Fans of Wyoming author Craig Johnson never seem to tire of his annual Christmas tour, now celebrating its 20th season.
Johnson always takes a few moments to retell the tale of how his Christmas tour started as a one-off gift. It was a free short story emailed to his fans on Christmas when the writer was just starting out.
The next year, though, fans kept asking when the next Christmas story would be delivered. So, Johnson finished another free short story for Christmas, and it became an annual thank-you tour for his fans, Wyoming winter or no.
This year’s Christmas story is about a Houdini dog named Harry, who keeps pulling off a magic escape act that no one can quite figure out. Every night he somehow escapes from his barred and locked kennel cage, turning up at a nearby assisted-living facility.
The story follows along as Absaroka’s beloved Sheriff, Walt Longmire, solves a heart-warming mystery that dives right into the spirit of the Christmas season.
Christmas tales are notoriously difficult to write well, but Johnson has come up with a magic formula that seems to work every time.
“You don’t get too caught up in the trappings of the holidays and try to focus more on the humanity,” he said. “More on the characters, you know, more on the relationships in society and the culture as a whole. That’s a lot more material to work with than just tinsel and blinking lights.”
That has helped Johnson pull off what his fans all agree is a winning Christmas tale for the past 20 years. This year’s tale, “Recidivism,” is no different.
Those Powder River Paths
It’s often joked that nothing stops the postman, be it rain, sleet or snow.
Johnson himself takes a page from that book with his annual Christmas tour, which kicked off last weekend in Cheyenne and won’t wrap until Dec. 23 in Hardin, Montana.
A complete list of tour dates is listed at the bottom of this story and is available at Johnson’s website, along with information about how to sign up to have the free story delivered via email for those who can’t make it to a live reading.
The live reading is worth it for those who can make it in. Johnson offers behind-the-scenes insights into his work, and tells lots of funny little stories on himself that keeps the audience laughing.
It’s not always an easy journey for Johnson to make though. It is, after all Wyoming, where winter is unpredictable.
“It’s been sticky sometimes getting back over the mountains,” Johnson told Cowboy State Daily. “One time, I did an event over in Ten Sleep, and it started to snow like in the afternoon, and by the time I got finished with the event, it was a good snowstorm.”
Johnson put his truck in four-low, turned all the lights on and just “chugged up the mountain and over the top of the Big Horns,” through “powder river paths,” until he finally got home.
“I just tried to stay between the little reflectors, you know,” he said. “That’s always a key element there, so you don’t get lost down in the woods. But there certainly wasn’t any other traffic, so I didn’t have to worry about that. It made for a good Christmas adventure anyway.”
What A Walt Longmire Story Is
This year’s Christmas story is a funny and sweet tale that’s wound together with the threads of real life.
The title, “Recidivism,” is kind of a long word, though, one that Johnson realizes is likely unfamiliar to those outside of law enforcement.
“It’s kind of a repeat offender,” he explained during a recent reading of the story. “In law enforcement, if you have someone who, you know, gets into trouble on a frequent basis, over and over again, they get charged with that.”
Johnson got the story idea from a newspaper clipping in the Detroit Free Press.
“This dog kept escaping from the shelter and, you know, making its way over fences and across the street and then going — and the automatic doors would open up — into the elderly home again,” Johnson said.
The next morning, workers would find the little rascal curled up as innocent as can be on the sofa, as if it had always been there and belonged there.
“When I read that story, I was like, ‘Oh that’s a Walt Longmire story is what that is.’ And that’s the way it always is for me,” Johnson told Cowboy State Daily. “I mean, I’ll stumble across some intricate little story or some little moment or something along those lines that I’ll think to myself you know that’s a Walt Longmire is what that is.”
Newspaper clippings of real-life happenings are a frequent source of inspiration for Johnson’s Longmire stories. They help him bring in that realistic element that’s become such a hallmark of all his Absaroka County stories.
In fact, it was a newspaper clipping just like that one that led to last year’s Christmas story, “The Perfect A.”
In that story, a Basque sheepherder in a remote area of Wyoming writes to Arturo Toscanini in the 1930s to ask the famous Italian conductor to play a perfect A, so the sheepherder can tune his violin.
“I don’t know, you wait around for, you know, these moments of inspiration, and sometimes it can get a little tight,” Johnson said. “I was waiting around for inspiration, you know, for the Perfect A story last year, and that didn’t happen until like late November, and I was getting a little bit worried about getting that short story out.”
Waiting on the right real-life inspiration is just an essential part of Johnson’s process. It’s the secret sauce that makes all of his stories sing.
“(Perfect A) had this very, you know, kind of mystical, magical kind of quality to it,” Johnson said. “And there was something important to say that maybe sometimes in life, when we find ourselves getting out of tune, we can reach up to a higher power that can help us find accordance with ourselves and get ourselves back into tune.”
Johnson has come to trust that those kinds of nail-biter Novembers, where he is still combing through newspapers looking for the right inspiration, are all a part of the Christmas story process.
“If you drive for something, you know, then it doesn’t quite work,” he said. “If you wait for the proper response, if you wait for the proper catalyst, then you’ll get a good short story.”
Jolly Old Law Enforcement Elves
Johnson sounds a little like Santa Claus himself on these Christmas tours. He’s laughing like a jolly old elf with each and every fan, talking to them a little bit about the book they’re presenting him to sign, or asking them a little about themselves, before telling them a funny story he thinks they’ll appreciate.
It’s clear Johnson loves these little moments with all of his fans. But, if he would admit to a particular favorite group of fans, it has to be all the law enforcement officers who line up to get his signature on the latest Longmire book. He feels a special kinship with them.
In Cheyenne, those law enforcement officers just happened to be Laramie County Sheriff Bryan Kozak and one of his deputies, Tim Cameron.
Cameron is a former sheriff himself from a different part of the country.
Both said they are huge fans, and that they were at Johnson’s Christmas story reading to collect a few Christmas gifts, by way of signed books.
Kozak and Cameron love Longmire because he’s a thinker, and he has that dry sense of gallows-like humor that is part and parcel of doing a highly stressful job like law enforcement.
“And the story lines are great,” Kozak added.
Johnson believes it’s the threads of reality that he weaves into the book that attracts first responders to his work, and it’s something he’s adamant about having in each and every story.
“You know there’s a lot of stuff that I read and see, you know, on television and things like that and I think to myself, ‘There’s no way that would ever happen in Wyoming,’” Johnson said. “So, for me, it’s a little bit more of a challenge to do that, but it’s a reality, like, I mean, you have to be respectful of the place where you live and treat it with that kind of reality. That’s an important aspect to me.
2023 Recidivism, the Walt Longmire Christmas Story Tour
Ranchester, WY - Saturday, Dec. 9 Tongue River Branch Library - 2:00 pm
Sheridan, WY - Saturday, Dec. 9 Sheridan Fulmer Public Library - 6:00 pm
Ten Sleep, WY - Sunday, Dec. 10 Ten Sleep Branch Library - 2:00 pm
Buffalo, WY - Sunday, Dec. 10 Occidental Hotel - 6:00 pm
Clearmont, WY - Monday, Dec. 11 Clearmont Branch Library - 6:00 pm
Buffalo, WY - Friday, Dec. 15 Buffalo Supply Co. - 5:00 - 8:00 pm
Ucross, WY - Saturday, Dec. 16 Ucross Foundation - 4:00 pm
Gillette, WY - Sunday, Dec. 17 Campbell County Library - 5:00 pm
Billings, MT - Friday, Dec. 22 Billings Public Library - 6:00 pm
Hardin, MT - Saturday, Dec. 23 Big Horn County Library - Noon
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.