Entering the western states and crossing a classic overland route, I found a town resolutely committed to its past, and two men who exemplify the complexity of making a home in the American West.
There is a scene in Robert Penn Warren’s extraordinary novel All the King’s Men where the narrator, having suffered a traumatic shock, leaves his home in Louisiana and begins to drive west with no destination in mind. As the sun sinks into his field of vision, he begins to muse on what The West (or, specifically, the idea of The West) means in the American mind:
“For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.
It was just where I went.”
I’ve long maintained that the idea of The West, and especially the Old West, is the closest thing we have in this country to a collective mythology. Hollywood has certainly helped with that, but so did the mass migrations west during the Great Depression, and again in the post-World War II economic boom. There is a collective sense that to move west is to move into a new beginning, a new life. It’s a place where the enormity of the landscape makes our poor pitiful mistakes seem insignificant, and therefore blesses us with a second chance to get things right. Or, perhaps, to become someone else entirely.
In the high mountains of northern New Mexico, just south of the pass where the old Santa Fe Trail reached its highest elevation, sits Raton. I ended up here after booming straight across Texas (via Austin, Lubbock, and Amarillo), finally reaching the town just after nine in the morning. Maybe it was the huge temperature drop that came from the high elevation that made me feel like I’d fully moved into a new part of the country. And maybe, somewhere in that classic American desire to be a different version of myself came the desire to buy my first pair of cowboy boots.
Because we all need boots.
Draw up in your mind the store you would most expect to see when you first arrived in The West. Old West or New West. The odds are pretty good it would look a lot like Solano’s Boot and Western Wear.
Solano’s is an institution in Raton. Originally a boot repair store started by a Korean War veteran named Andy Solano, it has occupied the same corner on South 2nd Street for nearly six decades. Soon after he started the shop, his wife Fabie (61 years of marriage, and so far so good) opened a small western wear store. Over the years, the western store has expanded to include all sorts of clothing, a hat cemetery (old hats retired by a number of cowboys, some who have gone on to the next plane), and, of course, plenty of boots. As for the boot repair shop, that’s been moved down to the bottom of the stairs, where Mister Solano works his magic.
“We just kept pushing my dad further out into the alley,” says Sandy, the Solano’s daughter, who manages the store.
This is a family business. There are three generations of Solanos working here, and even the lone employee who isn’t a blood relation might as well be family. But when I came in, just after opening, it was Andy Solano who greeted me.
“How can I help you?”
“I’ve never owned a pair of cowboy boots,” I told him.
“It’s about time, then.”
Andy Solano, prepping my new pair of boots.
I spent the next two hours getting fitted, trying on different styles of boots, and walking around the store while the boots clunked underneath me (it can take a minute to get used to walking in them). Everyone in the store is very patient and very friendly, and you get quickly why a place like this has thrived here. Everyone involved knows the business, loves each other, and recognizes that they have something that people are willing to cross the state to come and find.
About halfway through my fitting, a motorcycling couple came in the store and held up a motorcycle boot with the heel hanging off. They’d purchased the boots from a motorcycle outfitter in Wisconsin, and the things had come apart just a few miles earlier.
I watched Andy Solano play with the busted heel and shake his head. It’s always interesting to see a truly dedicated craftsman regard shoddy workmanship in their field. It’s almost like they’re embarrassed to be in the same business.
The woman ended up buying a new pair of boots from Solano’s and promptly put all the information on the store up on various Harley and biker-related facebook pages. “I’m gonna tell everyone to stop here,” she said, and that kind of thing is important. The new century and all the technology it brings can do a lot of damage to small businesses, but it can also be an enormous boon to them. In an era when anyone with an Internet connection can add to or detract from the reputation of a business, small stores like Solano’s thrive on this kind of attention.
More and more, Raton is becoming a town people stop in rather than just pass through. I’ve made several drives between Denver and Albuquerque over the years, but this was the first time I’ve ever pulled over at this little town. It’s become a haven for retirees in the past decade or so, and that has been the most recent of the town’s economic engines. From a frontier trading post it evolved, like so many towns in the American West, first into a mining camp (for coal) and then as a railroad town (Amtrak’s Southwest Chief between Los Angeles and Chicago still stops here daily). In 1946, La Mesa Racetrack opened and became the driving economic force for the town, featuring increasingly prestigious races that earned it the nickname “Little Santa Anita of the Southwest.” When the racetrack closed in 1992, the town ran dry for a long time, but is now gaining a new life as the kind of quiet, historic spot people envision when they come to the southwest.
Solano’s has been here for the bulk of that run, and it’s the kind of place you would expect to see in Raton. It’s a family run business where everyone involved is from the surrounding area. What you might not expect to find in Raton, however, is a place like the Shuler Theater, a century-old stage that still puts on productions 100 days out of the year.
The historic Shuler Theater.
I walked over to the Shuler to break in my new boots and took a moment to see what was playing. A man on the street told me to go inside and talk to the man in the office, that this man would give me a tour. I walked in to find a gentleman with a substantial gray beard and an elaborately carved walking cane sitting behind the desk.
This is how I met Bill Fegan.
Bill Fegan, past and present.
I think it’s appropriate that, of all the things Bill showed me and talked about in that old theater, the first thing he pointed out were a series of paintings done on the ceiling as part of the Works Progress Administration. The man feels like a logical extension of those ideas, and of that era. Now a youthful 88 years-old, Bill took me into the theater and recounted his journey into the arts, and how he began teaching at Stillman College, an African American college in Alabama, in the 60’s.
“It was part of The Movement,” says Bill, and you can hear the capital letters as he says it. He put on stage shows that integrated not only the cast, but also the Alabama audiences (particularly, he happily recalls, at a show played by Joan Baez).
It got him enough attention that the KKK burned a cross on his lawn.
“I still have part of that cross,” he says.
In 1963, a group of players he helped form were invited to do a performance at the Shuler Theater . The following year, they were invited back. One year after that, Bill Fegan picked up stakes and moved to Raton, where he became a centerpiece of the city’s arts scene. With the exception of an extended run in Dallas, after he thought he needed to do his work in a bigger city, he was persuaded to return to Raton (“I didn’t want to die in Dallas,” he says). Despite his assertions that he has retired, he remains deeply committed to the city’s substantial theater scene, and also to its history.
The season is quite impressive, particularly for a town the size of Raton. There are professional shows, featuring actors from all over the country, for eight weeks out of the year. Four shows, each on a two week run, back to back for the season. The rest of the year, the theater features everything from local amateur productions to small concerts to high school plays. In 1976, the theater was completely renovated, with workers laboring to remove six decades of black dust left behind the theater’s old coal burning heaters. It’s beautiful now, and people come from all over the state to see the productions.
It might not be the first thing you think of when you conjure up images of the American West, but entertainment was a huge part of the life out here. And for decades, that meant live theater. The Shuler still has the feel of those Old West showrooms, not least of all because their fly system (which is used to move scenery in a theater) is still composed almost entirely of old pull ropes with no hydraulics, which requires a great deal of work for the stage hands. A theater that centers around this kind of system is known as a “hemp house,” and the Shuler is one of the last surviving ones in the country.
Bill leads me through the theater and keeps telling me stories. He tells me about the kids’ theater next door, which will likely be training the next generation of actors in this town. As he talks, he moves back and forth between his Alabama stories and his New Mexico stories, all of them revolving around the seemingly simple act of entertaining people.
“I’ve had a fun life,” he says, but he doesn’t say it with any air of finality. Like his assertion that he has retired, it comes with a wink. There’s a sense of more to come, for however long it comes. Like Andy Solano, who runs his business two blocks away, Bill continues to do something that he was seemingly born to do. A simple thing that people are willing to come from many miles around to experience.
Maybe that’s the thing we forget as we build a mythology around this part of the country. That building a new life, as so many people have done here, requires an enormous amount of work. And when that work is done right, with care and precision, with attention and commitment, it has the potential to become a permanent part of the landscape. A small outpost in the middle of a vast expanse. A way of reminding us that the people who survive here are, in their own quiet way, as large as the country that surrounds them.
Solano’s Western Wear is located at 101 S. 2nd Street in Raton. They have a website here and a facebook page here. They are open Monday thru Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and they do free shipping on orders of 99 dollars or more.
The Historic Shuler Theater is located at 131 N. 2nd Street. They have a website here. Bill is often behind the door to your left as soon as you go inside. He’ll give you the tour.
This is a marvelous video about Bill Fegan, provided by his alma-mater, Juniata College. Give it a look: