Riding The Outlaw Trail …

I am currently reading THE OUTLAW TRAIL by Robert Redford (yes – the actor). In the early 1970’s he actually rode the old Outlaw Trail so that he could experience what it was like and then write about it. The trail runs from Canada to Mexico. Mr. Redford started at Hole-In-The-Wall in northern Wyoming, and traveled mostly by horseback to south of Robber’s Roost in southern Utah. There couldn’t be more spectacular pictures of the fantastic landscape involved along the Outlaw Trail than in this incredibly beautiful book. It’s a big, roughly 9” x 11,” hard cover, with a great sexy picture of Mr. Redford on the cover and pictures and conversations with some very crusty and rugged characters inside the book. I can already see in this book the nostalgia Mr. Redford had for the “Old West,” which I am sure prompted his starring in the movie THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN, where he steals a beautiful but doped-up show horse out of Las Vegas and rides the horse into the wild plains, where he turns it loose and lets it run free with mustangs. 

My reason for reading this book is to prepare to write my three new books for Sourcebooks, which will all be set against the Outlaw Trail in one way or another. Each story will bring in a cameo of sorts – of various characters from other books I’ve written – characters who also visited the Outlaw Trail at some point in their story. My new heroes will have short encounters with these other characters, like with Moses Tucker from LAWLESS LOVE, Sage Lightfoot from PARADISE VALLEY and Jake Harkner from my OUTLAW series. I am going to have to study these older books in order to get my time frame right in the new stories, but most of all I want to drench myself in the landscape and history of the Outlaw Trail, where famous outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hung out at times. I am hoping to have my new heroes not only meet some of my other characters, but also some “real” outlaws of the time.

I have loved America’s Old West all my life, probably because I grew up watching westerns, both in movies and on television. My “hero” when I was young was Matt Dillon from GUNSMOKE, and of course my movie heroes were Clint Eastwood, John Wayne and Tom Selleck (who starred in a lot of movies based on stories by Louis L’Amour (my mentor) and in QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER, set in Australia’s “West,” which is very much like America’s). PALE RIDER is my favorite Clint Eastwood movie, and ROOSTER COGBURN my favorite John Wayne movie, although his movie THE COWBOYS was also so realistic, wonderful, yet so sad, as was THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. And saddest but most realistic of all was THE SHOOTIST.

I loved Kathryn Hepburn’s description of John Wayne’s character in ROOSTER COGBURN. He wore a patch over one eye and was a rough and rugged old lawman who killed a lot of men who all “deserved it,” much like my Jake would say of most of the men he killed. Katheryn’s description in the movie actually fits John Wayne himself …

“Rueben, I have to say it … living with you has been an adventure any woman would relish for the rest of time. I look at you with your burned-out face, and your big belly, and your bear-like paws … and your shining eye … and I have to say you are a credit to the whole male sex and I’m proud to have you for my friend.”

Sounds like most western heroes – and certainly like my Jake Harkner, except he didn’t have a big belly or wear a patch over one eye. Be that as it may, that description so envelops the western hero, whether a lawman or an outlaw, and that ruggedness is what it took to survive the Outlaw Trail. I am so excited to be writing about this era and the several historic locations along that trail, like Hole-In-The-Wall, Brown’s Park and Robber’s Roost.

America’s western landscape is absolutely spectacular. “Big Sky Country” hardly does justice as a description for such an immense world, where there are places you can see for fifty miles or more. Such is the landscape along the Outlaw Trail, incredibly endless grassland walled by mammoth red cliffs, snow-capped mountains, and places where caves and crevasses once hid wanted men – places where lawmen dared not go for fear of never returning.

A couple of the things printed in Mr. Redford’s book really touched me. From the book’s Forward are these words from Mr. Redford:

“… From 1870 to 1910 it (the Outlaw Trail) was a lawless area where any man with a past or a price on his head was free to roam “nameless,” provided he was good with a gun, fast on a horse, cleverer than the next man, could run as fast as he could cheat, trusted no one, had eyes in back of his head and a fool’s sense of adventure. No holds were barred on this trail, and old age was a freak condition.” … Robert Redford, THE OUTLAW TRAIL, Copyright 1976, Grosset& Dunlap, NYC.

There is also a beautiful excerpt from the song, OLD COWBOY (October 31, 1938), by Matt Warner, who was once sheriff of Price, Utah and a former outlaw:

… From the range forever your voice is still. No more does its echo resound from the hills – Old Cowboy.

Lula (Parker) Betenson with Robert Redford & Paul Newman

The ending of this book is so touching. Mr. Redford visits with Lula (Parker) Betenson, the 94-year-old sister of Butch Cassidy, whose real name was Robert Leroy Parker. (This visit would have taken place around 1975). There were 13 children in the Parker family, and Lula was younger than Butch, 6 years old when he left home. She saved all his letters and some of his personal belongings. Mr. Redford describes her as still beautiful, with eyes that showed her to be young at heart. They met at the old Parker cabin near Circleville, Utah. It’s kind of sad how he describes the old cabin at the end of his talk with Lula.

“The house is old. Gray-splintered sagging wood. The window frames are bleached, and vandalism and target practice have left smashed panes. The rooms are small, like all the rooms in all the buildings of this kind we have visited. In the back are the corrals – gray, shaggy, tilting against the burnt yellow and gray hills beyond. It’s all that’s left. Lula and the corrals and the hills. There’s no more.” …Robert Redford, THE OUTLAW TRAIL, Copyright 1976, Grosset & Dunlap, NYC.

That description hit me as applicable to the Outlaw Trail itself. Much of it is gone now, buried under towns and asphalt, coal strip mines, high-wire electric lines and steam rising from power plants. The buffalo and most mustangs are gone. Too many ranchers have been forced out of business due to taxes and regulations, land grabs and big corporations that wiped them out. Some of the peace of dead silence is gone, but in the wide-open places between the scattered towns and away from industry and windmills and humming electric lines, the dead silence is still there. I’ve been to some of these places – places where the silence is so penetrating it almost hurts your ears. You literally strain to hear something.

And there was a time when most of the American West was just that … total silence, except for the occasional howling of wolves, the snorting and rutting of buffalo, the prayer song of an Indian, the ripple of a mountain stream, the thunder of a herd of mustangs, the cry of an eagle … and the soft groan of an almost-constant wind. And those are my words, not Mr. Redford’s.

I think you will enjoy my Outlaw Trail books once they are written and published, and I hope you rent or buy some of the movies listed here, most of which also beautifully display America’s magnificent western landscape in many of the scenes in the movies, especially PALE RIDER and ROOSTER COGBURN. Watch my web site for news of books to come … and you just might want to re-read LAWLESS LOVE, PARADISE VALLEY and my OUTLAW series, because some of those characters will show up in my new stories!


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