In search of the Wild West—or at least, Wild West magazine—I drive through the concrete Cumberland Gap called Tysons Corner. Car dealerships give way to horse farms and housing developments named to sound like horse farms. Just an hour outside Washington, I arrive at the last outpost of the Northern Virginia frontier: Leesburg.
I think about the hardy pioneers who once settled here. To wit, my uncle, who—putting the finishing touches on a house he built with his own hands—sliced a finger off with an electric saw. His faithful dog, Sheltie, gobbled up the bloody digit as it hit the sawdust. Master and beast remained the best of friends; pioneer types understand that you eat what you can.
Of course, Leesburg is more Southern than Western—and now more suburban than either. On weekdays, the homesteaders who tamed the countryside commute to drab office jobs in Washington, a thoroughly Eastern city. But on weekends, Leesburg residents long for something a little different, a little more wide-open. They eat at the Roy Rogerses and Taco Bells that surround the town like a circle of chuckwagons. They line-dance to country songs. And they gather at Johnson’s Charcoal Beef House, its vinyl booths stuffed with old-fashioned meat eaters and its walls covered with flintlock rifles. Indians don’t much figure in the mythology; I notice only a few Redskins jackets.
I take the western bypass around Leesburg. On the horizon looms the great unknown: the dreamy Blue Ridge and the dark wilderness of West Virginia. Definitely the right direction. I turn onto a country road and follow its curves into the rolling hills of horse country, renowned as much for bestiality as for prize thoroughbreds.
Finally I spot what I’m looking for: a tiny ghost town that rivals Tombstone in desolation. The site contains an abandoned shopping center and a near-empty office park, apparent victims of wildcat real-estate speculation. A “YOGURT ETC.” sign bears witness to a departed tenant.
I know that an unlikely gang of ink-slingers has holed up here. I’ve arrived at the headquarters of Wild West, a magazine dedicated to—as one editor puts it—“horse poop and gunsmoke.” On the cover of the December issue, a posse closes in on an unseen badman. On Page 50, I find “The Women Who Loved the Wild Bunch”; on Page 58, “The Lost Mine of Pish-La-Ki.”
I expect the magazine’s office to be upholstered in cowhide and none too clean; I brace myself for the smell of chewing tobacco, whiskey, and sweat. Instead, a receptionist directs me to a sterile, carpeted area not unlike a dentist’s waiting room. Not even a John Wayne poster adorns the blank walls.
I find out that Wild West shares this bland office space with the other half-dozen mags published by the Cowles History Group. (Siblings include Vietnam, World War II, and America’s Civil War.) Wild West is the group’s biggest seller: Founded in 1988, its circulation has soared to nearly 200,000.
The receptionist returns with the hombre I’ve come to see. I’ve pinned my cowboy hopes on the editors themselves, and again I am disappointed. Senior Editor Gregory Lalire is no Gregory Peck, and not even a Slim Pickens. Instead of jeans, boots, and a Stetson, he wears a button-down shirt, slacks, and black walking shoes—not very wild, and not very Western. He looks like what he is: a bespectacled former sports editor.
A born-and-bred Easterner, Lalire knows that native, hard-core western buffs will always regard him as an outsider, and he’s sparred with readers doubtful that a Virginia magazine can tell the story of the wide-open spaces. Nonetheless, he sticks to his guns. “We’re all Westerners,” he says. “The spirit of the West is not simply nostalgia, but something that lives on—the history and traditions as well as the myths.”
As a boy in New York and Ohio, Lalire imbibed the frontier myths via the TV westerns of the early ’60s. He loved James Garner’s Maverick, and proudly wore a Bret Maverick cowboy suit and holster. He also loves movies: We agree that Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country is probably the best western of them all, and that no screen cowboy ever matched Randolph Scott, the great Virginia gentleman.
Lalire’s boyhood obsession with the West matured after he moved to work as a sportswriter and editor in New Mexico and Montana. In his spare time, he boned up on the facts of the frontier—and discovered that he liked the history even better than the legends.
That love of history serves him well at the magazine, which doesn’t shy from the old warhorses: the Donner party, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Billy the Kid, and the James gang. Wild West‘s most popular stories are its most lurid. “Liver-Eating Johnson,” published in August 1990, told the Dahmeresque tale of John Johnson, a 19th-century frontiersman “driven by psychotic bloodlust who prowled the plains seeking revenge” on the Indians who’d slain his family. (You may remember the film version of his life, Jeremiah Johnson.) He massacred Crow tribesmen and devoured their livers. When captured by a rival tribe, Johnson escaped by killing his guard. He then hacked off the corpse’s leg for trail food. (Like I said, pioneers understand that you eat what you can.)
Startlingly, between such tales of white-man machismo lurk intimations of a modern sensibility. A past issue devoted itself exclusively to the female presence on the frontier. “Warriors & Chiefs,” a regular department, features profiles of Native Americans. And in the February issue, now on the stands, Wild West recounts the lives of prominent African-Americans, including the Buffalo soldiers and black Deputy Bass Reeves (“He could shoot the left hind leg off of a contented fly sitting on a mule’s ear 100 yards away”).
“We want to get more diversity,” says Lalire. “We want to attract readers who are interested in other aspects of the West, besides the shootouts and the military campaigns.” (I’m not sure whether his heart is in this diversity campaign. He admits that he particularly despises TV’s Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman, with its cast of bleeding-heart liberals disguised as pioneers.)
The magazine’s strange blend of political correctness and Old West mythos reflects the split-level demographic base it seeks: both fogeys and the Garth Brooks generation. By telephone, William Vogt, the magazine’s 52-year-old editor, assures me that Wild West won’t abandon its traditional base. “If we get away from the horse poop and the gunsmoke, we’re going to lose our old readers, who have a very serious interest in knowing what day Doc Holliday died and what exactly his last words were.”
But Wild West has begun to ardently court younger subscribers; it calls them, in ad lingo, the “New Pioneers” or “Hoedowners”—people not unlike the line-dancing customers of Leesburg’s Western-wear shop. The magazine plans a new design specifically to lure more of their kind. Future issues will feature fewer archival, black-and-white photos and more color illustrations—not quite MTV, but a step in that direction.
Vogt and Lalire return to their work; April will bring a special issue on Western-inspired art. I take their leave, loaded down with back issues. I am anxious to sit down and devour the article on Liver-Eating Johnson, and I consider my expedition an astounding success. My closest previous encounter with the West was a vacation in California. Here in Leesburg, I have found a way to buy a piece of individualism and open sky for the cover price of $2.95.
Driving back east, I look at the rolling country outside my window. When a young George Washington helped survey this land in the mid-18th century, this was the Western frontier, at least for the Virginia colonists.
Rush-hour traffic breaks my reverie, and my station wagon seems to buck, as if unready to plunge into the Beltway stampede ahead. I tell her to calm down—there will be plenty more chances to head for the hills out West.