On Christmas 2002, Roberts Rinehart Publishers released the 100th anniversary edition of Owen Wister’s The Virginian. It’s a story, told through the eyes of a visiting greenhorn from the East, of a Wyoming ranch foreman known only as the Virginian, his courtship of a school teacher, and his encounters with murdering cattle rustlers. For the West today, the enduring myth of the rugged, handsome, gentleman cowboy–largely created by this 100 year old yarn–emerges as both blessing and curse. The strong, independent, virtuous, ideal American portrayed remains a national psychic treasure. Yet this romance with all things cowboy–particularly way too many cows grazed at the public expense on public lands–drains the landscape treasures of the American West. Wister is a gifted storyteller, and this honeymoon scene excerpted below makes me want to take my new bride somewhere mountainous, remote, and pristine–minus the horses perhaps. -Mark Bailey
From At Dunbarton: Chapter 36
Before this wedding plan, it had by no means come home to him how deep a hold upon him the island had taken. He knew that he liked to go there, and go alone; but so little was it his way to scan himself, his mind, or his feelings (unless some action called for it) that he first learned his love of the place through his love of her. But he told her nothing of it. After the thought of taking her there came to him, he kept his island as something to let break upon her own eyes, lest by looking forward she should look for more than the reality.
Hence, as they rode along, when the houses of the town were shrunk to dots behind them, and they were nearing the gates of the foothills, she asked him questions. She hoped they would find a camp a long way from the town. She could ride as many miles as necessary. She was not tired. Should they not go on until they found a good place far enough within the solitude? Had he fixed upon any? And at the nod and the silence that he gave her for reply, she knew that he had thoughts and intentions which she must wait to learn.
They passed through the gates of the foothills, following the stream up among them. The outstretching fences and the widely trodden dust were no more. Now and then they rose again into view of the fields and houses down in the plain below. But as the sum of the miles and hours grew, they were glad to see the road less worn with travel, and the traces of men passing from sight. The ploughed and planted country, that quilt of many-colored harvests which they had watched yesterday, lay in another world from this where they rode now. No hand but nature’s had sown these crops of lowers, these willow thickets and tall cottonwoods. Somewhere in a passage of red rocks the last sign of wagon wheels was lost, and after this the trail became a wild mountain trail. But it was still the warm air of the plains, bearing the sage-brush odor and not the pine, that they breathed; nor did any forest yet cloak the shapes of the tawny hills among which they were ascending. Twice the steepness loosened the pack-ropes, and he jumped down to tighten them, lest the horses should get sore backs. And twice the stream they followed went into deep canons, so that for a while they parted from it. When they came back to its margin for the second time, he bade her notice how its water had become at last wholly clear. To her it had seemed clear enough all along, even in the plain above the town. But now she saw that it flowed lustrously with flashes; and she knew the soil had changed to mountain soil. Lower down, the water had carried the slightest cloud of alkali, and this had dulled the keen edge of its transparence. Full solitude was around them ow, so that their words grew scarce, and when they spoke it was with low voices. They began to pass nooks and points favorable for camping, with wood and water at hand, and pasture for the horses. More than once as they reached such places, she thought he must surely stop; but still he rode on in advance of her (for the trail was narrow) until, when she was not thinking of it, he drew rein and pointed.
“What?” she asked timidly.
“The pines,” he answered,
She looked, and saw the island, and the water folding it with ripples and with smooth spaces. The sun was throwing upon the pine boughs a light of deepening red gold, and the sandy shore. In this fore-running glow of the sunset, the pasture spread like emerald; for the dry touch of summer had not yet come near it. He pointed upward to the high mountains which they had approached, and showed her where the stream led into their first unfoldings.
“Tomorrow we shall be among them,” said he.
‘Then,” she murmured to him, “tonight is here?”
He nodded for answer, and she gazed at the island and understood why he had not stopped before; nothing they had passed had been so lovely as this place.
There was room in the trail for them to go side by side; and side by side they rode to the ford and crossed, driving the packhorses in front of them, until they came to the sheltered circle, and he helped her down where the soft pine needles lay. They felt each other tremble, and for a moment she stood hiding her head upon his breast. Then she looked round at the trees, and the shores, and the flowing stream, and he heard her whispering how beautiful it was.
“I am glad,” he said, still holding her. “This is how I have dreamed it would happen. Only it is better than my dreams,” And when she pressed him in silence, he finished, “I have meant we should see our first sundown here, and our first sunrise.”