END OF TRAIL
by Deborah Elliott-Upton
I have just returned from Cowboy Heaven, a.k.a End Of Trail, the annual Worldâ€™s Championship of Cowboy Action Shooting, the fastest growing sport in the country. Over 600 competitors plus vendors and tourists crowded the New Mexico valley this past weekend. I admit, I find nothing cuter â€“ no matter what age or gender â€“ than someone sporting a cowboy hat and in this place almost everyone wore one.
My husband is a member of the national group of Single Action Shooting Society (SASS) and belongs to the Canadian River Regulators, a local group of shooters. When the End of Trail competition time came around, I promised to join him for the last dayâ€™s festivities. The best part for me is I get to play dress-up and talk to a lot of people and hopefully gather some information I can put to use as a writer.
To be a SASS member, you must be a fan of the Old West. Members adopt an alias (my manâ€™s is Dead R. Alive, a name I suggested), wear historical garb and manage to shoot targets fast and accurately. In other words, during the events, these people live their character, which is where the writing angle comes into play.
Once entering the Founders Ranch in New Mexico, we step back in time. Beyond the parking spaces for the RV crowd, the world as we know it slips away. Sure, there are food vendors and booths selling everything from vintage fashions and leather goods to gun, ammo and portrait photography. But, at the end of the dirt street is a saloon where any SASS member can sit on poker games (all proceeds benefit the SASS Scholarship fund), enjoy a Can-Can dance and hear Peaches Oâ€™Day impersonate Mae West.
Cowboys swagger by in their best Frock coats or look like they just came off a long cattle drive. Women are decked as rich bankerâ€™s wives, hardy pioneer women or â€œsoiled dovesâ€ (prostitutes of the time.) Everybody goes by their alias and no one meets a stranger that stays a stranger. I spoke to members who traveled from anywhere between Oregon and Ohio, Texas and California and Italy to New Zealand and Australia.
The gun match competitions are fierce, yet each posse member is thrilled when one of their own wins an award. Many members have done thorough research into their â€œcharacter.â€ From their choice of hats to the boots adorning their feet, nothing is happenstance.
Whatâ€™s it like for a woman in the 1880’s to dress practically swathed head to toe in layers in a hot climate? I got the scoop from one vendor who hosted a style show of womenâ€™s undergarments of the day. I pawed through vintage dress patterns and sifted through a group of carpet bags perfect for the best-dressed ladies.
Immersed in the time period â€“ if only for the day â€“ I lived in another era when life was hard and times were tough, yet the strong survived. Heat prickled the back of my neck and the wind rearranged my hair in the valley between the mountains. I had the opportunity to feel trappersâ€™ furs, witness blacksmithing and take a ride on a stage coach. The Man with No Name sat with the likes of Doc Holliday, Sky Soldier and Bootstrap Jason.
What great research for the mystery short story Iâ€™m writing. A cowboy sheriff I originally met at a writerâ€™s conference a few years back is my inspiration for the work in progress (and yes, he has been pre-warned), but the other characters occupying my story with be drawn frm composites of those I met at End of Trail.
Okay, public restroom facilities were available â€“ I probably would not have gone if they were not â€“ and I managed to find icy cold Dr. Pepper and Dreamsicle ice cream bars for sale. I also discovered one canvas-covered booth housed a group of Western writers, including Johnny D. Boggs, author of The Lonely Trumpet. I had reviewed that book when I worked for my local newspaperâ€™s â€œBook Page.â€ Nice to see Johnny again and meet a few of his writer friends, including Susan M. Ballard, Melody Groves, and Don Bullis, who is also Sheriff/President of Albuquerque Corral Westerners International. I also met Andrew J. Fink, a.k.a. Chucky, who in real life is editor-in-chief of SHOOT! Magazine and all-around good guy. Trading business cards, I felt a bit like Paladin from the old TV series.
Beyond the parking area, for 24 hours, I experienced the Old West firsthand. The dust on my clothes was not the only remnant I took home. I stepped outside my personal comfort zone for a bit and met a slew of interesting people. All stories, whether short, novel-length, fiction or nonfiction are stories about characters facing obstacles to get what they need and want. One hundred twenty-five years ago, people still wanted the same things we do today: love and companionship, security and knowledge. A wealth of information came from hearing these people speak of their alternate lives outside the Cowboy Way.
I would hope that some of my stories will be as popular as those who wrote the coveted dime novel Westerns and stand the test of time like the tales of Doc Holliday, Billy the Kid and Jesse James. Yup, these were people who really lived, but surely the stories were partially fabricated and reminded me of the screenwriterâ€™s workshop where we were told movies â€œbased on a true storyâ€ only had to be 5% based on fact. That leaves a lot of room for dramatization and why disclaimers exist. Of course, embellishment has always made a good story even better. The true, unvarnished truth is hardly ever exciting and a good thing we have writers with imagination.
Back home, weâ€™re already planning next yearâ€™s excursion. Maybe I should start thinking of an alias for me. Perhaps Femme Fatale isnâ€™t already taken.