Betsy Gaines Quammen likens the West to a constellation.


Just south of Bozeman’s Main Street in a cottage-style house that feels like it could be made from gingerbread, Betsy Gaines Quammen sits in a red leather chair with her feet dangling a few inches above the wood floor. Books fill every space on the wall and most of the coffee table, a seemingly scripted detail in this home she shares with her husband, writer David Quammen. The Quammens’ 2-year-old Borzoi, Brad, throws his lanky front legs in Betsy’s lap and licks her face. She laughs, her pink lipstick and gold-rimmed glasses highlighting a jovial smile and bright eyes.

This gentle moment feels more like it should belong in a children’s fable than in an interview about Gaines Quammen’s newest book, True West: Myth and Mending on the Far Side of America, which explores the West’s most polarizing topics, from anti-government extremism to public land management. But it also embodies the complexity Gaines Quammen captures in True West, that this storied American region can be both a beloved home—where we live with our families and dogs and communities—and a battleground of ideas— where armed militias, endangered wildlife, ardent environmentalists and multi-million-dollar ski houses intermingle on stolen Native land. As the late writer Ellen Meloy wrote, the West teaches us “to grasp the paradox of love and complication.”

Published in October 2023, True West is what Gaines Quammen describes as a “museum of myths” in which she explores the stories and beliefs that inform the way citizens of the West understand and interact with it.

“There is the perception of profuse liberty, copious machismo, untrammeled wilderness, rugged individualism, discovered and ‘free’ lands, cowboy heroics, blank slates, conquered spaces, reliable rain that ‘follows’ tilling into arid lands, and enduring frontier,” Gaines Quammen writes in True West’s first pages. “These myths continue to wind through ways of seeing this place and its peoples, creating hurdles in caring for the environment and communities … Right now, there is too much being asked of the West. It sits between history and expectation—a place saddled with hopes that it can’t fulfill.”

Supported through robust research and further enlightened by Gaines Quammen’s academic lens from studying religion, history and the philosophy of science while earning her PhD at Montana State University, True West follows Gaines Quammen’s journey across the spectrum of thought in the West. While traveling the region in her Subaru Outback, Gaines Quammen interviewed and explored communities of multi- generation ranchers, Indigenous people, resistance movement leaders, Creationist museum directors, and resort town book club members, among a cast of other Western figures. True West explores the historical context of the West, and it also offers an intimate introduction to these people who are shaping it today. Gaines Quammen is a self- proclaimed myth buster, and a fervent defender of what she sees as the abused concept of “truth,” but more than anything she says the intention of True West is understanding, and to catalyze the dialogue she believes we desperately need to move from the West’s fractured present into a more unified future.

Mountain Outlaw sat down with Gaines Quammen to discuss True West, how exploring the constellation of truths in the West can lead to understanding, and why the Bozeman-based writer and historian is hopeful about the future. The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Mountain Outlaw: Thank you for having us for this conversation here in your home in Bozeman. I thought we could start by orienting ourselves on some common ground, and maybe you could explain what this concept of True West is.

Betsy Gaines Quammen: The book title was borrowed from the Sam Shepard play, and so it is something that people have used before. It also was a popular magazine. But my point was that it’s really ironic. There isn’t a True West—or there are many True Wests. I guess I would say there’s not one true West. And so I went about trying to understand what the West meant to various people who came from various backgrounds, who are here for various reasons, and really took the opportunity to understand how they saw the West. And so I feel like after talking to as many people as I have—and I say this in the book—that True West is a constellation and in order to understand what it means you have to understand how it’s seen by a variety of different people.

M.O.: That’s so well said. Tell me a little bit about your story, particularly that which culminates in this book and this piece of work, and what your relationship is to the West.

B.G.Q: I moved [to Colorado] when I was 18 and really came because of a myth of wilderness. So my lures here were the mountains and rivers and wildlife. That was something that I held in great regard and absolutely loved. And because I am very interested in myth busting, it was important to me to come to terms with the fact that the idea of wilderness is something that was constructed in the sense that there were people who looked at areas in the West as untrammeled or unpeopled and it really isn’t the case. I mean, it’s a place that has been lived in, inhabited since time immemorial by a variety of different cultures. So my idea of the West as a pristine wilderness was a toxic myth itself. And not to say that there aren’t beautiful mountains and rivers and wildlife. This is all something that’s very real and that we love. But I think it was important for me to understand, that in looking at these areas, one of the other layers that’s so important to understand is that it’s also a land that has been inhabited for generations and generations and generations and generations. And that was a myth that I needed to understand and unpack.

M.O.: What was the main catalyst for this book and this exploration?

B.G.Q: So this was a companion piece to American Zion, which is my first book, and I wrote about the Bundy family, who are a Mormon family in southern Nevada who have really embraced the cowboy myth in order to justify their land use war. And for those that aren’t familiar with the Bundy family: In 2014 they engaged in an armed standoff in Nevada over trespassing cattle. They hadn’t paid grazing fees on public land allotments for decades. And so the government finally was going to confiscate their cattle and [the Bundys] called on the militia through social media. And it was a really galvanizing event for the militia movement in the United States, after the events at Waco and Ruby Ridge in Idaho. So this was a very important moment and really influences where we are right now as a country in terms of anti-government fomenting. The other event that they were involved in was in 2016, where they took over a wildlife refuge in Oregon for several weeks. And so I looked at what motivated the Bundy family, cowboy mythology and a lot of their religious ideology … What are the things that are motivating people in the West to do what they’re engaged in doing? …

So this book, True West, really does try to look at ideologies that both motivated the Bundys, but then also, what myths are people grabbing on to and sort of exploiting for other ways that they want to use the West, or have the West configure in their imagination. So there are people who see the West as wilderness, as I explained earlier. There are people who see the West as homeland. There are people who watch the show Yellowstone and see the West as this cowboy paradise, this place of rugged individualism but also [of] hyper freedom. And that I think played into people who were coming out here during COVID because they wanted a place where they didn’t feel like they had to be sheltering in place, even though it’s not like we didn’t have COVID here, we did, but somehow the West was a hale and hearty salubrious place. Again, this mythology that’s really motivating people. And what we have is a lot of people with misunderstandings who come to communities unwilling to understand nuance because they’re so enveloped in their own versions of the West.

Militiamen and other supporters of Cliven Bundy head for the corral where government agents were holding the Nevadan’s cattle in April 2014. Minutes later, the animals were freed. PHOTO COURTESY OF SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER
Protestors oppose a mask mandate in July of 2020 at a Gallatin City-County Health Board meeting where a vote on the mandate was being considered. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

M.O.: With the West being so tied to all of these myths, and being a concept as much as it is a real place, how did you choose what went into this book?

B.G.Q: I guess I just looked at the most important things communities were facing. I was looking at the militias. I was looking at the influx of extremism. I was looking at the influx of COVID refugees, and the people who could remotely work. I was looking at how real estate was being impacted. How people who lived in these communities were having to make tough choices and maybe leave. How clinics and small communities were being overrun with COVID patients and how they weren’t even able to take care of folks that had other medical issues and conditions because of people coming and bringing COVID into communities that they thought somehow were safer. I write about how people moving here and wanting second homes are not only impacting the culture of the communities, they’re impacting wildlife habitat. And so I felt like it was important to talk about all these issues together, because these are the things that our communities are facing. In New Mexico, I talk about how Black Lives Matter manifested with the conquistador statue. I couldn’t talk about one thing without talking about all the things.

M.O.: A lot of what you do in True West is you illuminate these myths through stories of them playing out in communities and in different parts of the region, and then you hold those up against a more objective truth and use facts and history and context to frame some of these myths. What is it about you and your character, or you as a historian or writer, that is drawn to examining myths, or in some cases, busting myths?

B.G.Q: So this is an interesting question because I don’t quite know exactly how I can explain it, but I have this unbelievable sort of motivation— when I see people misusing truth—to call them out. I get mad when I see people completely contorting reality … I get really mad when I see people not fully understanding history and truth.

I should say that when I do start out feeling angry, and start to understand where they are coming from, I do think it eases some of the anger because I have an understanding about how they see the West … So what starts as indignation, I do feel like allows me to at least understand how other people view land and view the West.

M.O.: That’s so interesting that you talk about that sort of understanding. You describe True West as a constellation, and perhaps that effort to tell other people’s stories gives an opportunity to not only see our own star in that constellation, but for a second to look at the full constellation.

B.G.Q: Absolutely. I learned a lot in this book, as well. I think it was very interesting for me to talk to ranchers in these rural communities, that I was able to understand their frustrations and really sort of see how very difficult it is to make a living as a rancher and so to me, that was an important lesson in terms of empathy and understanding.

An overhead view shows the Madison River running through the Madison Valley. In a section of True West, Gaines Quammen writes about her friend’s experience integrating wolf-friendly ranching practices on his land in Madison Valley. PHOTO BY MICAH ROBIN

“We are really at a threshold in terms of climate, in terms of potentially slipping into an authoritarian government, in terms of losing resources that we can never get back that are vital for life on this planet. We’re at a place where people are moving here, and we need to be able to be in conversation with others about resilient communities. We have to be doing this now.” – Betsy Gaine Quammen

M.O.: I found myself really curious about how you approached some of those conversations and some of those interviews. You write as a historian, but there’s also these tendrils of empathy in the way that you analyze and understand the conversations that you’re having. So how did you approach conversations with people on this broad spectrum of Western perspective?

B.G.Q: I am somebody who—my husband jokes about it. He says, “Betsy, you love everybody, unless you don’t.” And so that’s kind of my thing, like
I genuinely love people. But then I have a line and there are bad guys. I mean, there are extremists that I write about that are truly trying to exploit communities, to take them over on every level. And it’s dangerous and awful. But what I realized also is that the communities that they’re targeting have experienced real economic decline and pressures, because they have been involved in extractive industries. And as we know, boom and bust is when it’s booming, people have jobs and there’s food on the table. And when there’s bust, there’s real heartache and hardship. Communities that experienced this are vulnerable to extremism. There’s a lot of anger, and so I feel like if we’re going to protect communities from extremists, there needs to be a real effort in relationship building, and in conversation and in finding common ground. I talked to, in one case, a guy who told me, you know, ‘I’ve been radicalized, I’ve joined the NRA, I’m buying guns.’ And over the course of many conversations with him, it became abundantly clear that he had no interest in becoming an extremist. He just didn’t feel listened to.

I think COVID really put pressure on communities because we weren’t going to soccer games together. We weren’t going to civic events. We weren’t involved in PTA. We weren’t going to book clubs. We weren’t doing things together with people with different political ideologies, and we became evermore factional. And the decline of community newspapers. We used to really invest in community news instead of looking always at national news, and that evaporated, and so we became just as polarized as things were nationally, and that is new. It’s been happening for the last decades, but it became really, really entrenched during pandemic.

I found that in talking to folks, we still have the opportunity to be engaged in conversation, to be relationship building, in spite of what we’re being told. There are people benefiting from factional sort of situations. There are politicians benefiting. There are media outlets benefiting. People are getting clickbait based on polarizing headlines. And so I really felt so much more hopeful after writing this book. And that’s hard to say, because every day it seems like there’s more and more and more dreadful news … But I do think that there are opportunities for us to be engaged in conversation that would help immensely, especially in protecting communities.

Gaines Quammen poses in her Bozeman home. PHOTO BY LYNN DONALDSON
Lisa and Lance Kalfell (left) sit with Gaines Quammen and her dad (right) at the Roy Rogers Grill Bar & Casino in Terry, Montana. Gaines Quammen writes about Lance and his ranch in True West, and how their mutual curiosity of each other led to an unlikely friendship despite differing perspectives. PHOTO COURTESY OF BETSY GAINES QUAMMEN

“We saw things differently. But we were able to have this really great conversation that turned into a friendship … And it started out with me being curious. And I think that goes a long way. How do we remain curious at a time when we are so angry?” – Betsy Gaine Quammen

M.O.: You wrote a section toward the end of the book that I wanted to read that I think relates a lot to what you’re saying. “The myth is a canonized story. But we each have our own stories. The key is to respect the variousness and individual value of these. There are fragments of truth in many stories, and the more we listen to one another and hear these truths, the more we will understand one another and the world in a way that gets beyond this blur.” What does that look like? And how do we end up there?

I know that this is gonna sound Pollyanna-ish, but I truly believe that it’s dialogue. And I really think it’s a matter of being engaged with each other, finding what we like in each other. And again, as I said earlier, there are bad guys, but we’re fighting the bad guys. We’re fighting them from being in dialogue.

M.O.: You give a lot of examples of having those interactions and experiences yourself while researching this book. I’m thinking especially of Lance, the rancher in Terry. Can you talk about that relationship and that dialogue as an example of breaking down these barriers of disparateness.

B.G.Q: When I first met Lance, we were having coffee at a really noisy coffee shop. And he was so mad. And he’s got a really gravelly voice and he talks really fast and he said ‘I hate Democrats.’ And the word hate is hard for me to hear. And when he said, ‘I’ve been radicalized,’ … I was reticent. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to continue conversation with him. But then I thought, you know, I’m doing this book, this is my job. And he invited me to his ranch. I had given him a copy of American Zion, the book about the Bundy family, and it wasn’t particularly flattering of ranching on public lands, and he has a public land allotment … And he read it and he wrote me an email, and it was so funny and it was so human. … It just actually brings tears to my eyes because people want to be in relationship with each other. People love to be funny and to hear funny things, and it’s such a good avenue into conversation … And then I went to his ranch, and we hit it off. You know, climate change we didn’t agree on; we didn’t really agree on public land ranching. But we agreed on Evelyn Cameron, [who is a] wonderful photographer [from] the turn of the century who did so many gorgeous photographs, and was so revolutionary as a woman photographer … We really bonded over our love of the West, our love of the land. We saw things differently. But we were able to have this really great conversation that turned into a friendship … And it started out with me being curious. And I think that goes a long way. How do we remain curious at a time when we are so angry?

M.O.: It’s interesting to see you so viscerally passionate about truth and these shared beliefs versus the things that are on such opposite ends of these different perspectives. And that’s something you mentioned in the book as well: that you were surprised and took special note of how many people you encountered that had that same drive to share truth.

B.G.Q: Yeah, and it was almost an urgency. There were people who really, truly wanted to engage. And I think part of it was we were all cooped up for so long that it was just so nice to be talking again. And that was really great. But people are really passionate. I talked to one guy in particular, Jay Pounder, who had left this hard right arch conservative extremist movement, and felt really, really drawn to telling the truth and to talking about some of the dangers … This isn’t just a matter of going in and wanting to turn a community that had been purple or even blue to red, but talking about more murdering people who don’t have their same ideology. And Jay had been involved with this group and he’s in Spokane, Washington. And he’d gone to the FBI, he had faced death threats. His family went through the wringer after he did this, but he felt so compelled to say ‘this is not right.’ And he’s a very devout Christian, and a very, very conservative person, but he just could not abide by this really dangerous layer that I’m afraid to say has become ever more bold, and been emboldened in part by Trumpism. And he talked about the fact that when he went to a victory party in 2016 for Trump, that it went from being joyful to being unbelievably seething and angry and people chanting something like ‘this is our time, this is our time,’ and how chilling that was and how he felt like he really needed to bring this to the attention of his community. So again, it takes various pockets in our community to keep our communities healthy. Because there are these pressures. And I think people used to think, ‘oh, this doesn’t happen in my community.’ But it’s creeping into communities.

Spring Street looking west from McDonald Avenue in downtown Terry, Montana. Gaines Quammen writes about a relationship she built with a rancher in Terry who told her he had been radicalized. PHOTO BY DAVID SCHOTT

“True West is a constellation and in order to understand what it means you have to understand how it’s seen by a variety of different people.” – Betsy Gaine Quammen

M.O.: You talked about the myth of wilderness, and there’s maybe a lot of myths embedded in that. But I think that’s such a clear illustration of the intersection of myth and true impact. When we see a flood of visitors during an experience like the pandemic, spurred by this concept of a blank slate or infinite paradise for me to enjoy, and how that actually looks on the landscape when there’s litter and tracks everywhere and not a lot of care for that landscape out of this myth that this place is here for me to take and me to enjoy with no limit.

B.G.Q: It’s endless extraction. Whether it’s timber, whether it’s mining, or whether it’s recreation, there is this, ‘it’s there for the taking’ mentality. And I think we really have to look at our own impacts. One of the things that I talked about as well is I spent a lot of time on the road driving to places. And we have people just driving out doing their van life experience, and these carbon footprints are real, and we all have to look at it. I mean, even if we feel like we’re not impacting the environment in the same way that an open pit mine is, that there is pressure being put on recreational areas. Why do we feel like we’re entitled to our own recreational experience?

M.O.: What do you think your intended impact with True West was?

B.G.Q: I hope that it’s a conversation starter. I really wanted it to be hopeful. I wanted it to be something that people felt like was motivating for them to engage with others. I do think that it’s fun to think about the book as helping people be a little less angry. I know that anger was a layer to some of my own motivation, but it really led to a better understanding and curiosity … And so I hope that this book helps people realize that engaging and understanding truth is what we should be moving towards, rather than getting on our stupid social media and just getting angry.

M.O.: And why now?

B.G.Q: Because there’s no time to lose. We are really, really at a threshold in terms of climate, in terms of potentially slipping into an authoritarian government, in terms of losing resources that we can never get back that are vital for life on this planet. We’re at a place where people are moving here, and we need to be able to be in conversation with others about resilient communities. I mean, we just we have to be doing this now.

M.O.: You opened with talking about your own myths that drew you to this place and so this feels like a proper bookend: What myths of the West do you feel like you exist in?

B.G.Q: I hope that I’m busting myths, I’m hoping that I’m getting better at being aware of myths. And this isn’t a myth, this is actually a reality, but one of the advantages of being a white woman is I was able to go in various spaces through the West and have conversations with people that others might not have been able to do so. So I think it’s important in terms of looking at myths to also look at privilege. And I know that that was something that I enjoyed in being able to do the research that I did. I also was able to talk to people who were in [or were] peripherally involved in extremist communities, … and I didn’t feel threatened. But I do think that there’s a certain privilege that you have as a white woman to be able to navigate some of those things. And so I was able to hear stories that I think were important to share, because of who I am.

BELLA BUTLER is the managing editor for Mountain Outlaw.