The Hills Are Alive



It’s ‘Y’ that marks the spot in Provo. The Wasatch mountains with Public Library building (left). March 2016.

Just like the Pioneers during the Gold Rush, I’ve struck it lucky on many counts during this trip out west.  The weather, for example, has been unseasonably warm (it’s a balmy 21c today) and the skies have been bright and blue from morning to night.  This is unusual for the beginning of March.  Needless to say, my thermals, down jacket and woolly hat are languishing at the bottom of my suitcase: I packed for snow rather than sunshine.

These opening words aren’t just ‘filler’ or small talk reflecting a British obsession with the weather.  My conference paper, which I’m delivering tomorrow at the ‘Branding the American West’ conference (at Brigham Young Museum of Art) is on the history of vacation dress and packing for the unfamiliar ranch climate.  Dude ranches around Yellowstone Park, Wyoming and Montana were warm by day and cool by night, so versatility was an essential wardrobe requirement.  I know how those dudes must have felt!  Of course, the very term ‘dude’ has a dress-related etymology.  Said to be of Germanic heritage, the term is derived from ‘duddenkopf’, meaning drowsy head.  The abbreviation, dude, was applied to incomers to the West who were often dressed inappropriately in garish, flashy or impractical outfits.  Dudes stood out as different and were seen as being inauthentic.  The term ‘dude’ was used in the late nineteenth century in a derisive way to ridicule those that didn’t understand the subtleties of Western lore. 

As with many colloquial terms, and with language in general, meanings and usage change over time.  By the 1920s and 1930s (my particular period of interest), dude ranching had begun to be organised into a formal industry.  Ranch owners faced a dilemma: if ‘dude’ was a provocative term applied to hapless holiday-makers, how would they sell ‘dude ranching’ to paying clients?  So began a re-branding project, which is writ large across the primary source material (particularly the dude ranch vacation brochures of the Twenties and Thirties).  Ranch owners were keen to dispel the idea of ‘dude’ as a negative term and made explicit statements to that end in the opening pages of their brochures.  For example, an original tourist pamphlet for ‘Montana: The Dude Ranch State’ dating from the 1930s, went to great lengths to explain its use of terminology.

“Rural Yankees refer to city visitors as summer boarders; swanky resorts elegantly dub them paying guests; the frank and unabashed West calls them dudes and b’jinks they like it, and why not? There is no approbrium attached to that word dude as so applied.”

If the weather has been kind to me, so have the people.  I spent an interesting morning talking to Gregory Smoak and Leighton Quarles (Director and Asst. Director respectively) at the American West Center, University of Utah.  They were generous in sharing their knowledge of Western history and also very enthusiastic about my dude ranch project.  It was fascinating to find out about the University itself (after all, if you want an historical overview, ask an historian).  The campus was spectacular, with wide open spaces, many beautiful old colonial buildings (it was formerly the military Fort Douglas encampment…as well as the athletes’ village during the Salt Lake City winter Olympics in 2002), and encircled by those monumental Wasatch mountains. I couldn’t help but be charmed, too, by the white Shaker-style rocking chairs that sat invitingly on the porches of each of the Faculty buildings.  What a far cry from the inner city All Saints campus back at MMU.

After my meetings in Salt Lake City, I took the FrontRunner commuter train to Provo, where Brigham Young University – or, as those in the know call it, ‘The Y’ – is located.  I sat for the entire hour of the ride with my nose glued to the carriage window, ogling the scenery.  Those mountains!  I just can’t get over those mountains.  And, did you know, there’s even a ‘Y’ mountain standing guard over Provo town with the letter etched, in epic proportions, into the rock?  (Discover more about its provenance and the wranglings over its creation here).  This morning, I walked the mile or so from Downtown to The Y (well, I had to make the most of the sunshine).  The campus is big and immaculately maintained.  In Utah it seems that everything is done on an epic scale (and that, I know from first-hand experience, includes the cro-nuts).  I was at The Y for a seminar hosted by the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies.  The guest speaker was LeAnne Howe, Eidson Distinguished Professor from the University of Georgia, who spoke about story telling in indigenous cultures.  The land, she said, has been ‘written on’ for millennia in order to communicate meanings and beliefs between generations.  Howe’s interest is in ancient mounds in the North American landscape but I can’t help thinking that Y mountain  here in Provo is also a sign, if cast in more of a pop culture rendering.  For an erstwhile geographer such as me, the idea that the landscape is bursting with  meaning isn’t new.   But in my current locale this idea is so very pertinent: so live and real.  The landscape of the Wasatch range is speaking to me with a voice that is loud and clear.