Someone recently lamented to me that he wished he lived back in the old west days. He wondered what had happened to the real men, the gunslingers with cowboy hats and fancy belt buckles, who charged into adventure on horseback while shooting at each other?
I can understand the mystique and wishing mechanism. We had been watching Back to the Future III and it had acted as the catalyst, I guess.
The cowboy is probably the most iconic character in the history of America. And most guys, after having watched a few Clint Eastwood movies, think to themselves that being a cowboy would be the coolest thing since God invented the burrito. You have a badass hat, you have guns, you have a horse. It seems like most of your life is gambling, drinking and shooting assholes. That sounds pretty awesome.
Well, before you hop in your DeLorean and zoom into the wild, wild west, take a few things into consideration:
The old west was hot and dusty. You’ll get there thirsty as hell and a saloon will catch your eye. Unfortunately, by the second beer and a plate of chicken wings, your insides are starting to feel like a really bad sitcom. Why? It’s kind of the same reason you don’t want to drink the water if you take a vacation in India. There is, uh, stuff in it that the locals have gotten used to but you haven’t.
Our modern habit of purifying food and water has significantly weakened our modern stomach’s ability to tolerate impurities, such as all the microbes, piss and yes, even shit, you’ll find in most foods and beverages from the past.
As a result, eating or drinking anything from back then will cause your digestive system to start tearing itself apart like the flight crew in Event Horizon. So, unless you’re willing to prep yourself in advance by consuming a well-regulated diet of historically-accurate shit sandwiches, you’ll unfortunately probably starve to death in the old west.
And cowboys were called cowboys for a reason. You’re a dude who works with cows. There wasn’t so much gunslinging and adventuring as there was riding alongside cattle as they slowly lumbered their way toward trains, to be loaded up and shipped north. These cattle drives were sometimes up to a 1,000 miles long, and the task of trotting along and making sure your mass army of cows didn’t decide to up and head east to become sea cows, was about the most boring and smelliest job in history.
The closest most cowboys got to excitement was wrangling cattle to be branded or castrated, because nothing says excitement quite like forcing a dim-eyed cow into a corner to have someone saw off its balls. The rest of the time the cowboy performed mundane ranch duties, stomping through ankle-high piles of cow turds the whole time. The pay was about today’s equivalent of working at Taco Bell.
Plus, the era of the cowboy didn’t really last very long. Ranchers figured out that the job could be done better by a few dollars worth of metal wire. The invention of the barbed wire fence pretty much rendered the cowboy obsolete, since cows have subpar fence climbing skills. And once they were fenced in, there really wasn’t much need for round-ups. Then the railroads expanded, so cattle didn’t need to be walked 1,000 miles to the nearest station for shipment.
So there you are, out of a job and playing sad songs on the harmonica in the middle of nowhere before riding off into the sunset, presumably to find a life that’s much worse than the one you have now.
The old west was dull and boring, and historically speaking, a cowboy was a hobo. The myth of it being adventurous was started by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show after the west was long gone. But those vaudevillian spectacles were about as representative of the real west as porn movies are of the pizza delivery business. It was those shows that created the template for the “western look,” including, among other things, the fancy cowboy hat. The real cowboy attire? Well, let’s just say the only difference between a typical cowboy’s attire and a burlap sack was the occasional presence of buttons.
The myth was further immortalized by silent western actors such as Tom Mix. In silent movies, he sported a big 10-gallon hat, silver buckles and clothes full of fringes, popularizing the made-up look among later “cowboys” who just didn’t know any better. In their defense, the notion that movies can lie to you must have been new at the time.
Sadly, in reality, real old west cowboys were just dirty, underpaid farmhands with insanely boring lives.
Time travel is a fun idea though. I grew up on a dimly-remembered 60’s TV show called The Time Tunnel. It was cool for a kid in Tucson that the tunnel was located somewhere beneath the Arizona desert. I vaguely remember the plot being that a group of scientists are studying the feasibility of time travel, but when the government threatens to shut it down within 24 hours, two guys with swoopy Elvis hair and who look more like surfers than scientists, impetuously enter the untested Time Tunnel and get catapulted from one historical event to another, barely escaping with their lives as their colleagues back in Arizona race to figure out a way to bring them back home.
Sure, the science and history were pure hooey, but dang, I ate up that show and all it’s cheesy charms and psychedelic light shows.
But think about a few things for a second.
Language is pretty much the same, everywhere, forever, right?
English is one of the most common languages on Earth, but it still gives you only a splash-range of only a few centuries when it comes to linguistically “safe” places to travel. Those guys on The Time Tunnel can land in medieval England and get away with throwing in a few “thee’s” and “thou’s” and referring to chicks as “my lady.”
But not you, because in real life, the phonology of languages is ever-changing. You go back to medieval England, step out of the DeLorean, grab some English reading material, and you’ll find that it looks like this:
What the hell! Hey folks, that’s medieval English.
No matter where you go, you’ll have to speak both period language and possibly even regional dialect to avoid coming off as a spy, a rival neighbor, a hillbilly or a crazy person who may or may not be possessed by the devil.
So your best bet is to pass as a mute no matter where you go, lest you open your mouth and risk getting into a situation that could potentially cost you your life. Even something as innocent as asking a peasant for directions could come off as unfathomably bizarre to them. And in a great many places in a great many time periods, “unfathomably bizarre” gets your ass burned at the stake.
Another issue that time travel stories never address is the fact that the Earth moves. Your time machine can’t just move forward in time, it has to be able to travel through space with perfect precision. You have to account for the fact that the planet is spinning really fast and flying through space at 70 thousand miles an hour, and you’ve got to know exactly where it’s going to be at the exact moment you arrive in the past.
But let’s just assume that you figure out a way around that. That doesn’t account for the fact that the landscape is ever-changing. This was a forest 400 years ago:
So your DeLorean zooms down 5th Avenue in New York City and arrives with your head embedded inside a massive tree trunk. Great. Okay, go forward into the future and you might find yourself encased in several million tons of concrete for a new dam they built.
Of course, that’s being optimistic. Unlike going back in time, where any decent history book can serve as a travel guide, visiting the future means you have to prepare yourself for the complete unknown. Who knows what’s waiting. I mean, Hiroshima was a pretty nice city for 350 straight years until somebody dropped a gigantic bomb on it.
500 years from now, you can’t even imagine what horrors Doc Brown’s magical flying train might have found there at the end of Back to the Future III.