Local author Johnny Gunn’s new collection of stories is as tasty as a batch of frontier chili
The mythology inundating the period of the America frontier is an overwhelming mother lode, a wide, starry eyeful of prairie sky seen from a cowboy’s bedroll as smoldering embers crackle in a dying campfire. The deities making up the frontier pantheon aren’t so much the gunslingers, land-grabbers and gold-rushers of the past, but the qualities of the men and women who lived it: self-reliance, progress, violence and justice. For those who believe in the absolute legitimacy of our Manifest Destiny to cover the continent, the frontier remains something of a deeply moving, near-religious experience: an all-American orgasm. And while the Census Bureau officially declared the frontier closed in 1891, it’s been wide open in Western literature ever since.
In truth, the story of the American frontier can hardly be held up as a morality tale any more than General George Custer could be accurately ranked as a gallant, brilliant military man. Yet, the lasting impression the American frontier left on the American psyche continues to inform us of who we are today and explains why we do some of the things we do and hold fast to certain things “American.”
This period of swift and savage westward expansion is accurately described by Johnny Gunn, Nevadan author of Out of the West &133; Tales of the American Frontier, as an overly romanticized time of “dangerous people doing dangerous things.“ It’s great fodder for fables of American progress. Then as now, of course, the map was not the territory.
As Gunn describes in his book, it was a time when nicknames were as colorful as a Western sunset: The book is peopled by the likes of “Peckerhead” Watson, Larry “The Loop,” Old “Joshin” Joshua and the author of Out of the West himself, Johnny Gunn.
By no means a tenderfoot, the author, born Dennis Locke, is an avid horseman in his early 70s.
“Johnny Gunn is in his mid 50s,” he says with a thorny smile. “Only the IRS knows who’s who for sure.”
The former editor of the Nevada Observer, Gunn has been in and out of Nevada journalism for nearly half a century. Now living on a ranch near Cold Springs with wife, Patty, who did the artwork for the book, Gunn says he’s retired only in the sense of “not having to work for anybody anymore.”
Gunn is the kind of guy who might use Mark Twain’s seminal fictive on life in a Western mining camp, Roughing It, as most folks use a Lonely Planet guide for a vacation. With his sagacious, chaparral-like shock of white beard and the cunning, good-natured cynicism of a native Nevadan, Gunn’s biography is a bit surprising.
Born in Santa Cruz, the son of an airline pilot, Gunn was sent packing for the central Pacific shores of Guam as a teenager.
“Picture yourself, a teenage boy living in the South Pacific,” he says, his smile hinting at some serious mischief. “It was exactly how you’d think it was.” Certainly, being a haole in Guam was different in the 1950s than now, with the sting of war still fresh in the minds and the stain of blood still visible in the white island sands of the country, which was occupied by Japan until island-hopping General Roy Geiger, at a cost of 1,700 American lives, freed the people from their brutal captors in a bloody three-week campaign. Americans were still seen as liberators, according to Gunn.
“It was a lot of fun,” he says, his eyes reaching back for a quick reminiscence, but not staying very long. “I didn’t own a jacket until I was 18.”
Gunn graduated from George Washington High School, in the city of Agana, and then came back to the mainland to attend San Jose State. Apparently, the state of Guam’s higher education left a lot to be desired, and Gunn said that despite the diploma, he still had to enroll in remedial math and English courses once back in the States.
He studied journalism for a couple of years and then dropped out to take a job broadcasting the news at a radio station in Watsonville.
“We hadn’t had any major commercial newspapers or TV on Guam,” he says. So a lot of his journalist heroes were radio men, like Edward R. Murrow and a young reporter named Walter Cronkite.
West side stories
Gunn’s book of Western stories takes place from the golden age of the highwayman and placer miner all the way to the modern cell-phone era.
Like the landscape of the frontier itself, Gunn offers up the gamut in the 13 stories in Out of the West. From a kettle of homebrewed sour mash to the more sophisticated fifth of good strong literary whiskey, the book opens with a tale called “The Gas Man Meets His Match, Or, Just How Good Was that Chili?” And just as true today as it was 100 years ago, there’s nothing like capsicum spices to make any saddle-burned bum cowboy-up and follow that chuck wagon for a taste of ambrosia. There’s a lot of pride on the line when it comes to a chili cook-off. And for good reason—when you’re living off the land and shooting your dinner, you’re not very likely to get a nicely marbled kobe beef steak every night. Or any night. And there’s precious little time to marinate the squirrel parts, rabbit filets and the occasional prairie dog burger. The meat often went into one big pot. Frontiersmen soon found that the spices in chili could mask the gamey musk of chipmunk nuggets and make them, if not downright tasty, at least palatable. Chili quickly became a favorite among the range rovers.
In the story, the Nevada Kid is taking on The Gas Man in a chili cook-off, an event that often takes on as much cloak-and-dagger diplomacy and treachery as a Cold War summit. The Nevada Kid’s secret ingredient that made his buckaroo beans the hands-down, all-around winner turns out to be surprising, but then again, perhaps not really.
Just as the frontier days remain fluid in the imagination of Americans, “Not in My Camp, Bear” features a likely unintentional but fitting demonstration as to how strangely, almost baroque and fetishistic, frontiersman in Western literature seemed to have been about their breakfasts, always describing in borderline prurient English tea ceremony-like detail the most important meal of the day. An uninvited guest likes what he smells and quickly gets dispatched from camp only to be invited back again for dinner.
“Annabelle’s Slippery Gulch” is a story about Annabelle, a pistol-packing redheaded firebrand and proprietor of Annabelle’s Slippery Gulch Saloon and Café, whose cunning use of the local newspaper and a team of hard-galloping horses level the field against the Belcher Brothers, a corrupt mining syndicate that’s been ripping off the miners. And that’s no good for Madame Annabelle’s stable of soiled doves who work for her the periphery of the saloon.
“A Gandy Dancer’s Tale” is a modern tale told from the perspective of a barkeep that pines for the old days and enjoys listening to customer stories, noting that he’ll forever keep “a warm spot in his heart for all saloon keepers, Indians, and half-starved horses.” Old stories from old folks tend to “wash away the aroma of stale whiskey, beer, and tobacco” for the sentimental bartender. Anything but the infernal tunes coming from cell phones.
Like all those that came West looking for a better life, Johnny Gunn has found his American dream. Between his wife of a couple years, his two horses and nine chickens—“Wait a minute,” he says, remembering a recent holiday dinner. “Make that eight chickens”—life is pretty good.