In Search of the Wild, Wild West

Bill and Wilma Drew are big fans of classic American Westerns – they even subscribe to an all-Western television channel. But they also enjoy unstructured wanderings and the moments of unexpected discovery that an RVing lifestyle offers.

Last year, the Drews merged both interests with an RVing adventure built around cruising the great American West in search of very familiar landscape – the set locations showcased within some of their favorite classic Western films.

The journey wasn’t clearly sketched out and at times required some real sleuthing, tracking down obscure tips and clues and pursuing unscheduled side trips to locate landmarks made famous in the films they love. The only thing they knew for sure is that the trip would culminate with a visit to the mother lode of all Western movie sets – a trip to Gouldings RV Park in the Navajo Nation’s Monument Valley Park, which straddles the borders of Arizona and Utah. For the Drews, getting there truly was half the fun.

Wilma Drew: My husband loves Westerns, and last year we took a trip out West looking at different places where they’ve filmed some of our favorite Westerns. When Bill was a young boy he was always interested in cowboys and Westerns. When he was a young man, he even learned to fast draw – still has his guns and holster, however, no longer fast draws.

He’s heard about Monument Valley all his life, so it was really his idea. The only thing we knew for sure was that’s where we would end up.

When we travel, we don’t plan very far ahead, but we do like to have an end destination. Everything else is up for grabs. We’ll stay in a place until we’ve seen exactly what we want to see. That means we may be there a day or a week; then we’ll move on when it feels right. We just do it as we desire.

We have a 40-foot motorhome that we bought three years ago, which we’ve been very happy with. We started (our trip) by taking it to a family reunion in Oklahoma. We arrived a day early and took a day trip to the National Cowboy & Western Hall of Fame. We then went on to Dodge City, Kan., because it has so often been a focus in Western movies. We stayed at Gunsmoke Trav-L-Park, checked out the Boot Hill Museum, and drove west across the plains into Colorado Springs so that we could visit Pike’s Peak and Royal Gorge.

After Colorado Springs, we headed into Wyoming, going through Western towns that you always hear about, like Cheyenne. We stopped at Devil’s Tower – a great thing to see – and decided to take our tow vehicle on a side trip over to Mt. Rushmore. We managed to hit it during bike week at Sturgis, which I wouldn’t recommend.

From there, we drove over to Sheridan, Wyo., – a great Western town with plenty of atmosphere – and headed into Montana to visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument & Custer National Cemetery. We ended up meeting friends at Glacier National Park, though we stayed at an RV park just outside the park. With a big unit like ours, we’ve found that there are lots of places you just can’t park.

Heading on to Yellowstone, we stopped in various places in Montana, including Anaconda, and old copper mining town. Did you know that they ground the slag from those mines to use in their sand traps on the golf course? It’s black, really unique looking.

Montana was beautiful country and we loved the fact that it is so sparsely populated.

From Yellowstone, we headed down to the Grand Teton National Park. We did some searching and actually found the place where they had filmed parts of “Shane,” with Alan Ladd. It’s one of my husband’s all-time favorite Westerns and truly one of the greatest Westerns ever filmed.

Now, I’d read in a magazine that you could go out and see the remains of the original set. We had a real hard time finding it – there were certainly no signs saying, “Shane was filmed here.” But it was a great thing to see.

Actually, there were a lot of Westerns filmed right around there, including “Jubal,” with Glenn Ford.

Anyway, we just like those old movies; they’re superior to anything being filmed today. We get the Western Channel on TV and have had fun spotting places we saw on the trip.

Next, we went down through Utah to Zion National Park. You can’t get across Utah from there, but we wanted to see it. We entered Zion Park; then there’s a road you can take across to a little town called Kanab. A lot of Westerns were filmed there, too. We’d heard that you could go out and see the original set in Johnson Canyon where they’d filmed the TV Series “Gunsmoke,” back when it was in black and white.

Again, there were no markings, and they don’t tell you that’s where it is. One person in town even said, “You don’t want to go out there; there’s nothing to see.” But someone at the chamber of commerce told us the location was about 10 miles east of Kanab. Then you go off toward Johnson Canyon, and there are the remains of the set. You can only look at it from the road, but you can see the whole town, even the Long Branch Saloon. We learned that the set had been originally used for “The Way West.”

While at Kanab, we also stopped at the Frontier Movie Town, which included the ranch house and barn used in the movie, “The Outlaw Josie Wales,” with Clint Eastwood, and the cabin from “One Little Indian,” a Disney film with James Garner and Jodie Foster.

The thing is…if you want to see things like this, you have to really go looking for them. You can’t just go by the tourist attractions, like Mormon Row, in front of the Grand Tetons. There were a lot of Westerns filmed right in that area.

We had been staying at an RV park in Cedar City and day tripping; then we went back north and across to Moab, Utah, and Arches National Park. We watch a lot of reruns on the Western Channel and recognized scenery around Arches National Park from “Alias Smith and Jones.”

Just north of Moab is a scenic route that you can take east along the Colorado River where John Wayne did a lot of filming. In fact, you’ll find familiar locations that appeared in Westerns all the way from Moab to Monument Valley.

After Moab, we finally headed south into Monument Valley, our original destination. It was so magnificent and a very famous location for movies such as “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “Stagecoach,” and “The Searchers.” We stayed at Gouldings RV Park – the cabin used in “The Searchers” was there at Gouldings store and motel. We saw where they were camped in the movie, right there! You see that and think, “Wait a minute, we camped there too, just in a little different style.”

In fact, we found out that the Gouldings had actively promoted the region and contacted John Ford about coming out there to film. There’s actually a place in Monument Valley called John Ford’s Point.

Gouldings is really the only RV Park of any significance there, at least the only one with hookups. There’s a campground up by the Visitor’s Center, but it has very few hookups and is extremely uneven – you might pull in there overnight if you’re in a pop-up.

Monument Valley did not disappoint us. Just staying in that RV Park with the view of the valley and all that red sand was priceless. We also enjoyed taking one of the Gouldings Tours back into areas of Monument Valley where you are not permitted to drive your vehicle as it is on the Navajo Reservation.

In fact, the day we left we didn’t know positively that we were heading home until we started across upper New Mexico. After everything we’d seen, the landscape was so anticlimactic that we looked at each other and just said, “That’s it; time to go home!”


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