Without question or real need for debate, it can be said that Craig Johnson is the absolute finest author residing in Ucross, Wyo. The other 24 people who make up the hamlet’s entire population heartily agree. So, for that matter, do those who have become fans of the local rancher’s string of best-selling mysteries and the highly successful A&E television series they’ve spawned.If you haven’t read any of the eight novels featuring old-school Sheriff Walt Longmire or tuned in to the already-renewed Sunday-night series that bears his last name, you’re missing out. Just ask the fellas down at the Ucross Volunteer Fire Department at the intersection of highways 14 and 16 in the northeastern corner of the state. Or read the letters Johnson gets from small-town police officers and sheriffs who offer critiques of his books and the latest Longmire episode, pointing out that he’s right on target. Or talk to the residents of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations up the road; they’ll tell you this guy’s the real thing. Johnson’s got the people, the ?scenic Powder River country and the rural mindset down to a pluperfect tee.
Still, the Temple University–educated author is far from your run-of-the-mill success story. Know another writer who, at the repeated request of independent-bookstore owners, would complete a 4,000-mile, 25-store, cross-country promotional tour on a motorcycle? Or one who visits his barn before daylight each morning, coffee cup in hand, to discuss plot points and dialogue with his four-legged friends who can be expected to routinely nod their agreement?
The grandson of a blacksmith, Johnson, 51, drives a ’63 model pickup around the ranch and favors the comfort of faded jeans, boots and a cowboy hat. He tends his 260-acre ranch with the help of wife Judy (who he says is not a writer, but a “fine rewriter”), a 1948 vintage tractor and his favorite horse, Starbuck.
“It’s nice to wake up in Walt Longmire’s world every morning,” he says. “This part of the country — sitting at the base of the Big Horn ?Mountains — is the inspiration for everything I write.”
He found it years ago, by accident, long before he knew he would grow into a New York Times best-selling author, win a Spur Award for Best Novel of the Year from the Western Writers of America and win honors from as far away as France, where translations of his novels have grown in popularity. “I was in my 20s and working on a ranch in Montana,” he recalls of happening upon the region. “The owner sold some horses to a guy in Oklahoma and I was supposed to deliver them. We were to meet in Ucross. I got here, and he hadn’t shown up. I called my boss and was told to wait. I was here for three days before the guy finally arrived.”
In those three days, he fell in love with the area. It’s now been his home for the past 22 years.
The fictional Longmire has been around even longer. This isolated part of the world is his heartland, the keeper of his history, and he watches over it with a quiet and determined dignity from another time in law enforcement. He, along with the author who created him, ignores the high-tech forensic technology that populates today’s whodunit fiction. Walt doesn’t even own a cell phone. He’s an Old West throwback: weary but tough, quick-thinking and ever so likable. The same can be said for his sassy-talking female deputy, Victoria, and his Cheyenne best friend, Henry Standing Bear.
The local sights and sounds, the people and their history, all of which Johnson encounters daily, are constant fodder for his lyrical storytelling. The American Indian culture that permeates his neighborhood provides a strong and fascinating subplot to each of his novels. “They are amazing people with a remarkable and indefatigable spirit,” Johnson says.
Johnson never ceases to find inspiration here, be it from the area’s majestic beauty or the most innocuous everyday encounter. Recently, he recalls, he and a friend were en route to visit a nearby? reservation when they saw a 10-year-old boy walking alongside the road, limping noticeably. Concerned, they pulled to a stop near the young Native American and saw that his limp resulted from the fact that he wore but a single tennis shoe. “Hey,” Johnson’s passenger called out. “Looks like you lost a shoe.”
The boy grinned. “Nope,” he replied. “I found one.”
Rest assured, Johnson says, that charming anecdote found its way into a Longmire book — As the Crow Flies, which was released in May.