The ungraspable West
When my wife and I were first married, we lived on the Atlantic Ocean, facing east. It was the direction we knew best: We both were born and raised on the East Coast, and although we sometimes migrated north and south, we had never been to the West.
So, as a kind of honeymoon, several years after the fact, we decided to spend one summer driving west to see the West.
The question became something of a joke on that trip: Where does the West begin?
When the country was young, the Western frontier was the Appalachian Mountains. It took people like Daniel Boone to blaze trails over the ridges into the new, green country beyond. We drove across those mountains the first day. It didn’t feel any more like the West than New Jersey.
The first real milestone was the bridge over the Mississippi River. In some ways, it is still the unofficial boundary between the nation’s East and West. We looked at each other as we drove with smiles of excitement; we were finally in the West.
Yet, the West turned out to be Arkansas and it didn’t look any different from Tennessee on the other side of the river.
We could convince ourselves that Arkansas really was the West; it was where “Hangin’ Judge” Isaac Parker held his court, it was where Jesse James robbed trains. Yet, a look out the window told us it wasn’t really true. We hadn’t reached the West yet.
Surely, then, Texas was the West. As we cruised through on Interstate 40, though, it was a nondescript, flat, boring land. The Texas Panhandle might be technically in the West, but it wasn’t the West of the Randolph Scott movies we knew when we were young. Where were the canyons? Where were the cactus and the Indians? Even the people sounded more Southern than Western.
The first moment we really felt as if we hit the West was the Texas-New Mexico line, when the Interstate suddenly comes down off the high plains and into the eroded country of the Canadian River bottom. We saw, for the first time in our lives, mesas and buttes, red rock under smooth blue sky.
We sat bouncing up and down in our car seats for the excitement. It was like seeing the moon for the first time, it was so alien, so fresh, so different from anything we had ever known.
But were we yet in the West? The question may seem silly, but all the rain that hit the dry ground would eventually aim to drain into the Atlantic Ocean. The Canadian River dumps into the Arkansas River, into the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico.
So our next goal was the Continental Divide, which we crossed near Thoreau, N.M., camping the night at Blue Water Lake.
Yet even the next day, driving across Arizona, we knew that for most of the pioneers who crossed this country a century and a half ago, the desert was just one more obstacle on the way to California. In some sense, this still wasn’t the West.
And when we finally got to the coast, we got out of the car and stood on a cliffside among the tall, drying cow parsnip and looked out over the Pacific Ocean, feeling like stout Balboa with wild surmise, silent, upon a peak in Darien. There could be no question but that we had reached the West.
But looking out over the blue sea, we knew there was yet somewhere further. Beyond was Hawaii, Japan, China, Tibet, India, Iran, North Africa — and that eventually, the westward search would lead us back to Virginia — where we began — and we would see it again as if for the first time.
And we recognized that the West isn’t a place you can ever really reach, but a destination beyond the horizon, or conversely, that every point on the planet is the West to somewhere else, and when you can see that, you can recognize the even the familiar ground on which you stand as electric with the same excitement you feel when you leave it.
For all points on the planet are its still center and that all real travel takes place not on the ground, but in the heart and mind.
Greetings, Richard. Dan Kincaid’s wife, Jane, here. Masterful piece of writing. The photographs and words conjured up my own tiny ambition at age 9 to go west. Thank you.
Richard, forgot to mention that after reading your essay, Daniel read me “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” from his beloved hardback copy of Norton’s. He noted that you had correctly cited Balboa rather than Cortez as the explorer seeing the Pacific from “the heights of Darien.” I must be almost the only woman on some brave nights in Phoenix to be read so many wonderful plays, poems, historical accounts, and delightful children’s literature while preparing vegetables in our dear little kitchen. I know how blessed I am!