Nearly three years ago I had the fun of spending a month driving across country in the U.S. with my girlfriend and her son. We started off in North Carolina, then made our way to Atlanta, through Alabama and down to New Orleans before heading further west to Houston and Austin before spending four days in Cross Plains, Texas, for Robert E. Howard Days 2018. From there we drove to Roswell, New Mexico, popped down to Tombstone, Arizona, for a few days and then went on our way to San Diego. From there we visited the Grand Canyon, spent some time in Las Vegas, and headed back through the beautiful state of Utah before spending a day in St. Louis. Then it was back through my home state of Kentucky and back to North Carolina through Tennessee.
In many ways this was a trip of a lifetime, and along the way I re-discovered a few things about myself. First of all, this trip brought back to me just how much I love book stores, especially used bookstores, antiquity bookstores, and regional bookstores that offer the unique. There’s nothing more I love than spending hours scouring through shelves upon shelves in hunt of the unknown. Often enough I had no particular books in mind on this trip, but allowed myself the joy of discovering books I had forgotten about or had not even known existed, or even books I had known about but were out of print and I had never expected to find one during my lifetime. The search was the thing, even if I wasn’t searching for anything in particular.
Secondly, this trip reminded me just how much I love heroes, for in many ways this trip was more than a vacation. It was a journey, an epic adventure to discover heroes, mostly heroes known to me, some heroes forgotten and recalled. Originally I didn’t set out on this trip to discover heroes, but the longer I was on the road, the more heroes I came across.
The first hero I came across is one of music, at least for many fans of traditional country and western music, and finding this hero came unexpected. Cruising down I-65 through southern Alabama, my girlfriend spotted a highway sign which promoted the Hank Williams Sr. Boyhood Home and Museum. Of everyone in the vehicle, I was probably the one with the most interest in this historic landmark, but the others were ready to stretch their legs for a while. Thus we visited the small town of Georgiana, Alabama, and the famed museum there. Unfortunately we had missed the annual Hank Williams Festival by just a few days, but we still got to peruse the childhood home of the music legend, including a number of suits and guitars the famous man had utilized in his life. Of course I picked up a few books while wandering the store at the front of the museum.
Next I’ll skip ahead more than a week to Texas and Robert E. Howard Days. Howard is not only a personal hero to many a writer and scholar and fan of Sword & Sorcery literature, but he wrote about many fictional heroes of his own creation, the most famous being Conan the Cimmerian though Howard also penned tales of adventures concerning the likes of boxer and sailor Steve Costigan, Kull the Conquer, El Borak, and many others.
We spent several days at Howard Days in Cross Plains, Texas, including plenty of time at the Howard home where the author had written his tales. We also attended various gatherings and meetings usual to the three-day event and spent a little time at the local library, some local churches, and even out at a fishing pond. More than a few legends of Robert E. Howard were shared as well as plenty of other chit chat concerning writing, publishing, and all things Howard. I made some new friends, reacquainted myself with some old ones, and got to meet some folks for the first time in real life after having known them online for years.
Most important of all, I got to walk the grounds of Robert E. Howard himself. I got to experience the small town where he had grown to adulthood and had become a writer. In many ways, Howard is a hero of mine, as he is to many, many fans.
Here I’ll jump ahead again, this time to the town of Tombstone, Arizona, site of the famed gunfight at the O.K. Corral. While to many the history of the Old West might seem ancient, to those who live in the Tombstone area, their history is still very much alive; families of those involved with the early days of the town continue to live in the area, and concerning the O.K. Corral gunfight there are many different opinions and sides, even some hard feelings. I say all that in order to make it clear that while a number of the historical figures involved with the famous gunfight are considered heroes and others villains, there are a variety of different feelings on the matter, and Hollywood is sometimes blamed, the silver screen oft accused of transforming the events of that fateful October 26 in 1881 into legend while ignoring fact. I’m not here to take sides, but I will say I’m glad I had the opportunity to walk the dusty streets of this famous town of the Old West.
And since I’m all about heroes, one can’t think of Tombstone without thinking of the various movies concerning the place and the historical figures portrayed in those films, and the historical figures as they were in real life. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday are the best known characters from the events of the O.K. Corral and likely in general Tombstone history, and whether or not one believes they were real-life heroes doing their part to rid the West of outlaw elements, one would be hard pressed not to admit the images of Wyatt and Doc as portrayed in film and much literature are heroic. Others of the Earp clan, as well as historical personages in the Clanton and Claiborne families as well as other individuals who were members of the so-called Cowboys gang, also qualify to some as heroes. Regardless of the truth, if such a truth could ever be reconciled, Tombstone and the Old West still bring alive to many minds the notions of a gunfighter blazing away to set things right. There’s little more heroic than the notion of the American cowboy with his six gun and horse, whatever history might tell us.
From Tombstone we traveled on further west, and I’ll have to say our traversing through Utah showed me some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Those sights plus the others we experienced in the West brought notions of the heroic to mind because not only could I imagine lawmen hunting down bandits along an arroyo, but I could also imagine hordes of swordsmen storming across similar territories in far-off lands. Though Robert E. Howard’s West was mainly one of central Texas, I’m sure he must have imagined some of the same scenes as I did during my trip to other parts of the West. I felt proud to know others, bold men and women, had walked those lands before myself, making the way for us in the future.
When we finally got back home after a month on the road, I had plenty of books to unpack from our trip. Books on Howard, Tombstone, Hank Williams, and more awaited me. Nearly three years later, I’ve read most of those books, but I’ve still got a couple left for reading. Whether on the road, the dusty streets of the Old West, or the dusty back rooms of an old book store, I’m always on the look out for more heroes.
Sometimes it seems heroes are hard to find, but we just have to keep looking. Occasionally they are right in front of us. Regardless, the search never ends. It mustn’t end. We need our heroes.
Ty Johnston is vice president of the Rogue Blades Foundation, a non-profit organization focused upon bringing heroic literature to all readers. A former newspaper editor, he is the author of several fantasy trilogies and individual novels.