Taking my annual trip to Rawhide, Arizona
I was up at three o’clock sharp – dressed, fed, and on my way to Arizona by five a.m. Munching on corn nuts, with my Western Movie Themes CD playing softly in the background, I was off to the 17th Annual Festival of the West, held each year at Rawhide, a Western Town Amusement Venue near Chandler, Arizona – a peaceful suburb of Phoenix.
This would be my third year attending the Western-style event. As a 10-year member of Western Writers of America, an author with three novels in print and another waiting for publication, I figured it would be best if I headed across the Rio Colorado one more time, where I would once again join my WWA brothers and sisters in our prestigious (canvas) booth, which had been set up just inside the Festival’s rustic, main entrance.
Passing through Blythe, California, then moving on across the river and into Arizona, always calls for upping the volume on my car radio. That’s because the scenery changes so abruptly when entering Arizona, it’s as if you’d entered a movie theater and the curtain had just gone up on the opening vista of a favorite Western movie. From the monotonous sepia browns on the California side, you enter a vast backdrop painted with rusty-red sand, rugged rock formations, distant, purple mountains, plus endless miles of green saguaro cacti. One of the WWA members, Miles Swarthout, who co-wrote the screenplay for John Wayne’s final movie, The Shootist, has a novel out called The Sergeant’s Lady. The story takes place in Arizona in the late 1880s, when the United States Army was experimenting with the heliograph: a sun-flashing code system; a unique, signaling method using mirrors to send Morse code messages across great distances. Since reading Miles’ novel, every time I drive into Arizona I imagine those heliographic flashes coming from every mountain top I pass, bouncing their reflected dispatches back and forth over the arid badlands.
I had planned on getting to Rawhide in under four hours; but an unexpected traffic jam just west of downtown Phoenix squelched that preconceived idea. I eventually rolled into the already-filling-up-quickly parking area 20 minutes too late to get my usual handicapped parking space. Instead, I lucked out and found a vacant spot five rows away. After locking up securely, I put on my wide-brim straw and began trekking toward the roofed bridge which opens into a covered wagon encampment located in front of Rawhide’s famous steak house – a short few yards from the main gates. I had my special Festival of the West four-day pass in hand, so I had no trouble at all getting past the Western-clad security guards before the Festival opened officially. The Western Writers tent was set up 25-yards inside the gates as it had been the previous year. I walked on over and joined fellow WWA member, Rod Timanus, and Barnes and Noble representative, Larry Segal, then we all went about arranging the WWA books on the display tables.
By the time the gates swung open and the hordes were stampeding onto the Rawhide Western Street, it was beginning to feel a bit warm. The previous two years I’d been to the Festival it had actually been cool, downright cold at times, with a little wind and rain thrown in for good measure. So, from the very beginning of this Festival, I knew it was going to be an entirely different experience.
The next WAA member to arrive was Major Mitchell who, with his brother Jerry, had driven down from Oakdale, California, in a non-stop 14-hours. They both looked a little tired around the eyes, but as we Western Writers always say: “The show must go on.”
‘Cowboy Mike’ Searles joined us a few minutes later. Mike, who is a history professor from Waynesboro, Georgia, writes frequently about the African-American contribution to our country’s Western heritage. For those of us who had never been properly introduced to Cowboy Mike, his contagious laughter was a cheerful sound we all remembered hearing as it echoed though the halls at our yearly WWA conventions.
Lee Baldwin arrived shortly thereafter, having driven up from his home south-east of Tucson. Lee had a brand new novel he was promoting and was keyed up about the prospect of presenting it to the Festival crowd.
Several of the WWA books had already been purchased by the anxious visitors when Dusty Richards showed up. Dusty, author of some of the best Western literature around, hadn’t planned on being at Rawhide, but he had to meet someone in Phoenix on business so he thought he’d drop by for a few minutes.
For lunch, we chowed down on some very tasty tamales Rod Timanus had brought along for us. He’d kept them warm by wrapping them in tin-foil then letting them ride on the dashboard of his car. The Arizona sun makes a mighty fine oven, Rod was heard to say.
The next day, Friday, it was even hotter. Jane Burnett Smith joined us. She brought along her hard-hitting autobiography that tells of her experiences growing up on a ranch in Montana, her career as a rodeo bronc rider, plus the uproarious times she had while competing in what was then considered an all male sport.
Miles Hood Swarthout showed up later with copies of his novel. Several of us assisted him in placing the books for display. We shared a joke or two with Miles before he had to go. He apologized before leaving saying both he and his mother would be back on Sunday.
By Saturday, the Arizona sun was beating down with mucho ferocity way before the gates had even opened. Most of the WWA authors continued to huddle under the shade of the tent, selling books and taking with potential customers. An old friend of mine, Wally Van Allen, stopped by to say howdy. He’s retired and now lives in the Phoenix area. Wally was an assistant director on many movies and TV Shows, Gunsmoke in particular. We decided to walk on down to the celebrity tent and touch base with Buck Taylor, the actor who played Newly O’Brien on the long-running Western series. We found Buck at his personal display booth (Taylor is an accomplished Western artist). While Wally and Buck reacquainted themselves, I watched as Hawaii 5-0s, James MacArthur (Book ‘im, Danno), and Laugh-In’s Ruth Buzzi, were interviewed before an audience of enthusiastic fans.
Wally and I spotted our old friend, Don Collier (Outlaws; High Chaparral; Tombstone; The War Wagon) sitting at the celebrity autograph table signing 8 by 10 glossies. We joined him and spent a few minutes reminiscing about the good old days when we were all making Westerns. Some of the other celebrities signing autographs at the tables were: Rex Allen, Jr.; Ben Cooper; James Drury; Peter Brown; Robert Fuller; Robert Horton; Shirley Jones; her husband, Marty Ingels; Lassie’s Jon Provost; and others.
Wally and I stopped by the Arizona Gunfighters staging area (where they put on gunfights and stunt shows), and I introduced him to the group’s founder, Bob Charnes. Bob and I worked together as stuntmen-gunfighters at the world-famous Corriganville Western Movie Ranch nearly 50 years ago.
When we finally got back to the WWA tent, I bid Wally good-bye then rejoined my cohorts in verse promoting and selling even more Western related novels and books.
There was a fourth day, Sunday, which I hear was even hotter. But I had already left Phoenix and the Festival grounds behind at 4:30 that morning. My wife and I had previous plans and I wanted to get home as early as I could.
The Festival of the West is held annually at Rawhide, a few miles east of Phoenix, Arizona; usually in the month of March. I’ve become quite familiar with the routine by now, and have very much enjoyed the times I’ve been there. I sure hope I’m able to participate in many, many more.