The Real West: Not So Wild? HBO's Deadwood couldn't return to TV soon enough for Ketzel Levine. So she heads off in search of the real West, and busts some myths along the way.

The Real West: Not So Wild?

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The big news in T.V. entertainment this weekend is the return of the Sopranos, which means absolutely nothing to the fans of another HBO series who are still longing for their series to return.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Deadwood is set in the dusty streets and raunchy saloons of a wild west mining town and it could not return soon enough for one of our correspondents so NPR's Ketzel Levine set out on a pilgrimage to find a wild west of her own.

KETZEL LEVINE reporting:

First, let's pull that Deadwood theme. Thanks. This morning I'm traveling to a different score.

(Soundbite of "Wagon Train" theme)

LEVINE: I am a sucker for T.V. westerns. This Wagon Train theme brings tears to my eyes. The music from Rawhide gives me move-'em-out courage. One stanza from Paladin and I'm ready to roam. I happen to hate the theme from Bonanza, but like millions of others, I imprinted on that burning map. So, like so much tumbleweed across the Ponderosa, I set out for Cartwright country: Virginia City, Nevada.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

LEVINE: With it's genuine locomotive rides and long wooden sidewalks, Virginia City is the rival of any T.V. town--shoot-'em-ups on the hour, honky-tonk saloons and the glitter of hard rock.

(Soundbite of bell)

Unidentified Speaker: That's the Underground Mines (unintelligible) leaves in about three minutes. Everybody wishin' to purchase tickets come to the rear of the saloon to the mine entrance.

LEVINE: Seven-hundred miles of tunnels lie beneath this town, site of the richest silver strike the world had ever seen, which created a wealthy, opulent kid glove city that bore no resemblance to Deadwood. In 1876 when Wild Bill Hickok rode into that lawless swill of a town, Virginia City was already rebuilding itself in brick. It had an opera house, a four-story hospital and a local chapter of the B'nai Brith.

Unidentified Speaker: First the kids come in. They're interested in Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok and that, but they weren't here. I mean, there was fights but there wasn't any famous gun fighters.

LEVINE: In fact, only four men drew deadly weapons here in 1880. Best to avoid Charlotte Smith at the Way It Was museum if you prefer your westerns primetime.

Unidentified Speaker: Of course the women didn't like it because it was dirty, noisy; there wasn't anything for them to do really, but --

LEVINE: What did the women do?

Unidentified Speaker: Most of them were just housewives.

LEVINE: Wait a minute, honey. This ain't my West. I've got my hair piled high, my neck in a pink boa and I'm hangin' with my friend, Calamity Jane, as we knock 'em back at the bar. Looking for a kindred spirit, I bust into the nearest saloon.

You know about the television series, Deadwood?

Unidentified man: I've heard of it; that's on HBO. We don't get HBO.

LEVINE: That's it. I am taking my leave.

(Soundbite of Rawhide theme)

LEVINE: I leave Nevada sadder, wiser and far less likely to embarrass myself on the subject of 19th century America. Forget the steely gaze of a ruddy-cheeked cowboy lookin' out from under his rawhide brim. The heroes and villains in this town were sallow skinned miners--worse yet, businessmen. But, as I head out Highway 395 southbound for California, little do I know the perils still awaiting my precious mix and all because of a sweet talkin' guy.

Mr. GUY ROCHA (Historian): What you're gonna find just a few more miles is the real west.

LEVINE: I've hooked up with a historian, a history cop no less, who is taking me to a ghost town called Bodie. Guy Rocha does the driving, the Sierra Nevada to our backs as we climb a washboard road, nose the crest of a hill and witness a vast scarred basin--the Wild West in arrested decay.

There it is, Bodie, desolate and lonely.

Mr. ROCHA: Bodie--could you imagine 7,000 people here at one time--now, park service rangers and pilgrims.

LEVINE: Bodie was named after an ill-fated prospector who staked a claim in a god-forsaken landscape and froze to death before he could cash in. For more than half a century, the town then boomed, busted, rallied, rotted and finally expired. Its corpse is now preserved and protected by the California Parks Department. Bodie is a heart breaker. A Main Street once raucous with mule trains and stagecoaches, now Death Valley dust. Neighborhoods still standing with cozy stoops and flower boxes, collapsed into houses of cards.

And I'm gonna open the door.

(Soundbite of creaking door)

LEVINE: Inside is a ruin, a square dilapidated shanty, the home of a miner named Dogface George. I imagine him coming home and staggering into bed for a cricket-quiet night. Another myth, says Guy Rocha. Bodie was a mining town. Think dynamite and the deafening roar of stamp mills making bullion out of ore.

Mr. ROCHA: Bang-de-clank-de-bang-de-clank-de-bang-de-clank-de-bang-de-clank-de.

LEVINE: Twenty-four hours a day?

Mr. ROCHA: Twenty-four hours a day. As one stamp comes down, another goes up, and down and up, constant din of noise.

LEVINE: Until the noise stopped and the town died. What remains is the legend about a town in the middle of nowhere where nobody was lookin'--a line I heard used to describe Deadwood whose spirit lives here. I can feel it and so can my myth-busting guide.

Mr. ROCHA: When I'm here in Bodie--and I've been to Deadwood, and I've been to Virginia City--it's almost as though I come to worship at the shrine of the American frontier.

(Soundbite of Paladin theme)

LEVINE: I've seen some miles since I left home, but only from this distance--from the outlines of this ghost town can I see the details of my American frontier--Helene Avenue, Merrick, New York, in the den, on the sofa, wearing pajamas with feet, watching westerns with my dad. Naturally I asked a lot of questions.

But where does the dog sleep? But I said not a word during the music. Because it was in those rising melodies full of surging power and effusive pride that I first felt possibility and it's the promise in that music that keeps me roaming--my mythic west. Ketzel Levine, NPR News.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

You can hear some of Ketzel's favorite western T.V. scores and see photos of her travels by going to NPR.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite of music)

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