For me, there’s hardly a more western word than gulch. It immediately brings to mind pictures of cowboys on horses riding in – or towards – a deep dry ravine. The horses’ hooves make sounds as they brake against the gravel downslope: “gulch, gulch gulch”; a bad guy is shot off his horse and hits the dirt: “Gulch!” And afterwards the cowboys are thirsty and gulp some water to quench their thirst…
Funny, though, I don’t associate gulch with drinking. Ravines, yes; falling, yes; but not drinking, even though “gulch” is a perfectly reasonable-sounding word for gulping something cold and fresh to quench your thirst. Other people have thought so. When gulch first showed up in English in the 1200s, it was a verb meaning ‘swallow or devour greedily’ (per the OED), and from that sense there was a noun gulch current in the early 1600s – it has since bitten the dust – meaning ‘glutton or drunkard’. But there was also a noun gulch meaning ‘heavy fall’ that showed up in the later 1600s, and a verb gulch meaning ‘fall heavily’ that followed on that in the 1800s.
The sense we all know now, though, showed up in US English in the early-mid 1800s. There was more of a need for it in the sere and dusty west than in the verdant east, so it’s hardly surprising that it has cowboy associations. It is also associated with gold miners – the OED lists a number of gold-rush terms such as gulch-diggings, gulch-gold, gulch-mine, gulch-washing, and gulch-man.
The gold rush today, of course, is not so literal. If you go out west and find yourself in a gulch with gold, it will more likely be Glitter Gulch, the casino strip on Fremont Street in Las Vegas. But there’s more gold to be dug farther east now: the corridor outside the meeting room of the Ways and Means Committee in the Capitol in Washington, DC, is nicknamed Gucci Gulch for all the lobbyists who loiter there.
One thing’s for sure: if you’re in a gulch you’re less likely to find culture and more likely to meet a vulture. But if westerns have taught us one thing, it’s that greed comes to a bad end: follow your gluttony for gold into a gulch and the gulch will devour you… and belch dust. Ouch!