By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
Thirty years ago, Craig Johnson did two things that would change his life – he began building his ranch at Ucross, and he wrote the first two chapters of what would become a huge hit book and television series.
“I had one of those dads who was like, you were slave labor until you escaped,” Johnson said, laughing. “I got taught how to do basic construction and electrical and plumbing and all that, so I built the ranch myself – and then when I got the windows and doors and the heat turned on I started on the first Longmire novel. I wrote the first two chapters of ‘The Cold Dish,’ and wasn’t happy with it, and stuck it in a drawer for 10 years.”
But he eventually pulled it out and finished it… and 17 books later, Johnson’s series of mystery novels about a small town sheriff in Wyoming have a near-cult following.
Eighteen books (if you include the upcoming “Hell and Back,”) a hit television series and an annual star-studded event in Buffalo have made Walt Longmire a household name – although Johnson told Cowboy State Daily he wouldn’t have bet that all would happen.
“When Warner Brothers knocked on the door and said, ‘Hey, we’d like to make a TV show out of the books about the sheriff of the least populated county in the least populated state in America,’ I started questioning their wisdom,” Johnson said.
Longmire, The TV Show
The TV series, which was first broadcast on A&E and later streamed on Netflix, has created a fan base of its own, apart from Johnson’s New York Times-bestselling books.
“As it turned out, we were the highest rated scripted drama in A&E’s network history,” Johnson said. “And then after three years they wanted to buy the show from Warner Brothers, and Warner Brothers wouldn’t sell it and so they decided to cancel it. And that was when Netflix grabbed us.”
The show, which ran for a total of six seasons, starred Robert Taylor, Katee Sackoff, Lou Diamond Phillips, Cassidy Freeman, Bailey Chase, LouAnne Stephens, Zahn McClarnon, A Martinez and Adam Bartley, along with high-profile recurring guest stars like Peter Weller, Graham Greene, Charles S. Dutton and Gerald McRaney.
“The show has continued to be in the top 20 viewed shows on Netflix for the last five years, since we ceased production,” Johnson said. “So it’s hard for them to stop running Longmire when it continues to garner an audience on a regular basis, which is really something – because, I mean, Netflix produces like these multimillion dollar shows with these big stars every month, and then there’s our little Indian and cowboy show, just chugging along there, year after year.”
“So, we have hopes that maybe somebody at Warner Brothers will figure things out and might even make it back on the air sometime… you never can tell,” he added
Longmire, The Event
Those six seasons, though, made a huge impact on fans across the country. So much so, in fact, that the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce launched a “Longmire Days” festival 11 years ago – and it’s still going strong.
Longmire Days are scheduled to be held in Buffalo (renamed “Durant” for the event in honor the books’ setting) August 18 through 21, 2022, and Johnson said all of the actors have indicated that they will be attending.
“Like everybody else, they’re kind of like cooped up and just dying to get back out, back among people,” he said. “I mean, for six years, they played as if they were in Wyoming, and so the chance for them to actually come and see what the real Wyoming is, I think it’s a unique kind of opportunity for them that they don’t normally get.”
Johnson likened the fan response (8,000 people attended in 2019) to science fiction conventions and Comic-Con events. He pointed out that actress Katee Sackhoff, who played Deputy Victoria Moretti on the show, has been one of the only cast members with experience in that type of gathering because of her roles in “Battlestar Galactica” and “The Mandalorian,” which have millions of followers.
“She’s used to seeing these huge crowds, you know, thousands of people lining up to get your autograph and all that kind of stuff,” Johnson said. “But a lot of the other actors, for them, it’s really incredible, to be in a parade, to be the grand marshal of a rodeo like the Cody Stampede (in 2017).”
For Wyoming fans of the book series, the inside stories behind characters and place names are a hook.
“One of my favorite quotes about writing is the one from Wallace Stegner where he says the greatest piece of fiction ever written is the disclaimer at the beginning of every book that says nobody in this book is based off of anybody alive or dead,” Johnson said.
“It’s difficult, when you live in a state that only has half a million people in it, because I’ll stick somebody from Gillette in one of my books and I’ll be down doing a library event in Rock Springs and somebody will say, ‘Is that so-and-so from Gillette that’s in your third book?’”
Johnson said that when he chose the names of his fictitious county, Absaroka, and town, Durant, those also needed to be based on real life. He pointed out he didn’t want to go with a name like “Pronghorn” or “Antelope Gulch” for the setting of his tiny town in the (fictional) 24th county in the state of Wyoming.
“I wanted to use a name which I thought would be more indicative of a real life, Wyoming town,” Johnson said, “and so I just grabbed (Durant’s) name from a list of Union Pacific executives who was of questionable repute.”
Besides being terribly difficult for the actors on the television series to pronounce, the name of Johnson’s fictional county, Absaroka, stands out as a nod to Wyoming’s Native American history.
“Absaroka is one of the oral interpretations of the word in the Crow language for the ‘children of long beaked bird,’ or the crow,” he explained.
Johnson noted that because of the proximity of the large reservations in nearby Montana and in central Wyoming, he felt the inclusion of Native people and culture in the Longmire series was an honest portrayal of Wyoming’s population.
“To not have them be a part of that (Absaroka County) region, it wouldn’t be honest,” he said. “They’re just too interesting, they’re just too magnificent – they’re just too wonderful to not include in the books. It would be criminal of me not to include them.”
Johnson’s upcoming book, “Hell and Back,” is scheduled for release in September — and Johnson is already planning his book tour, which will include Wyoming libraries and bookstores.
“There will be a big national tour, but certainly I’ll be bouncing around,” he said, adding that he enjoys supporting local bookstores and libraries. “You know, the Legends Bookstore there in Cody, she brings her books over here to me to sign them early, so that on opening day, she’s got signed books. And I mean, the first library event I ever did was in Meeteetse.”
There’s no doubt that the Longmire brand has brought positive attention to Wyoming — and Johnson said that attention has been a benefit to more than just him.
“One of the the points of doing Longmire Days was to raise money for charity,” he said, “and we did like $30,000, I think, for the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women’s Resource Center up in Lame Deer (Montana) this year, and $10,000 for the Johnson County Search and Rescue, which was in dire need of funding, and a bunch of others like it.”