Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Book: Pasó Por Aquí

There’s a playful mood throughout Eugene Manlove Rhodes’ Good Men and True and Bransford of Rainbow Range. This novel, Pasó Por Aquí is pretty thoroughly serious.

Adobe Church, Cordelia Wilson, New Mexico, c1920
It is a study in qualities of character, as it seems to have been understood in the West. And it boils down simply to the Golden Rule. Do unto others. This is Rhodes’ story most often regarded as his best. Though not his last work (it was first published in February 1926 in Saturday Evening Post), it feels like a writer in middle-age looking back over his career.

In 1926, Rhodes was 57 and returning to New Mexico after an absence of twenty years. It’s said that coming back was a disappointment for him. The New Mexico he’d known was gone – gone with Pat Garrett, killed on a lonely road in 1908.

The story. There are familiar Rhodes elements in this story – a man being pursued by the law, detailed descriptions of long rides on horseback, an intelligent and articulate woman, and characters pretending to be someone else, with an assumed name. The location is also familiar, the Tularosa Valley.

Main Street, Hope, New Mexico, c1900
Like Good Men and True and Bransford of Rainbow Range, the novel starts with a conversation. This time it’s a scene of idle badinage between a young woman and a young man who is trying to court her. She is a nurse at the Alamogordo Hospital. He is an Easterner, of no particular talent and subscribing to no particular work ethic.

They learn of a robbery that has taken place in Belen, far off in central New Mexico, near Albuquerque. The robber held up a storekeeper at the point of a shotgun, which later turned out to be not loaded. About to be apprehended by a posse, he threw down the money he’d taken and escaped again.

The hero. There’s a comic touch to all this, but the tone turns more serious as the point of view shifts to the young man on the run. His name is Ross McEwen and he’s riding, riding, riding south, until he’s passing through the Tularosa Valley on his way to Mexico.

Yucca, White Sands, New Mexico
It’s not easy going because the valley has become settled with ranches. He marks his progress by the windmills he steers clear of, staying out of sight of riders he sees in the distance.

He’s hungry and thirsty and his horse is wearing out from the long ride. Eventually, he ends up on foot, crossing the White Sands. There he comes upon an isolated cabin where a Mexican family has fallen sick with diphtheria. And without a second thought, he stays with them, tending to them in a desperate and exhausting attempt to keep them alive.

Pat Garrett
A signal fire eventually draws to them none other than Sheriff Pat Garrett, who sends his deputy to Alamogordo for food, water, and medical help. Seeing the exhausted young man, he tells him to get some sleep. Though the young man calls himself by another name, it’s clear Garrett knows who he is.

The story resolves itself (again, no spoilers; read it) in a way that’s a lesson in integrity. The black-and-white world of standard brand morality loses traction out here in the West. What we get is a man on the wrong side of the law who behaves heroically, while a law-abiding one (the Easterner) is little better than a jerk.

Western melancholy. Reading about the West, you often find under the can-do surface a deep current of melancholy – a sense of loss. It takes many forms. For some it is about promises unfulfilled, and the West has surely seen as many dreams dashed as fulfilled. Maybe more.

Long before there were environmentalists, westerners lamented the loss of the wilderness, the demise of the buffalo and other wildlife, the loss of the open range and the freedom of the frontier.

It was said of Rhodes that he was a melancholy man himself. It’s not hard to think of reasons. His life was not easy. As the oldest of his siblings, he went to work at an early age. And while people remembered him fondly, he was the kind of person who found solace in books. One gathers that he would have gladly stayed on in college to complete his education if there’d been the money.

After the Snowfall, Cordelia Wilson, New Mexico, c1920
In his novels, he seems to create a hero like himself, but who lives in a world cut more to his size. It’s filled with loyal friends, and when he falls in love, the girl has a temperament that suits him, and she loves him back. It’s a comic world, where difficulties are overcome with wit and intelligence. And all is grounded in the New Mexican landscape that he loved.

The melancholy, alas, emerges in Pasó Por Aquí. What is past beyond retrieving, Rhodes seems to be saying, is the West where a person’s character counted. Like Wister in The Virginian, he puzzles over what makes a person “good.” But he comes up with another answer.

In this novel, self-sacrifice while coming to the aid of the undefended is the evidence of true worth in an individual. To give all where it’s needed is the true test of moral integrity. It matters more than reputation, which may be either good or bad, and it outweighs any misdeeds that may get someone into trouble. What this resembles is the unwritten Code of the West, which existed before the arrival of the law.

Maybe it’s a sentimental view – the good-bad man we often find in westerns. But Rhodes frames it in a much larger vision. The perspective is that of not just a single lifetime but of time itself. Surely the vastness of the western landscape invites this point of view.

El Morro, western New Mexico
Summing up. The title of the book, as one of the characters explains, can be found among the inscriptions on a sandstone bluff in western New Mexico. Since Spanish colonial times, it’s been known as El Morro (The Headland). It stands today on the Ramah Navajo Indian Reservation.

Inscription, El Morro, 1709
For centuries, travelers who have stopped there for water have left their mark on the stone. Pasó por aquí. I passed by here. In the novel the phrase becomes the summing up of a life. Everything we do adds up to this simple fact. We come, we go, and in the meantime, while we are here, we can choose to give more than we take.

Rhodes lived only a few years in New Mexico and then moved on with his wife to Pacific Beach, California, near San Diego, where he died in 1934. He had been in poor health and was penniless. At his request, he was buried on the site of his old ranch in the San Andres Mountains. On his gravestone are the words, Pasó por aquí.

A few of Rhodes stories were made into films. This novel was adapted and released in 1948 as Four Faces West, with Joel McCrae as Ross McEwen and Charles Bickford as Pat Garrett. I'll be getting back to this story when I've had a chance to see it.

Meanwhile, anyone wishing to do some in-depth research on this well-deserving western writer will find what sounds like a truckload of his papers, letters, photos, and manuscripts at the Huntington Library in San Morino, California.  The catalog mentions seven boxes of material, with a total of 1,433 items.

Picture credits:

1) Adobe Church, Cordelia Wilson, New Mexico, c1920
2) Hope, New Mexico, c1900,
3) Yucca, White Sands,
4) Pat Garrett,
5) After the Snowfall, Cordelia Wilson, New Mexico, c1920,
6) El Morro National Monument, Ramah Navajo Indian Reservation, NM,
7) Inscription at El Morro,

Coming up: Rex Beach's story collection, Pardners (1906)


  1. Is`n`t it just the thing? You get to a certain age, and then you look back! God? Do I know it! I can understand how he felt. It is sad when you go back to somewhere, and its changed, and sadly, not always for the better.

  2. This definitely is considered Rhodes' best work and one I should reread soon.

    The movie FOUR FACES WEST starring Joel McCrea is excellent and one of my favorite western films. The photography is especially well done. This was a notch or two above the B-westerns but it shows what can be done even with a fairly low budget.

  3. This is a splendid account of a fine novelist and his greatest novel and the themes he pursued. I read the book years ago and now I must return to it. Paso Por Aqui is a classic because it has substance as well as story. Rhodes wrestles with character and wrestles with the nature of virtue, and charity. I'm always drawn to a western story like this one. Thank you for discussing this book and author. I keep thinking it is novels like this, built around character, that might restore the western story to its place of honor.

  4. Another good introduction to a novelist I know nothing of... Thanks. I would love to be able to spend a few months at the Huntington Library.

  5. Cheyenne, I went to my 50th high school reunion last year, and while it was good to see friends I'd known so long ago, there was a major drawback. In my memory, everyone had remained 18 years old. In some way, it would have been better to keep them that way.

    Walker, my copy of the movie just arrived from netflix today, and I'm looking forward to seeing it. I like both McCrae and Bickford.

    Richard, thank you again for your generous comments. Each one is a gift.

    Sage, the Huntington is a serene and beautiful place surrounded by many well tended gardens. I wouldn't mind being a scholar in residence there.