Bangtail Press has just released Riding the Rough String: Reflections on the American West, by Toby Thompson.
One of the most respected journalists in America (his work has been published in Esquire and Vanity Fair, Outside and The Washington Post), Toby Thompson has, for more than 40 years, been considering what it means to live and work in the West. Riding the Rough String is a series of profiles, essays, and explorations, his best work brought together under one cover.
In the following interview Thompson talks about migrating to Montana, and how personal relationships with writers like James Lee Burke, Gary Snyder, and Gretel Ehrlich influenced his work and his life. He also drops a few other names: "To have partied with (Thomas McGuane), Hunter Thompson and Jimmy Buffett in the same summer is memorable."
An Interview with Toby Thompson
Bangtail Press: You’ve been writing about the West, and specifically about Montana, since the late ‘60s. That’s a long time to gain insight and perspective. How have you seen the West change in that time?
Toby Thompson: The West I know has changed primarily through an influx of “immigrants”—largely middle-to-upper income types like myself, who have bought second houses yet have not retired, due to the ease of modern communications. In fact I would say that communications have changed the Mountain West more drastically than any other factor. When I came to Montana during the summer of 1959, there was no television or radio accessible at our ranch. In ‘62 there still was not, and by ‘72, in larger towns there was at least local television and radio. By ‘76 and then by ‘80, cable TV was available which, in many ways, brought contemporary music, mores and styles to the Mountain West. Particularly through MTV. Suddenly I was hearing the same songs on the jukebox or from bands as I had heard back East, and was watching the same television news. Kids dressed in gangsta fashion, wore tattoos and spoke in a hip patois. Cable TV and Clear Channel radio, to say nothing of the internet, have done their damnedest to homogenize the West.
BP: You had a summer job on a ranch when you were fourteen?
TT: Yes, on a cattle and dude ranch outside West Yellowstone, Montana. Its mistress was Maggie Grand, the scion of a Long Island clan that had relegated her to the family spread to oversee it. She was typical of wealthy misfits who had been drawn to the Mountain West, nearly since its settlement by whites. During the day she wore jeans and rough workshirts, but at the stroke of five she emerged from her cabin in pink Chinese pajamas, Arabian slippers, a turban and smoking cigarettes from a Sterling silver holder. She’d knock back several martinis then take me to the main lodge’s porch to bag starlings, as they angled in to nest, with .22 birdshot. It was a revelatory experience.
BP: How so?
TT: She, and more to the point, my generation of cowboy want-to-bes, were just starting to arrive. We would infiltrate, then change the culture of the West as thoroughly as had the pioneers. Even at fourteen, I recall being resented for my presence. The ranch’s local hands felt quite threatened. We were a vanguard of the West’s gentrification. I’ve recounted an introduction to that process here in my story, “Summer Wages.”
BP: Let’s back up. If you had to find larger themes in your own work, if you were asked to take a big-picture perspective in describing what you do, how would you start?
TT: I write about the American West but am probably more interested in middle-American themes—that is, my generation’s move from the city to the suburbs in late 1940s and early 1950s. That was my experience—first from New York City, then from Washington, D.C. That move effected huge changes in our culture. Gone was a sense of community that even the rowdiest urban neighborhoods possessed, to be supplanted by the empty lawns of tract houses and sidewalks devoid of pedestrians. It was lonely, and that loneliness was capitalized upon by ‘50s television shows, performed live from New York. In fact I’m a child of ‘50s television, as my uncle was a writer/producer for Your Hit Parade. It was a top-ten-hits show—a predecessor to MTV—and its message was “there’s nothing happenin’ in the suburbs, baby—it’s happenin’ downtown.” We’ve seen a repopulation of inner cities over the past forty years, largely due to baby boomer interest and, it’s my belief shows like Saturday Night Live, with its weekly pronouncement, ‘Live from New York: it’s Saturday Night!’ helped. Your Hit Parade was broadcast live each Saturday in the same NBC studio as SNL. I was present many times.
BP: How does suburban angst factor into your interest in the West?
TT: When I first experienced town life in Montana, I realized that I’d been longing for neighborhood, for community. A town like Livingston (pop. 7,380) where I own a house, is like a neighborhood in a major city–say Murray Hill in New York, or North Beach in San Francisco. People stroll the sidewalks, say hello, know your name. And they watch out for each other. As my generation retreated from the horrors of Vietnam, it homesteaded not only the cities’ ravaged cores but the American West. Both derived from frontier impulses.
BP: Riding the Rough String has an impressive developmental arc. It’s part memoir, part biography, part “novel” of ideas. Seeing its pieces side by side, collected in one place, have you learned anything new about the totality of your work?
TT: Only that the generational angle remains sharp. Baby boomers were raised with a mythic conception of the West. We saw it on Saturday morning TV, read about it in comic books, and saw it in movies. Our heroes and heroines were cowfolk. We dressed like them, wanted to be them. A major theme in these pieces is how my generation realized its dream of experiencing the American West. And in many cases, their members became cowboys or cowgirls. I don’t think kids today have any sense of what it means to be a cowboy or cowgirl. When’s the last time you saw a child costumed as one?
BP: Many of your pieces in Rough String concern writers. Is that an accident?
TT: No. Many writers were smitten as children by the mythos of the West, and as adults, writing was one way to survive here. You could create your books, articles or screenplays without living in New York or Los Angeles, and you could do so in an extremely loose manner. I started profiling writers because A: I was interested in their work, and B: because I wished to see how their lives embraced the West. My long piece about Thomas McGuane and Livingston during the manic 1970s is case in point. The huge profile of Gary Snyder is another. Snyder did it on a subsistence basis, with a community of activists and writers accompanying him. I believe the settlement of the West by artists and writers, in the mid-to-late twentieth century, will be seen to be as important as that of cowboys or miners in the nineteenth.
BP: You’ve interviewed some of the biggest names in the literary and artistic West. Which were your favorites?
TT: James Lee Burke was particularly insightful, and I got to play country guitar with him. Gretel Ehrlich was determined in her remarks and purposeful in her life; she has been struck twice by lightning, and I hiked through a thunderstorm with her. Tim Cahill is the architect of contemporary adventure writing, and his thoughts on risk and why we seek it are riveting. Peter Fonda, if only for his work in Easy Rider, is etched into film history, and I got him out on a motorcycle—perhaps the first journalist to have done so. Thomas McGuane may be the most brilliant writer I’ve met, and as a Middle Westerner the life he’s created for himself in Montana is exemplary. To have partied with him, Hunter Thompson and Jimmy Buffett in the same summer is memorable. The godfather of Western writers, William Kittredge, was a rancher before he became a writer, and as the eldest of this bunch, is suffused with wit and wisdom. Robert Redford is Robert Redford: a cinematic legend. And his filming of A River Runs through It in 1991, which I track in “A Private River,” changed Montana as forcefully as had cable television. River did it through the fly fisherman invasion, which amped up gentrification and its attendant woes. Gary Snyder, whose voice and determination Jack Kerouac captured in his 1958 novel, The Dharma Bums, is larger than life. To have slept and hung out at his Sierra Nevada home, to say nothing of having hiked with him, were unique experiences. And he taught me Zen meditation.
BP: Gary Snyder taught you to meditate?
TT: Yes indeed. He’d built a zendo at Kitkitdizze, his mountain retreat, and a meditation group—Ring of Bone—practices there. I wanted to sit with them. One afternoon Gary took me to the zendo, perched beside me on a cushion, taught me the rudiments of posture and breathing, and schooled me in what to expect during the three-hour ritual. I have those instructions on tape.
BP: Many of the figures you profile here had difficult childhoods, and Snyder is no exception. You seem drawn to these types.
TT: My childhood was thorny, to say the least. And Snyder’s was abusive; he describes his mother as having had a temperament that was “almost multiple personality.” He survived her beatings and other mistreatments in a remarkable way. He’s a testament to the introspection and hard work necessary to repair character flaws. He’s described Zen as “the crispest example of the‘self-help’ branch of Mahayana Buddhism.” And self-help is of course a boomer preoccupation, though it’s always been with us. Gretel Ehrlich expresses this in the quote I use for the epitaph of my book: “Riding the rough string...you get bucked off and you get back on. You understand what you did to make the horse scared. And you don’t become a victim.”
BP: What’s next for you?
TT: This afternoon, the Wilsall Rodeo. Then continued revisions of a novel I’ve completed.
BP: About the West?
TT: About the East. It seems you can go home again.