People ask me why my protagonist, Walt Longmire, doesn't carry a cellphone, and my immediate response is: Have you ever been to Wyoming?
With more than 97,000 square miles, the state is divided into 23 counties, some of them as large as Maryland but none of them by the name of Absaroka. Taking a cue from Faulkner, I decided to go with a fictional county, a decision that turned out to be one of the smartest things I could've done — it's anonymity makes it symbolic of the West as a whole.
There is a fascination with the epic, romantic landscape of the American West, and living in Ucross, Wyo., with a population of 25, got me thinking about a different type of protagonist, one who lived in the least populated county in the country's least populated state — and Walt Longmire, a vertical figure in a horizontal landscape, was born. He is a sheriff, the only law enforcement officer who is elected and therefore directly responsible to his constituency, his people and his land. The job is specifically personal and therefore lends itself to an immediacy that the cop — protected behind his mirrored sunglasses — can never achieve.
I'm not the first to understand that there is a longing in the human heart to seek out the solace of open spaces. As Wallace Stegner so eloquently wrote: "We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope." It is a landscape that is a part of us — an epic, sweeping world where mankind seems small and alone and must rise to the challenge that the scenery presents. I'd like to think that Walt Longmire is an embodiment of and a metaphor for the West and has become its modern standard-bearer.
But he isn't alone here, and his materialism is balanced by his friend Henry Standing Bear's Northern Cheyenne spirituality, a belief that we are indelibly connected to the land on which we walk both in this world and the next. In a technologically driven world, the Native philosophies teach that, like the owls, we should be going slower and noticing more, a belief that dovetails with Walt's detecting skills in that he notices the things that others don't.
More self-actualized than the cinematic archetype, Walt Longmire still bears the impenetrable stoicism of the American West balanced with an irrepressible humanity, a dying breed attempting to stave off obsolescence and extinction in one of the most profound and beautiful places in the world. I would like to think he is balanced, like the West itself, by poetry, sensitivity and culture — a character of tremendous strength and sometimes surprising violence.
Craig Johnson is the author of the Sheriff Walt Longmire mystery series, the basis for the television show, "Longmire." His most recent book is "The Western Star."
By Craig Johnson. 304 pp. $28