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How the West was fun
James Miller’s heroes have always been cowboys — and they still are, it seems.
Miller spent 28 years in the federal government, mostly working for the Department of Agriculture. But in many ways, his life reads like a Louis L’Amour novel.
He grew up on a horse farm in Texas, and joined the Navy during the Vietnam War. After his discharge, Miller spent 10 years as a bounty hunter, tracking bail-jumpers from Texas to California and later owned a gun store in Rialto.
Five years ago, while undergoing pulmonary therapy at a Veterans Affairs hospital, the cowboy ways called him back again. Another veteran mentioned he did Wild West reenactments and had even appeared in movies as an extra. And so Miller ended up joining his troupe, the Santa Ana River Desperados.
“It kind of reminded me of my granddaddy’s days,” Miller said. “We’re keeping the Wild West alive, because it’s something they don’t teach in schools anymore.”
The Desperados create simulated 19th century encampments at events around the west. The performers portray drovers, marshals, deputy, townsfolk and outlaws, and put a premium on authenticity, using buffalo chips for their fires instead of the firewood that would have been scarce much of the time.
Today, Miller is the state director for the Reenactment Guild of America, which unites reenactment enthusiasts who create all eras of the 19th century. There are between 180 and 200 members of the organization in California, and members compete on the accuracy of their costumes at various events held around the state.
Miller’s 11-person team gets together two to three times a month to practice their skits.
“Most of my team are Vietnam veterans,” he said. The team includes truckers, doctors and lawyers. “You name it, all branches of life.”
The skits tell a variety of wild west stories.
“Not all of our skits are gunfights and hoorah.”
Of course, plenty do, such as “Cowboy Education,” in which cowboys shoot up the town when they discover the saloon has been shut down and the saloon girls run off.
“‘You’re going to have to come and go to jail for shooting the mayor,’” Miller, as the sheriff, tells the cowboys. “‘That’s an offensive offense.’”
In “Women of the West,” women of the town confront the Polka Dot bandits who stole their money when they robbed Wells Fargo.
Miller performs in about four shows a year, all over the west, including shows in Calico, Banning and Tombstone, Ariz.
Five months ago, Miller’s wife Lynn got into the act as well, performing at a show in Lake Elsinore.
“I’m so glad I wasn’t born in this time,” she said. “All the clothes they had to wear — the petticoats and underwear.”
The reenactors use real .45-caliber pistols, shotguns and Winchester rifles.
“Everything we do is period-correct,” Miller said. “We strive for safety.”
“We show the kids how even a blank can hurt you,” Lynn said. The reenactors fire a blank at a bucket of water, blowing it apart, showing that even a piece of Styrofoam fired from a gun can be deadly.
Neither Miller nor his wife have appeared in any cowboy films, but that’s not the point for them, he said.
“I’m not interested in being no movie star,” Miller said. “I’m just in it for the enjoyment.”
For more information about the Santa Ana River Desperadoes, visit RiverDesperados.com.
Beau Yarbrough may be reached at (760) 956-7108 or at Beau@HesperiaStar.com. Follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/Hesperia.Star.