- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 4, 2001

The land is a good teacher, and one New Mexico author is using the landscapes of novelist Louis L'Amour to promote the values they express. Bert Murphy, a retired petroleum engineer and U.S. Naval officer living in Roswell, has turned a passion for Mr. L'Amour and a knowledge of local topography into a series of books about the history, geography and virtues portrayed in the prolific author's novels.

"I feel like the virtues and the values that Louis L'Amour put in his books courage, keeping your word, taking care of your own problems are very important," Mr. Murphy said. "I want to do anything I can to encourage everyone to read, but in particular, to encourage young people who are the future.

"And I feel that perhaps these books will get them going out to L'Amour's country, reading these stories and visualizing and emulating the people he wrote about."

Mr. L'Amour, whose books on the Old West inspired generations of readers, wrote more than 100 novels until his death in 1988 at age 80. His novels have sold almost 250 million copies. Of those, seven books were located in New Mexico, five in California and Alaska and about 15 in Arizona and Mexico.

Mr. L'Amour is noted for the real-life detail and accuracy of his descriptions, and Mr. Murphy has made it his life's work to track them down.

"Louis L'Amour is very accurate as to geography and history," he said. "So if he says there is a rock in a trail, you can find that rock. The first thing that I did was to identify where all of his books occurred and assign states to them, where most of the action was.

"I've done a great deal of mapping and navigation through the military and as an engineer, so I took topographic maps and actually put on them all the locations of locals he writes about.

"I take pictures and research the whole area. I do a moderate review of his book, with all the historical background. I also describe the terrain."

His first book on the project, "Trailing Louis L'Amour in New Mexico," came out in 1995. Next was "Trailing Louis L'Amour from California to Alaska." His next project is a book on L'Amour's Arizona travels.

"I began reading his books in the 1950s," he says. "'Hondo' was his first book and that really brought him his fame. The book was made into a movie with John Wayne. I read his books while sitting oil wells or while traveling. Whenever I flew, I carried one or two L'Amours to kill time in the airports.

"I was up at a military Reserve meeting in Albuquerque in 1983 and reading 'Flint,' a story set in the Malpais lava beds around Grants, N.M. So I got to looking at it and thought, 'Boy, that all sounds like you could find it.'"

He sought out a map company in Albuquerque and bought the topographical maps that covered the area.

"There was a hideout described in the story on the east side of the Malpais. So when I went over the maps, I was able to actually identify the kapuka [hole] in the lava where the hideout was. That's how it all started."

"I called my boys. They were young men and I told them to get some light packs and pick me up in the Jeep, as I'd flown to Albuquerque. I told them we'd go up there and take a compass bearing at the edge of the lava and find the hole in the lava a kapuka and sleep overnight. That's what we did.

"It was raining like you wouldn't believe. But we hiked in over the lava. It had been raining a couple of days and we had trouble with our campfire. The area was just like Louis L'Amour described in the book, a figure eight kapuka. There was a stream, trees and grass 30 or 40 feet below the edge of the lava.

"So I said if you could find Flint's hideout like that, then you could find the rest of L'Amour's locales. That's what I started doing."

Now, when Mr. Murphy and his wife, Martha, travel, they do research as they go.

"The thing is that when you go to these little towns, you'll find research material that is not available elsewhere. In the Chamber of Commerce or the local museum, there's material written by some old residents. I gather all that together for background.

"Anytime I go anywhere, I am building research material. Some I may never use. For example, for the Arizona books, I have a lot of material from the 1940s when I lived there."

The young Murphy did military service in Arizona and was discharged in 1946 at the age of 19. He then worked as an assistant camp manager to John Ford during the filming of John Wayne's classic Western "Fort Apache" in 1947 in Monument Valley, Utah. Afterward he studied geology at Stanford University. Graduating in 1950 as a petroleum engineer, he ended up in the Navy during the Korean War. Mr. Murphy founded his own oil company in 1957 and retired in 1992.

For Mr. Murphy, his retirement goal is to spread the gospel of L'Amour to the people who could most benefit from it.

"My wife just retired as the president of the home here for abused and neglected teen-agers, and my son, Mark, has built a horse facility for retarded children," he says. "My oldest daughter teaches special education. We are very oriented toward trying to improve young people's lives, particularly the ones who are abused and neglected.

"A lot of the effete Eastern critics feel that Louis L'Amour is just a hack writer. But his detail, and some of the things he knows, are things people have forgotten are valuable," he said. "They need to be carried forward."

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