Conservation writer and historian Betsy Gaines Quammen lives in the heart of Bozeman, Montana — a city and a state that have been inundated with wealthy transplants in recent years, thanks in part to pandemic-era migration out of urban areas and the hit TV Western series “Yellowstone.”
Long-standing myths about the American West — including the perception of the region as a limitless open frontier where freedom is paramount — are also reshaping Montana and other Western states, as Gaines Quammen details in her recent book, “True West: Myth and Mending on the Far Side of America.” As the West has become a more and more enticing destination for people to settle, it has also become an increasingly welcoming space for far-right extremism to take root.
In “True West,” Gaines Quammen takes pains to dismantle what she refers to as the Western “myth museum,” and offers solutions for how to fight back against a rising tide of misinformation and extremism.
“It’s ever more important for people, in looking at truths, to be able to navigate interconnectedness,” Gaines Quammen told HuffPost. “We cannot fall prey to these reductive ways of thinking. And there are so many politicians who want us to do that.”
Gaines Quammen calls “True West” a companion piece to her first book, “American Zion,” which chronicled Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his family’s feud with the federal government over grazing cattle on public lands. The Bundys, who are Mormon, believe they have a divine right to lands that were long occupied by Indigenous peoples and are now owned by all Americans. The Bundys helped energize a far-right, anti-government militia movement, some of whose members went on to fight against COVID-19 restrictions and participate in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
HuffPost recently spoke with Gaines Quammen about “True West,” personal misconceptions she had to confront during her research, the threat of so-called “conspirituality,” what she views as “our country’s most hopeless myth,” and movies and TV shows that have shaped our perception of the American West.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I want to start with a question about how you see the West that you call home. As you so clearly lay out in the book, myths and misperceptions are rampant, often layered on top of one another and accompanied by misinformation. Cut through the noise for a minute: What is the West?
If you’ll kind of indulge me, it’s named “True West,” which is supposed to be a little tongue-in-cheek, because what is the true West? The idea was, there really isn’t a true West. We all kind of have our version of it. In looking at versions of the West, that took me right to mythology, because the West is such a mythologized place. I feel like these myths are absolutely foundational to what Americans think of themselves.
I’m sure you can’t make that sweeping generalization. There are Americans that don’t buy into, you know, this idea of endless resources, this idea of Manifest Destiny, the adoration of the cowboy, these things that we think about when we think about the West.
The true West, it’s really in the eye of the beholder. I talk about the West as a proving ground, a homeland, as having the seeds to some of what happened on Jan. 6.
“True West” opens with you touring the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum with its director, Robert Canen. The museum, located in Glendive, Montana, presents as fact that the Earth is 6,000 years old and dinosaurs and humans roamed at the same time. You argue that while such beliefs aren’t necessarily dangerous on their own, the logic behind them is. Talk about that. Where are you seeing similar dogma in national politics?
It’s this idea of thinking in lockstep. With Robert — who, I will say, is a delightful man. I mean, he absolutely was enormously generous with me. He was very kind. But there is the idea, in terms of being a biblical literalist, that you have to buy the Bible 100%, that there’s no room for any sort of questioning. So when he reads Genesis and he reads it not as a religious text, but as a scientific text, he takes from it that the world is 6,000 years old.
Once you start to question it, you’re starting to make waves. [Robert] would make the argument that once you make those waves, then your questioning becomes an existential crisis. You’re never going to feel content, you’re going to be an unhappy Christian. So it’s better just to believe the Bible cover to cover.
If you’re a Christian nationalist or a fundamentalist evangelical and you begin to say, “I see the Bible as a beautiful sacred text with some wonderful lessons, but I don’t buy it 100%,” you’re not walking in lockstep. These are cultures that need to have people buy everything and not question, whether that’s the layers of patriarchy or the layers of dominion — go forth and subdue the Earth — or [the idea that] Donald Trump is the patriarch. If these are things that they’re adopting and they’re saying, “You have to believe all of this” — this idea that if you question anything, that brings up issues of loyalty. It’s basically all-or-nothing thinking. And once you have all-or-nothing thinking, you have a group of people who are not going to be swayed by evidence or persuasive arguments or critical thinking. It’s dangerous.
Of all the myths you throw cold water on in the book, which do you find most problematic or dangerous for Western communities, especially as they face the mounting impacts of climate change?
One of the things that I feel is really important is the fact that we need to be in dialogue with one another. As Westerners, we’re on the forefront of climate change. We have fires, we have drought, we have floods, and we’re running out of water. If people are not in dialogue, that’s really problematic, because even people who don’t believe that climate change is human-caused, they’re still experiencing the impacts. These are still decisions that we need to make as communities.
So I think this idea of endless resources is extremely problematic. This idea of rain following the plow, which predates any idea of climate change, was a myth that somehow if you brought agriculture to a land, that was going to make it rain more. That’s very dangerous.
Also, these ideas of the West as a homeland. That, to me, is really fraught too. As I talked about in “American Zion,” when the Latter-day Saints came out West, they had a notion of homeland, and that was placed on top of Indigenous homelands. So there were these layered homelands.
Now you have the American Redoubt [a conservative, Christian movement whose followers are relocating from blue states to Idaho, Montana and other inland northwest states], coming in, trying to create homelands here. So you have this Christian nationalism, that really does feel like they’re waiting for a civil war or the second coming. That’s really, really impacting communities. I happen to have just incredibly fierce friends, who are conservative Republicans, who are fighting tooth and nail against extremism in the Idaho Panhandle. The myth of homeland is really dangerous.
In terms of climate change, if you [accept] biblical literalism, “God will provide, we don’t really have to worry about it. It’s God’s plan.” That was sort of the way people were thinking about COVID, too.
Are there any personal misconceptions were you forced to confront while researching this book?
The thing that I really had to come to terms with is that I moved out west because of the idea of wilderness. That is a myth. We had this idea that the West was an untrammeled place, the West as pristine, and that is an erasure of Indigenous people.
I’m on the board of WildEarth Guardians, which is a conservation group that just does really wonderful work. We, as so many other conservation groups, are trying to understand how we see landscape and how we have to appreciate the fact that public land is Indigenous land, in the sense that when early preservationists came in to establish parks and whatnot, there was this tendency to erase the cultures that had lived there. I think it’s been a good exercise for me to really look at the sort of myths behind the Wilderness Act, for example. That said, I absolutely one million percent love the West for the public lands. I’m just so grateful for them. And I’m also very, very devoted to, in my small way, habitat and making sure these lands continue to be viable for wildlife populations.
In terms of mythology, it’s really incumbent upon all of us to be always looking at how we see things and unpacking them and better understanding them.
Throughout the book, you spotlight several movies and TV shows that portray the West in certain lights — “The Patriot” being your least favorite, “Dead Man” being the most accurate. One you don’t mention is “A River Runs Through It,” the 1992 film that popularized Montana fly-fishing. I’m wondering how you think that film impacted our collective thinking of the West?
It did put Montana on the map. I’m pretty ambivalent about fly-fishing. Norman Maclean’s book [that the movie is based on], it’s exquisite. It really is, and the movie was lovely. But when you have something in pop culture that really appeals to people, and they come to a place with certain expectations or a very narrow way of seeing things, I think it’s problematic. I really think that people moving in with expectations based on what Hollywood is telling them creates a lot of problems.
What about “Yellowstone,” the hit TV series about a family that owns the largest ranch in Montana?
People had been cooped up. All of a sudden they saw Kevin Costner and these sweeping vistas and this freedom that one is afforded when one lives in Montana. It sort of had its moment at a time of history that really amplified these myths that the show was presenting, and the result was people really buying places sight unseen. I cannot tell you how many real estate agents said that people talked about “Yellowstone” as one of the reasons they wanted to move here. Any place I went in the country and I mentioned Montana, the first thing they would say is, “Have you seen ‘Yellowstone’?” I mean, it was a phenomenon.
I was particularly interested in the part of the book where you dive into the phenomenon of “conspirituality,” the combination of conspiracy theory and spirituality. You cite an article in which two social historians make the case that people are drawn to such thinking because they want to be part of a secret that “distinguishes them and makes them feel superior to the unenlightened public.” Are you surprised that this longing to feel special has, in many cases, meant people throwing logic to the wind?
I’ve thought about this a lot. Part of me thinks, “Oh my God, how is this so incredibly prolific? Or, “How is this so incredibly widespread?”
I think there are a few things I would attribute it to. The pandemic had everybody isolated and at their computer and desperate for information. Algorithms took people down rabbit hole after rabbit hole. But I think that there was this enormous yearning for community. Again, this kind of goes back to the whole idea of biblical literalism, like you have to buy something hook, line and sinker. You can’t just say, “Well, maybe Bill Gates is putting microchips in people, but I don’t believe they’re bathing in blood.” I think that all of a sudden you had to just buy the whole thing. That’s community. You’re either with us or against us.
I also think that there was pressure put on people. Not only were they isolated, lonely, seeking community ― people were really mean to each other on social media. When somebody would question something, they would get beat up on. I wonder if part of it was in some ways coerced? It was just really strange, the way people communicated with each other, in and around these issues.
And then how much blame do we put on local newspapers disappearing? Or the fact that we weren’t socializing in PTA meetings or going to various things where you converse with people and you have relationships with people, and you’re sort of operating in reality? We were operating in a very isolated and sort of daunting chapter. I do think part of it, too, is [that] it did stress people’s mental health. If you have an opportunity and you’re vulnerable, you have a community and this series of kind of exciting realities — maybe more so than a pandemic, but more “deep state” and exciting sort of things — but you’re just privy to it. It’s your secret.
That’s all dopamine. There’s a thrill of having people like what you have to say. So if you’re saying something outrageous and people are liking it, I think you’re more inclined to do that. Then you have to wonder how many people really did believe it and how many people were just promoting it because maybe they were starting to monetize it or whatever. I think there were a million different reasons that this was happening, but I do think that exploded.
The Bundy family, which you’ve followed as closely as anyone, is featured prominently throughout the book — from their standoffs with federal agents, now seen as precursors for the Jan. 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol, to their battle against COVID-19 restrictions. You write that the Bundy story is a “western version of the American Dream” and that “the American Dream is our country’s most hopeless myth.” Shine some light on that for us.
I’ve thought about that word over and over again — like, was that the right word to use? We’re living in an era where generations are now not getting to the economic level of their parents. And yet, we have this perpetuating idea of the American dream — if you just work a little harder. I write about the American dream just because I think it’s been very motivating to these folks coming out of the Patriot movement, who want to establish themselves as heroes.
This myth of going out and working hard and making yourself into somebody, that America is where you’re able to do this, is a myth that really is so elusive to so many people. We know it’s not a matter of working harder. We know that we are living in an era where it’s hard to buy property, it’s hard to save money. We have a health care system that can bankrupt people overnight. And so if we’re really seduced by that, I think it is hopeless. Not to say that there aren’t opportunities for people. I think there are. But I think that this idea of the American dream, it’s really unfair.
In the book, you sit down face-to-face, often in small-town coffee shops, with a lot of wild characters — people who do not share your political views — in an effort to understand them, what they’re afraid of and what makes them tick. I was particularly moved by your interactions and correspondence with Lance Kalfell, a cowboy who admitted to being “radicalized” in recent years. Tell us a bit about Kalfell, your ongoing friendship and what he has taught you about the importance of dialogue and debate with people of different stripes, so to speak?
I’m so enormously fond of him. He was such a good lesson for me. When I first met him, I had a certain opinion of him because the first conversation I had with him, he said, “I’ve been radicalized.” Having written about and researched that kind of culture, it gave me pause. When I went and spent time with him, he was so open, so gracious, so funny. This is my bad. He’s so well-versed in his areas of expertise.
I think there’s a tendency, and it’s lazy, for people who are liberal to sort of not give enough credit to people who have different opinions than us. I think it was a reminder to me not to be lazy. I have now been out to see him a number of times. Last time I went, I took my dad and it was just so fun. [Lance] continues to be just a bright spot in my life. I just admire him so much. I really like the idea that he and I can be really forthright with each other. The other day I asked him, “How are you doing, Lance?” He just said, “I’m all right, but I’m still recovering from reading your book.”
I kind of hope that this book challenges everybody, because it challenged me. But I love that he read it and I love that he could say that to me.
(Note: After spending time with Kalfell, Gaines Quammen doesn’t feel “radicalized” is a fair characterization. “He was mad, but still open minded,” she said.)
Is that kind of open dialogue the answer to the West’s myriad problems? And how do we make that happen amid such rabid polarization?
I’m not naive enough to think it’s that simple. There really are bad guys. I mean, I don’t think that it’s going to do anybody any favors in terms of healing polarization to go and have conversations with people who are extremists, who are Christian nationalists that are creating homelands, taking over school boards and being really confrontational. There are some people out there that are absolutely toxic.
That said, there are a lot of people who are good people, who maybe have low information but want to protect their communities from extremists. I’m looking at what’s happening in Idaho and I’m feeling really hopeful with movements like Take Back Idaho, where they are conservative Republicans but are going into communities and they’re not letting the extremists have the loudest bullhorn. They’re really trying to create more information to call out people who are coming into communities and trying to create like-minded places of Christian nationalists.
I do have hope in conversation. I do believe there are a lot of people who do not want their communities to fall prey to extremism. I think that the worst thing that we can do is just say, “Oh, it’s inevitable,” because extremists will win unless we’re in dialogue with each other.
The book is titled “True West.” Why should someone in, say, Maine or New York read this book?
This book is really about the way America thinks of itself. These myths, whether we are aware of them or not, are very foundational to America. I think it’s really important for people to understand the West, in ways that are deeper than what Hollywood gives us.
This book is really about how the myths of the last place settled in America by Europeans, how they still permeate the way that Americans think about themselves. And how they continue to still be toxic. How no matter what, as humans, we’re a myth-making species. We’re never going to live in a place without myths, but it’s incumbent upon all of us to understand them.