What's So Great About the Great Plains? Ian Frazier Took the Time to Find Out

updated 08/07/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/07/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

By 1983, when Ian Frazier arrived in his Chevy van to chronicle the Great Plains, most of the dangers an Easterner once faced on America's mythic steppe had abated. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull were dead, as were Bonnie and Clyde. Billy the Kid and Buffalo Bill had passed into legend, along with the rest of the gun fighters and buffalo hunters and wild men. The great herds of buffalo no longer thundered across the prairie like a living ocean. Even Lawrence Welk's accordion lay silent.

But for Frazier, a New York writer who decided to explore the heartland because "Rancho De Luxe is my favorite movie," there was still the daily trial by breakfast. "You've got to have either eggs or waffles with that whipped white junk on it," he says. "It's not butter, and it isn't marshmallow. It's put out by whatever the opposite of the heart association is."

But waffle toppings aside, Frazier, 38, found so much to love—and write about—in the vast area that begins around the 100th meridian and sweeps from the Canadian border down to West Texas that his third book, Great Plains, has become his first best-seller. In it, Frazier, a New Yorker writer and the author of the humorous Dating Your Mom and a collection of nonfiction pieces entitled Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody, details a three-year, 25,000-mile serendipitous wandering (fleshed out by two years of historical research) that takes in cow-town museums, missile silos and the scenes of ferocious and bloody deeds.

Frazier often slept in the van and bathed at rest stops. He asked every gas station attendant he met the name of the local high school football team—and never stumped one. In Turkey, Texas, he took in the Bob Wills Museum and befriended Mrs. Homer Lang, the caretaker, who insisted he call her "Aint" Zona and claimed to have baked 14,000 pies. In Montana he visited the eerie ruin of an ABM command site—abandoned under terms of the SALT I agreement but too expensive to demolish. And he mined the area's literature for such tidbits as this: "Buffalo hunters wore heavy clothes which they seldom changed.... When a group of them walked up to a bar, they would reach into their clothes, and the last one to catch a louse had to buy. The prostitutes who catered to them were a special type."

And all the while he worried that this remarkable region—home to many of America's primal legends—is too easily dismissed. "Most travelers today who see the Great Plains do it from an airplane window at 30,000 feet, en route to another part of the country," says Frazier, who was dismayed to see coal strip mines making mulch of the geography. "I'm afraid of people thinking, 'There's nothing out there anyway, so let's ruin it." There's an idea of the Plains as the middle of nowhere, something to be contemptuous of. But it's really a heroic place."

For Frazier, the Plains' most emblematic hero is Crazy Horse, the Oglala Sioux leader who defeated Custer at the Little Bighorn and then negotiated a peace with the white man—only to be betrayed and killed by the Army. "I love Crazy Horse," he writes, "because he remained himself from the moment of his birth to the moment he died; because he knew exactly where he wanted to live, and never left; because he may have surrendered, but he was never defeated in battle; because, although he was killed, even the Army admitted he was never captured; because he was so free he didn't know what a jail looked like."

Frazier developed his taste for the wild West while growing up in Hudson, Ohio, at a time "when three or four TV shows were based in Dodge City." The son of a research chemist and his wife, Frazier attended Harvard, where he drew cartoons for the Lampoon. His first writing job was at Oui magazine—"mostly doing captions for pictures of naked people." He quit after six weeks and spent a few anxious months before joining the New Yorker.

On his travels, Frazier reacted to the endemic loneliness of the Plains by drawing closer to his girlfriend, fellow New Yorker contributor Jacqueline (Jay) Carey, 35. "The book is dedicated to her because if she hadn't come out, I would have gone nuts," he says. Midway through his research, they married, in Ferndale, Mont., and honeymooned at the Sherlock Motel in Shelby, Mont. "We had a bottle of brandy and some apples," she remembers. "It was magic."

Now settled in Brooklyn with a new baby, Frazier says, "Living out there really taught me that I'm an Easterner." Yet his curiosity still knows no boundaries. For his next project, says Frazier, "I'm really becoming very interested in steamboat wrecks on the Mississippi."

Michael Neill, Jess Cagle in New York

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