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Way Out West

Just beyond Monument Pass, as we entered Utah, we made a right turn on the road adjacent to Monument Valley Park. Photographers have come here since the days of Ansel Adams, but the marketer who saw the early commercial potential of the valley was Harry Goulding, who persuaded director John Ford to shoot his Hollywood westerns in the area. Across the valley, going west down the same road that took us to the trading post, we spent the night at Goulding's Lodge, where the front desk carries all the movies that Ford filmed here, such as Stagecoach and The Searchers. One can see the real thing by day and watch the Hollywood version at night.

From Monument Valley, we headed south on Highway 163 and returned to Kayenta, making a quick stop at Burger King, which is a very odd place to encounter Navajo history. But inside is an exhibit on Navajo code talkers, the subject of the 2002 John Woo film Windtalkers. Most of the artifacts come from King Mike, a code talker and Marine private first class in the Pacific theater of World War II. The exhibit was put together by Richard Mike, King Mike's son and owner of the Burger King. It chronicles the vital role the code talkers played in rendering Allied code indecipherable to Japanese intelligence, thus helping to win the war in the Pacific. The day we were there, a Navajo family of four was dining on Whoppers, fries, and milk shakes;next to them was a posse of Japanese tourists enjoying the same. Old enemies, brought together over an icon of the New West, the fast-food hamburger.

The next day, we followed local roads west, crossing the border into Utah before picking up I-15 and zooming down to Las Vegas, Nevada. There we saw some of the great themes of the Southwest—fierce libertarianism, epic grandeur, unabashed mythmaking—manifested in dazzling multicolor palettes, as if the collective id of the American frontier were being spilled forth wholesale onto the desert tarmac.

Indeed, if Vegas, New Mexico, is the understated, genuine Wild West, then Vegas, Nevada, is a fabrication made attractive to the masses. To see how Las Vegas played on this theme, we headed to the old downtown casinos along Glitter Gulch. The city's signature neon creation, a cowboy named Vegas Vic, greets visitors from atop the old Pioneer Club, and the Wild West lives on at Binion's Horseshoe and at Sam's Town, a casino known for its wilderness and mining-town façade. But according to local Anthony Bondi, who grew up in Las Vegas during the heyday of the Rat Pack and whose father was a marker at the casinos before electronic boards killed his job, it was the gamblers from back East who wanted to see Vegas as the Wild West. After all, Easterners had been reinventing themselves out West since Brooklyn-born William H. Bonney (a.k.a. Billy the Kid) hit the region just after the Civil War. The casino operators simply played on that deep-seated mythopoetic longing. They continue to do so to this very day. Not with Wild West icons, but with the flip side of the Western imagination—the larger-than-life, the improbable, the genuinely fantastic. Bob Stupak's Stratosphere Tower is a testament to the city's propensity for tall tales. So, too, is the ornate Venetian, which, with its Sistine-like frescoes, earnestly tries to complete the circle back to the settlers' myth of their own refined European roots.

The Southwest is a land of opposites: unmatched beauty is mixed with unparalleled destruction, worship of the land with worship of technology, unbridled greed with profound spirituality, humility with hubris. Throughout our journey we found hints of the region's fiercely independent eccentrics, but we also found those who authentically engage native ways. From their bold fusions—earth-centered yet cutting-edge, entrepreneurial yet egalitarian—a new, and often deeply true, Wild West is being born.

JAMES CROTTY and MICHAEL LANE are the authors of Mad Monks on the Road, The Mad Monks' Guide to New York City, and The Mad Monks' Guide to California.

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