Author Craig Johnson reveals what made him fall in love with his adopted home state — and why he set his Walt Longmire series there, even though the bighorn sheep outnumber the criminals.
There is a longing within the human spirit to find vast open spaces, and Wyoming, the least populated state in America, is a spectacular place to go to find them and to get away from everything — with the possible exception of oneself.
I found myself in my tiny part of Wyoming when I was in my 20s delivering horses for a rancher out of Montana. A guy from Oklahoma City was supposed to meet me in Ucross (population 25) to pick up the stock, but when I arrived he hadn’t, so I went over to the only pay phone in town, which was hanging on the wall outside the only bar, and called the rancher I was working for to explain; he said that the fella would be there any time now — that he hadn’t left yet.
“From Oklahoma City?”
THE LATEST BOOK
When Absaroka County Sheriff Walt Longmire is called in to investigate the suicide of a fellow officer, he discovers an underlying mystery involving a series of disappearing women. Thankfully, if you’re a member of the Longmire TV posse, you won’t have to worry about picking up the threads from Craig Johnson’s other novels to follow the story in Any Other Name (The Viking Press, 2014). Henry Standing Bear, Deputy “Vic” Moretti, and crew are along for the ride to keep Walt out of trouble (as if that’s even possible) while he waits — spoiler alert — for the birth of his first grandchild. The tense pacing and high-stakes action don’t disappoint in this perfect summer read. — Steven Phelps
During the weekend of July 18 – 20, the stars of A&E’s Longmire will be back in Buffalo, Wyo-ming, to turn the town into the fictional burg of Durant in honor of the popular TV show. Craig Johnson is heavily involved in the event: He says there’ll be a street dance, trail rides, a softball game, a golf tournament, skeet shooting, a motorcycle poker run, and a Northern Cheyenne powwow. Get travel information and find schedule updates closer to the event at www.buffalowyo.com.
“Well, just unload the horses into the public corral, go get some idiot bales (70 pounders), and bucket water from Clear Creek to fill up that bathtub they use as a horse trough.”
Covering my face with my hand, I leaned against the wall. “That’s all fine and well for the horses, but what about me?”
“You’ll find something to do till he gets there — it’s baling season and I’m sure the local ranchers can use some help.” There was a pause. “And, Craig, they’ve got a bar.”
So, for a couple of days, under the clear skies and brilliant Wyoming sun, I bucked bales for those ranchers and sweated bullets for their cowboys; in turn, they spotted me dinners and more Rainier Beer than I could drink at the U-Turn Inn, a converted Texaco service station that was owned by a crotchety old big game hunter by the name of Buck Bader.
Nights on the top of the horse trailer with a saddle for a pillow and an old wool blanket for cover, I listened to the high plains wind scouring the blue sage and cottonwood trees, and slept under what the Northern Cheyenne call the Hanging Road, the thick belt of the Milky Way that stretches like a hammock of stars from horizon to horizon. I didn’t know it at the time, but the ever-present Wyoming wind was also scouring me, hollowing a place where I could live for the rest of my life.
The Oklahoman showed up on day three, whereupon I loaded the horses for him and he departed to points south. It took me 15 years to get back to Wyoming, but when I did, I bought some land and started pouring concrete and stacking logs in an attempt to make that place my own; instead, I think, this tiny part of the Western world made me me.
I fell in love with the sublime beauty of the high plains and the secluded majesty of the Bighorn Mountains — forgotten because most of the world is in such a hurry to get from the Black Hills over to Yellowstone that they don’t make time to explore our magnificent part of the country.
They do remember driving through, though. I get cards, letters, and e-mails from people who read the books and watch Longmire, the television show that is based on my novels, people who tell me about a trip they made in the back of their parents’ ’63 Plymouth station wagon; they only passed through once, but they never forgot us — or this place.
A lot of the time, I get asked why it is I didn’t set the Walt Longmire book series and consequently the A&E television show in an actual Wyoming county rather than in the fictitious Absaroka (mispronounced ab-sa-RO-ka) — after all, I just have to look out any window to see the sheriff’s world. I thought, however, that if I pulled a Faulkner and made up my own kind of Yoknapatawpha County, I could make this place emblematic of the rural West and maybe of rural areas all over the world.
With Wyoming having one of the lowest crime rates in the country, though, I was stretching it by setting a murder mystery series here, but the beauty of the landscape and the friendliness and diversity of the people were ultimately more important than probability. I mean, where else can you have world-class PRCA rodeos, museums, a Basque festival that includes The Running of the Sheep, and, within shouting distance just a little north, the Little Bighorn and the powwows of the Crow and Cheyenne reservations? Besides, I wasn’t writing a documentary.
My ranch is near Ucross, around the bend from the spot where I had enjoyed the view from the top of the horse trailer, at the point where Clear and Piney Creeks merge in their trek from the Bighorn Mountains to the Powder River in the middle of the territory that, in 1939, could have become the separate state of Absaroka (pronounced ab-SOR-ka), the Crow word for “children of the long-beaked bird.”
Sheridan street commissioner A.R. Swickard proclaimed himself the governor of the breakaway state that would encompass not only northern Wyoming from the eastern border to Yellowstone, but the Black Hills portion of South Dakota and the Crow and Cheyenne reservations in Montana. Tired of tax dollars being distributed in the southern part of the state along Union Pacific lines and unhappy with the federal government’s ownership of 47 percent of the land, Swickard and the other rebels of the secessionist movement pressed license plates and even went so far as to crown a Miss Absaroka.
Swept away by the groundswell of World War II, the Absaroka movement fell along the wayside, but the allure of escape still permeates the region today. Which may be why I base my novels in the fictitious county of Absaroka rather than a real county in northern Wyoming; I’m trying to keep a little secret. After all — all I have to do is feel that ever-present Wyoming wind and look out at the landscape that re-made me to see Walt Longmire’s world
From the July 2014 issue.