Roots And Passions
Chilton Williamson, Jr. was born in New York City and raised there and on the family farm near South Windham, Vermont where he acquired a lifelong love of nature, the outdoors, horses, fishing, and hunting.
At Columbia College, he majored in European History and studied voice privately for some years, training to become an operatic tenor. Having given up a musical career, Williamson did four years of graduate work in American History at Columbia before becoming History Editor for St. Martin’s Press in New York. During his three years with St. Martin’s, he contributed numerous essays and book reviews to many publications, including Harper’s, The New Republic, National Review, Commonweal, and The Nation.
Living And Writing
In 1976 Williamson became Literary Editor and later Senior Editor for National Review. The following year he moved to Block Island, Rhode Island, where he spent an isolated winter gathering material for his first book Saltbound: A Block Island Winter (Methuen, 1980) and commuting every other week to the magazine offices in New York. In Saltbound, Williamson intertwines the history of the island from colonial days down to the present with a narrative account of his own experiences and adventures to depict an isolated traditional community transformed over three centuries by the forces of modernization and “progress.”
Williamson moved to Kemmerer, Wyoming in the summer of 1979 to begin work on what he originally planned as the Western equivalent of Saltbound. Still on the payroll of National Review, he commuted twice a month to his office in New York for four days at a time.
In Wyoming, he went to work with a crew on a drilling rig in the famous Overthrust Belt, which in those days was the symbol of the Energy Boom, the Sagebrush Rebellion, and the New West. From his lodgings in the Regency Apartments in Kemmerer, Williamson edited his reviews section, wrote his columns, and wrote notes of his experiences working long hours as a rigger.
Evolution Of An Outdoorsman
By paying close attention to experienced people who had something to teach him, Williamson learned to shoot a rifle quickly and accurately, navigate and survive in the backcountry, break his own horses and train them to the mountain trails, load a packhorse, and butcher and pack big game.
The literary result of his first year in the Rocky Mountain West is Roughnecking It: Or, Life in the Overthrust (Simon & Schuster, 1982). Inspired by Mark Twain’s classic, Roughing It, the book’s theme is how the New West was foreshadowed by the Old, and how the Old West lingers on in the New.
Roughnecking It drew complimentary reviews and found its way into the syllabus of a University of Wyoming course devoted to the study of social problems in the state. Most gratifying, from the author’s point of view, it won acceptance in the West as a kind of Oil Riggers’ Bible. Though presently out of print, it is still in demand by oil patch veterans decades after its publication.
Williamson made his permanent residence in Kemmerer, Wyoming after arranging with National Review to work from home as a long-distance editor and contributor. In 1989, he left NR for a similar position at Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, published by the Rockford Institute in Rockford, Illinois.
In 1994, he launched his recurring Chronicles column, “The Hundredth Meridian,” a popular, autobiographical feature that continues today. The column conveys episodes from his life and adventures as a Westerner, including hunting, fishing, horse packing, backpacking, pushing cattle, and breaking horses. It also details his travels throughout the West, in particular the southwest and northern Mexico, including the great Indian reservations where he has many friends and acquaintances. The 22 columns, deliberately planned as a serial book, were published by Chronicles Press as The Hundredth Meridian. In 2015, Mr. Williamson was appointed editor for Chronicles.
Western Trails and Tales
Williamson’s first two novels, Desert Light (St. Martin’s, 1987) and The Homestead (Grove Weidenfeld), are both set in southwestern Wyoming. The setting of his subsequent novels and short fiction is the American Southwest and Mexico, reflecting his fascination with the region for its stark desert scenery and blend of Latin, Indian, and Anglo cultures.
An aficionado of the corrida, or bullfight, Williamson has witnessed many such fights at the Plaza Monumental in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. In 1997, he moved from Kemmerer to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he lived for two years gathering impressions and material for The Last Westerner, Mexico Way, A Place You’ve Never Been, and The Prince of Juárez. The Mexico period also produced The White Indian, an historical novel inspired by the 1883 kidnapping of a six-year-old white boy by an Apache raiding party after the raiders had killed his parents on the road between Silver City and Lordsburg, New Mexico.
In 1999, Williamson moved back to Wyoming, settling in Laramie on the opposite side of the state from Kemmerer. In Laramie, he remet and married an old acquaintance from his New York days, Maureen McCaffrey, who hailed from a prominent publishing family.
As prolific as ever in the 2000s, his works include a children’s book, The Greatest Lion, and the novel, The Education of Héctor Villa, inspired by his affection for the border region and its people. Williamson also alternates his long-running “The Hundredth Meridian” with a second column, “What’s Wrong With the World,” about contemporary manners and mores.
Several times a year, he breaks away from Wyoming to make a backpack trip in the Grand Canyon or the Lake Powell region of southeastern Utah … or to take his horse camping with him in the slickrock country near Canyonlands.