In his new BBC4 show Ray Mears saddles up and follows in the wagon ruts of America’s early pioneers.
Travelling from the Appalachians to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains and the deserts of Sierra Nevada, the explorer comes face to face with black bears, elk, beavers and other natives of this land.
He meets cowboys at an auction in Dodge City, Cherokee Indians who take him to their most sacred site, and goes bareback riding with the Blackfeet Indian Nation. He reveals more…
What interests you about the Wild West?
I’ve long been interested in the Wild West, not really because of the western movies, but because of the stories I’ve encountered when I’ve been travelling in remote parts of America, it’s a human story, it’s an astonishing story and it’s quite unique. There’s such an astonishing transformation of culture, the population of a country and the consequences that came with it. From the moment the Wild West began you had this migration of people with such different resources. If you could take a gods perspective of America at that time it was almost like there was a bush fire to do with timber, one to do with land and one to do with gold and oil and so on that drew people like moths to a flame across the continent. It’s an incredible story.
People would need to have some serious survival skills during the Wild West wouldn’t they?
Definitely. It astonishes me what little survival skills they would have had. What’s interesting is how history remembers the Wild West; we get a very strange view of it. If you were to ask somebody about the mountain men they would probably tell you that they were romantic figures. They were entrepreneurs who decided to go west to make their livings; they decided to do this because they had the skills to live in the wild country, to trade with the Indians. These were very skilful individuals. Starting with Daniel Boone going on to Jedediah Smith, never forget that they were businessmen. Hollywood often portrays them as lone figures on a mule in the mountain, turning their back on civilisation, but they were quite the opposite, they were hard-nosed businessmen who were prepared to put up with the hardships of the wild in the hope of turning a profit. Very few of them made a profit, most of them died with an arrow in their back. But they pioneered the routes to the west.
Would you have survived that era?
I think I would have been in my element, I think I’ve been born 200 years too late. I think it would have been a very interesting time. I’m very fond of native people so I suspect I would have aligned myself quite closely with them.
Which places did you enjoy visiting the most during the show?
I was taken aback by some surprising things. I remember the grave of a woman from Suffolk, who headed west with her husband and died in childbirth on the South Pass, which is the route the wagons took through the Rocky Mountains. There is an incredibly lonely gravestone, alongside the Oregon Trail – it’s a very sad thing to see. This lonely gravestone in the middle of nowhere took my breath away. Glacier National Park is wonderful. All of the American national parks are astonishing. If you are traveling across America, there are lots of places you can see wagon runs, and when you see these wagon runs it really brings home to you the journey that others made to establish that nation. There’s a wonderful ghost town called Bodie, which we went to in California, it is just staggering. It’s a deserted town that was taken into protection in 1964 and is the most amazing place of preservation. The people left the bed sheets on the beds. If you want to see a western town it’s worth a visit.
Could we learn anything from the way things were done in the Wild West?
America is a complex place; it’s a fascinating place. I don’t think it’s easy to generalise, it’s a wonderful nation, and they do a lot of great things in the world. Very often for some strange reason, the great things that they do are not recognised. The PR front is not something that they’ve been historically very good at – they deserve more credit than they get.
How the Wild West Was Won with Ray Mears starts at 9pm, Thursday 22 May, on BBC4