Books, On the Run

On Cowboys and American Dreams

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Crime writers Sulari Gentill, Robert Gott, Jock Serong and Emma Viskic are in the midst of a US tour, On The Run: Australian Crime Writers In America, and have promised a daily update of proceedings.

In this instalment SULARI GENTILL takes in the grand canyon.

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I spent my early childhood in Lusaka, Zambia, while my parents waited out the dying days of the White Australia policy. I was very young, but my memories from those years are vivid, if a little fragmented. One of the clearest is that of Roy. 

Roy was the paper cowboy stuck to the wall of the built-in wardrobe that served as my cubby house. He’d come in a book with cut-out clothes that you could fit over his basic outfit—chaps, boots, spurs, fringed waistcoat, a holster and a gun. The book also included a cactus, to complete the scene.

My mother had helped me dress Roy and pasted the finished ensemble, with cactus, onto the wall of my cubby. There wasn’t much else in that wardrobe so Roy and I spent a great deal of time in each other’s company. He had what I recognise now as a broad American smile, and we became friends—pals even.

Moments later we come upon the canyon, or rather, it comes upon us.

Far from being concerned about my attachment to a paper doll, my parents bought me a cowboy costume so Roy and I could form a posse, and if family photographs are to be believed, that’s all I wore between the ages of three and six, when we left Zambia for Australia. Sadly, Roy couldn’t leave the wardrobe, having been pasted to its wall with some early version of superglue, and so I left him behind in one of the passing tragedies of childhood.

I haven’t thought of Roy for decades but the sight of Arizona’s tall Saguaro cactus brings him back. I remember that I once dreamt of riding the range and eating beans by an open campfire, of lassoing cattle and facing off against sidewinders at high noon. Of course, strictly speaking, that’s not what I’m here to do, and while I do see the odd cowboy, they tend to be riding in Mustangs, not on them. Even so, Arizona does seem to tap into the Western dream in a way that Dallas did not.  I notice that the cowboy swagger has returned to my step, and when I smile at strangers in the street, I imagine I am tipping my hat.

In Scottsdale, Arizona I call into Poisoned Pen Press to meet the people responsible for bringing my books to the New World. I’ve always felt a little pretentious saying “my US publishers” and so at home I tend to shorten the reference to “my Americans”. The visit to the press does nothing to discourage that. Poisoned Pen feels like family in the US—warm, funny and blunt.

Barbara Peters grabs a moment to speak to me about my latest manuscripts. These types of conversations are not for the precious or emotionally fragile, but Barbara’s editorial eye is unfailing and I’ve been at this too long to allow ego to get in the way of taking good advice. The conversation leaves me grateful for her insight, excited about the future and itching to get back to work.

That evening, four Australians appear at the Poisoned Pen Bookshop with South African crime writing duo Michael Stanley (Michaels Sears and Stan Trollip) and New York mystery writer Tim Maleeny. The crowd is welcoming and engaged. There’s a buzz about the evening as the Q and A turns into an all-in. Afterwards, Rob and Barbara (who own the store) take us all to dinner. A restaurant chosen by locals is almost guaranteed to be good and The Mission is superb. We order grits… because, well, grits! Over superb food and margaritas we break the first rule of civilised dining and talk about politics. The conversation is lively and reassuring. The Resistance is strong. Perhaps the Americans will lead us out, as they led us in.

We snatch a few hours’ sleep… and then Jock wakes us with the news that Tom and Karen, an Arizonan couple who’d we met at the event, would be arriving at 8am with two cars in order to chauffeur us to the Grand Canyon and Sedona. We turn into excited children and are waiting eagerly on the sidewalk when they arrive.

And so, this adventure begins. For a few miles, we travel on Route 66 and scramble for our phones to take pictures of the road sign. As we enter the National Park we are issued passes by a gentleman who looks uncannily like Yogi Bear’s Ranger Smith, and again I feel like I’m walking into my childhood. Memories that make me smile. The Ranger is friendly and funny, but forgets to warn us not to feed the bears.

Moments later we come upon the canyon, or rather, it comes upon us.

I confess, I did consider not writing about this excursion. Not because I was concerned the Australian public would resent us having such a good time on a publicly funded tour, or because I didn’t want to share the sheer immensity of this experience, but because I was worried that I did not have the words to describe the Grand Canyon. And I don’t. I’m not sure, there are words but I will try.

Looking at the Grand Canyon is like staring into time. Stretched before and below you are millions of years carved into rock. A distant line of green marks the path of the Colorado River on the canyon’s floor as you are faced with the impossible scale of its creation. Your vision is not wide enough, your mind is not great enough and your soul is not deep enough to take it all in. It is vast and empty and from the rim, still—like time has stopped within it.

The beauty and power of it is overwhelming, moving. 

We are taken to lunch and then dinner by our hosts who are charming and open. Again we talk about politics and religion, similarities and differences. They are curious about what we think, humble and so polite. Tom and Karen pack the day with experience after experience, everything is possible—anything we want. They’re proud of their home and they want to share it, are determined to share it. They seem to take pleasure in our delight and ask nothing more than that for the incredible generosity of this day. And that too overwhelms me.

So how does all this relate to Roy, my paper cowboy? Am I just meandering like the Colorado River into the American landscape? Perhaps. But in Arizona in particular I find myself thinking of Roy and the American spirit—or the version of it that the world was sold by the likes of John Wayne and James Garner, Gregory Peck and the Brady Bunch, as well as the intelligent, sometimes quirky warmth and the unbridled generosity we have encountered on this tour.

The vision of America I believed in as a child was not a vision of landscape, or baseball, of flags or constitutions, but rather a vision of Americans. Broad, friendly smiles and kindness to strangers.   Howdy, partner, hope you’re swell. I know we are getting a rarefied glimpse; that here, like everywhere, there exists the uglier elements of humanity. This is a time of rampant prejudice, fear and violence. This is a society that loves guns and builds walls. Indeed, every now and then, I am reminded that every person I encounter might be armed. Even so, I can’t help but be heartened by the small cross-section of Americans we have met. My colleague Robert Gott often accuses me of being both relentless and exhausting in my optimism, and he may have a point. But I can’t help but feel that perhaps the real American dream is not about starting with nothing and ending up with everything; maybe it’s simply about the best of Americans. And at the moment, four Australians are living that dream.

For the rest of this series click here.

13 responses to “On Cowboys and American Dreams

  1. “ Your vision is not wide enough, your mind is not great enough and your soul is not deep enough to take it all in.” Lovely post, Sulari. Can totally relate to your take on the Grand Canyon. I think it took me the better part of a day for my eyes to convince my mind that what I was seeing — this all-new depth of field — was for real.

  2. Loved your impressions of the Grand Canyon, Sulari. I do love seeing my Western home through your eyes. It’s something my husband and I never take for granted, and we are always looking for new, inspiring places. They are many!

    Sending my best wishes for a continued happy and successful book tour!

  3. What a terrific post, Sulari. So great seeing you and the other Aussie authors on the run in Scottsdale. Here’s hoping we cross paths again soon! (Also, just started Crossing The Lines and am loving it.)

  4. Oh, Sulari. You still write some of the best descriptions I’ve ever seen. I’ve been gone from Arizona for seven years now. I lived there for eight years. I still love and miss the beautify of that state. And, you capture its spirit. Thank you.

  5. What a gift you were given, to be able to see the Grand Canyon at such short notice! Your description comes pretty close to capturing the enormity of the response it evokes.

    I hope you’ll find in the rest of your travels here that the good Americans–the generous, open-minded, and open-hearted people who never felt that American needed to be made “great again”–outnumber the bad. We were so delighted to meet you at last, and meeting your mates was a bonus.

    “Your Americans” wish you well for the rest of your trip and your long journey home, and we already look forward to your next visit. I’ll take you to Tombstone and the OK Corral–who knows, you might find Roy there, waiting to tip his hat and say “Welcome back–I’ve missed you!” At the very least, your publisher and new friends certainly will.

  6. What a beautiful post. You have as come as close as anyone I’ve read in describing the Grand Canyon. It was truly touching.

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