, and maps into a minivan, generally with one or two other bystanders in tow, and head across the Mississippi to spend two or three weeks at a time on the trail of gunslingers. We usually went southwestward through Arkansas and Texas and then into Arizona and New Mexico, and then made a loop north toward the Canadian border before turning eastward and heading back home, by which point we were all ready to strangle each other from days of close confinement.
We paid homage at the usual tourist Meccas—the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore (which was overrated, I thought), the Alamo—but given Mom’s interests, most of the places we visited were gunfighter locales like Tombstone, Dodge City, Deadwood, Coffeyville, Northfield, and Fort Sumner. We saw more restored saloons, dance halls, penitentiaries, and courthouses than I could count if I tried, and paid our respects at every outlaw’s last resting place between Montana and Arizona.
Now that I’ve had time to look back on it, these were my first sustained experiences with historical travel. I had visited historic sites as a kid, but never so many of them in so short a period of time as I did on these vacations. The thing is—and I didn’t realize this until recently—these early ventures as a heritage tourist were very unconventional. Sure, I got to see some “mainstream” historic sites, mostly battlefields along with a smattering of forts and writers’ homes. (Mom is a former English teacher, so Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder were on the itinerary.) But most of our destinations involved the West that you see in the movies, the one populated by gamblers, lawmen, and train robbers—all those other figures who cast such a long shadow across the American imagination.
Just as these characters straddle the boundary between history and myth, so these historic sites where people came to walk in their footsteps were hard to categorize. These gunfighter attractions tended to be small, offbeat operations, lying somewhere on the spectrum between legit historic site and outright tourist trap and often much closer to the latter. They had the kind of charming roadside aesthetic you don’t get at a place like Mount Vernon or Antietam. The interpretation was heavy on folklore and melodrama, and collections policies were practically non-existent. In New Mexico, we visited a Billy the Kid museum that boasted a stuffed and mounted two-headed calf as one of its artifacts. The small courthouse in Mesilla where the Kid was (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) sentenced to hang, and where the Gadsden Purchase was signed, had become a souvenir shop; I bought an acrylic paperweight with a dead scorpion encased inside of it there, and kept it on my dresser for years afterward. The old Birdcage Theater in Tombstone, AZ had become a quirky museum, crowded with every kind of antiquarian bric-a-brac you could imagine—an 188o’s barber chair, old medical instruments, racy photos of Victorian-era prostitutes, and (most bizarre of all) a Fiji mermaid, that staple of nineteenth-century sideshows.
Tombstone was always on the itinerary. What Gettysburg is to the Civil War, Tombstone is to the Old West—a great tourist Mecca where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting some historic attraction or gift shop. The main attraction was the O.K. Corral. The proprietors had walled in the vacant lot behind the stables where the gunfight actually took place, so you had to pay admission and walk through the corral gate to get to it. Garish mannequins representing the participants marked the spot where the shootout erupted, and a recorded spiel with sound effects played at the push of a button. A small fee got you into Boot Hill, where a map handout guided you to all the notable graves. You could drink a Coke in some of the old saloons, or take a stagecoach tour through the streets. You could buy a different Wyatt Earp or Doc Holliday t-shirt for every day of the month. One of the souvenir apparel shops was in a former pool hall where Earp’s younger brother took a fatal bullet in the back.
The historic West I saw as a teenager was the semi-mythical West, but at the time, I didn’t really distinguish between the conventional historic sites and the kitschy tourist attractions. It was all just filler between the dinosaur stops. I didn’t care too much about cowboys, Indians, and vast herds of buffalo; I wanted vast herds of Triceratops. The only history that really excited me was the history of fossil hunting. Indifferent to Mt. Rushmore and the Truman Library, I flipped out when we drove past Como Bluff, WY, one of the nineteenth century’s most famous dinosaur burial grounds.
My mental map of the West was very sketchy, my appreciation of its history negligible. It was similar to those old maps that have vast expanses of terra incognita populated by monsters. The difference is that the dragons on my mental map had once been very much alive. I had been to these blank spaces, but they remained blank anyway because the dragons were all I really noticed at the time.
When I looked over the atlases that my dad used to navigate our western trips, and when I watched the landscape zip past the window, I associated places with the dinosaurs that once lived there: sauropods and stegosaurs in Utah, tyrannosaurs in Montana. If geography evoked human history at all, it was only the history of paleontology, as at Como Bluff. What seems funny to me now is how much my frame of reference has changed since then. These days, when I look at a map or drive across a landscape, I see associations with the 1700’s and 1800’s. The ways I make sense of the world have evolved.
So although I got to travel throughout much of the West, I knew almost nothing of its rich history while I was seeing it. Indeed, the history of the West remained a hazy subject for me even after I finished my master’s degree. When I got assigned to teach a survey course on the post-Civil War U.S., I had to do a lot of boning up on the settlement of the trans-Mississippi before I could put a decent lecture together.
My mental map of American history doesn’t have quite as many blank spaces now as it did when I was a teenager. I can look at an atlas of the United States or drive through a region and make connections with important people and events; the landscapes I see around me are filled with the bones of people as well as the bones of dragons. Old habits die hard, though, and the dragons are still lurking around. As a history major I had to take a methodology course and complete a major research project, so I wrote my paper on a feud between two nineteenth-century paleontologists, a feud in which the dinosaur graveyard of Como Bluff figured prominently.
I’m a little sorry that, when I had the chance to appreciate the historic West firsthand, I was so obsessed with the prehistoric one that I didn’t pay very close attention to anything else. I’d like to spend some more time out there now that I’m armed with some sort of historical sensibility, and pay the dinosaurs a visit while I’m at it. The map isn’t blank anymore, but I think there’s still enough space for some dragons.