March 2007

Following in his footsteps: Author documents locations in L’Amour’s novels

By Connie Gotsch

“Louis L’Amour has been a major activity. . . since I retired from the oil business in 1992,” Bert Murphy drawls into the telephone from his home near Roswell, N.M.

Since then, he has spent his time finding locations L’Amour described in roughly 100 novels about the American West. Two reference books have resulted from Murphy’s research, “Trailing Louis L’Amour From California to Alaska” and “Trailing Louis L’Amour in New Mexico.” Murphy is currently documenting L’Amour locations in Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

“He was very, very accurate with the geography,” Murphy says cheerfully. “When he says there’s a cave, there’s a cave.”

Murphy discovered Louis L’Amour because of his time in oil and gas fields. A third-generation member of a family in the energy business, he moved across the southern United States while his father worked. His parents also traveled on vacation. Murphy fell in love with the American West.

When he became a petroleum engineer he started his own professional travels, and found himself far from his children and his wife, Martha, his high school sweetheart.

“You travel a lot, and you’re alone a lot, and you’re in some pretty unpleasant places chasing energy.” A touch of weariness edges his voice. “So I started reading the Louis L’Amour books.”

One was “Flint,” set in the malpais badlands near Grants, N.M. Recognizing the terrain the novel described, Murphy decided to find the story’s settings. Using topographical maps, he followed “Flint’s” scenes from McCarthy to Cibolita Mesa near the Acoma Pueblo.

Then, he called his sons to bring pack horses, and they located the bandits’ hideout in the story. “It was pretty much as L’Amour described it,” Murphy laughs.

Studying further, he found the author’s historical settings as accurate as his landscape depiction. L’Amour’s themes also attracted Murphy.

“Critics who don’t understand why Louis L’Amour is so successful do not understand America,” he says. “Principle comes before friendship, hard work brings success, and knowledge must be shared.”

L’Amour probably discovered those qualities within his family. Born Louis Dearborn LaMoore in 1908, the youngest of seven, he grew up in Jamestown, N.D., “in an upper middleclass family,” explains Murphy. “They taught him to love books.”

L’Amour’s sister, Emmy Lou, taught him to read. So did his mother, who had trained as a school teacher. Another sister, Edna, was a librarian, and with her, L’Amour discovered history and natural sciences books.

His grandfather, Abraham Truman Dearborn, told L’Amour of his experiences as a soldier in the Civil War and Indian wars; and tales of L’Amour’s rancher uncles.

L’Amour learned about self-defense and animals from his father, Dr. Louis Charles LaMoore, a large-animal veterinarian. The elder LaMoore also gave his son a lesson in flexibility.

When he wasn’t vetting, Dr. LaMoore sold farm machinery, supervised harvest crews, participated in government; and served as North Dakota’s livestock inspector.

Still, L’Amour dropped out of 10th grade and left home in 1922, when he was 15. He was afraid he’d be a financial burden to his family,” chuckles Murphy. “But I think he wanted to see the world.”

See it he did. L’Amour boxed in Shanghai, rode with Mongol bandits, skinned cattle, sailed as a merchant Marine, and mined in the Pecos Valley. By the time he returned to America to settle in the 1930s, he had experience aplenty to fill books.

“There’s nothin’ phony about him,” muses Murphy. “All war stories get bigger and better with time. Some of his were probably exaggerated. So are mine.”

L’Amour began publishing short stories, including the gangster-themed “Anything for a Pal.” When World War II broke out, he enlisted, though at age 34, Murphy thinks he could have avoided service.

The army sent him to Officer’s Candidate School. “He must have had a good score on his tests, to do that with a 10th-grade education,” Murphy says.

He would know. Murphy served in World War II himself, receiving an army discharge the same year as L’Amour, 1946. Murphy continued in the reserves until he left the oil business.

When L’Amour left the military, he began writing again. One of his first successful novels, “Showdown at Yellow Butte,” is set in the Four Corners. “Yellow Butte’s just above Shiprock on that old scary Highway 666,” Murphy teases. “You can see the Ship Rock from Yellow Butte.”

L’Amour’s book “Hondo” resulted in a movie starring John Wayne, and a spin-off TV series. Fame followed. Eventually L’Amour sold 300,000 copies of his novels.

When he decided to trace L’Amour locations, Murphy started a file including each story he studied, maps, photos, and historical information. When he had enough material for a book, he tried to interest Bantam, L’Amour’s major publisher, in the project. Bantam rejected the idea. L’Amour’s widow, Kathy, encouraged him to develop it anyway.

Having already self-published a semi-autobiographical novel, “Ventures West,” Murphy did the same with “Trailing Louis L’Amour in New Mexico,” and later, “Trailing Louis L’Amour from California to Alaska.”

As he considers the amount of data he’s collected on L’Amour, Murphy makes clear he has had a great deal of fun doing it. “Martha and I have seen some places in New Mexico that third- or fourth-generation families have probably never heard of.”

“Trailing Louis L’Amour in New Mexico” and “Trailing Louis L’Amour from California to Alaska” are available in the Four Corners at Amy’s Book Case in Farmington, N.M., and from MBAR Publishing POB 3164 in Roswell, N.M.