What is it about Western settings that are so popular? Being a California girl, I never understood it when people called Colorado or Wyoming or Montana the West. As I stared at a map of the United States, only California looked "West" to me. But as I learned more about history and as I help my 4th grader with his California history class, I understand the concept of "out West" to someone on the East coast or even the Midwest. And it seems as if it's more of a state of mind than a place.
After the Pilgrims and early settlers built their towns and cities and established their governments and laws, they turned their eyes to the West. "Go West, Young Man." "Manifest Destiny." This was the chorus of the early 1800's, and after John Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Fort in 1848, a new chorus resounded - "Gold Rush!" When you think about what it took the pioneers to make it out West, it speaks volumes about their character and fortitude - six months across plains, rivers, canyons, and deserts with the occasional Indian attack. And they had to cross the Sierra Nevadas before the snow came, and if they didn't, they'd wind up like the Donner Party. Or if they had a little more money, they could sail down the East coast and around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, and head north through the Pacific along the West Coast of South America. Another long and dangerous trip.
I think the West has always stirred up images of adventure, lawlessness, hard, uncompromising men and harder women. It makes for a great setting and great characters! Did you ever watch the fantastic HBO show Deadwood (with Keith Carradine as Wild Bill Hickok)? There's something powerful and attractive about a "man of few words" (at least in fiction - in real life they can drive you nuts!). There's something so sexy about a pair of tight blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat (the first time I saw Dwight Yoakum without all those things, I nearly fell off my chair - LOL).
So whether a story is set in the Old West or in the contemporary West, it makes for a special kind of setting, populated by special kinds of characters.