I have lived in the four corners of the U.S. Born in the Northeast, I went to college in the Southeast, later moved to the Pacific Northwest and for 25 years, lived in the desert Southwest. I found value and pleasure in each region.
But having moved back to North Carolina after so many years in Arizona, I am having lurching pangs from missing the West. I cannot deny that when I lived in Seattle, I had similar pangs about the South — I missed the tremendous variety of plant life when faced with forest consisting of nothing but Douglas fir and western redcedar. Hundreds of miles of Douglas fir and western redcedar. Where were the dogwoods, the sweetgums, the witch hazel, the sassafras, the red maple, canoe birch, beech, elm, oak?
And so, I moved back to the East and back to North Carolina, where I had by then spent the largest portion of my life. I met my wife there and some years later, we moved to Phoenix, Ariz., where she got a job teaching and I found my life’s work writing for the newspaper. For the paper, I did a lot of traveling, and visited every state west of the Mississippi to write art and/or travel stories. It is always a pleasure to travel on someone else’s dollar.
After retirement, we moved back to the mountains of North Carolina, which I love. But I have to admit a nagging desire to spend time again in the desert, on the Colorado Plateau, driving up the coast of California, or revisiting the less glamorous portions of Los Angeles. The American West has wormed itself into my psyche and I feel almost as if some part of it has been amputated and I’m now feeling “phantom pain” or at least pangs in the missing limb.
It is not the idea of the West that I harbor. The idea has been around since before Columbus thought to sail west to find the East. It was there for Leif Erickson; it was there for the Phoenicians; and before that for the Indo-Europeans. It was the idea that grabbed the early American colonists who saw the trans-Appalachian lands and envied their possession.
The West of the mind is a West of infinite possibility, of clean slate and fresh start, of fantastic riches to be had, of prelapsarian goodness. People emigrated to the West for a better life and a quarter-section.
The reality, of course, is something different: not enough rain for crops, prairie fires and tornadoes, mountain ranges nearly impossible to cross. And an indigenous people we first needed to wipe out and then mythologize into something noble and vanishing — as if the erasure had happened on its own.
The Greeks had the Iliad and the Odyssey; we had our two epics: First, the Civil War, which is our battle epic, and then the wandering to find a new home in our Westward expansion, our odyssey. We made movie stars of our cowboys. The West of the movies is scenic and immaculate. It is a cinemascope landscape.
But that isn’t the West I miss. The West I knew isn’t pristine; it is dusty, dry, spackled with convenience stores and gas stations, and getting hotter every year. It is even boring: If you’ve ever driven across Wyoming, you know what I mean. It has been described as “miles and miles of miles and miles.”
Gertrude Stein’s description of America is really a description of the West: “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is.”
The West I miss in my deep heart’s core is the dusty, windblown vastness, but it is also the crowded, traffic-choked cities. I miss Los Angeles as much as I miss the Rocky Mountains.
And let’s be clear. There are four very different Wests. There is the Great Plains region;
the mountain West;
there is the desert West;
and the Pacific West.
Each has its character and its psychic magnetism. I am drawn to each.
The flat middle of the country is usually forgotten when we talk of the West. In the movies, Dodge City always seems to have the Sierra Nevadas in the background. The Kansas reality is very different: grassy, flat, and smelling of cattle dung.
As you drive across the Staked Plains of West Texas, you feel you might as well be out on the high seas with no land in sight. Indeed, that is how Herman Melville describes it in his story/poem, John Marr, about an old salt now living in the center of the continent. “Hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to John Marr a reminder of ocean.” And the wind in the tall grass makes waves that undulate like the sea.
Friends used to laugh when they asked where I planned to spend my vacation and I said, “Nebraska.” No one, they said, goes to Nebraska. How about the beach? How about Manhattan. But I had in my head a sense of Manhattan, Kansas, instead. I loved seeing grasslands, badlands, farmlands and cowhands.
The mountain West is spread into broad bands. The largest is the Rocky Mountains that were such a barrier to the early pioneers. We drove up and through the Rockies in many of its latitudes, from the Southern Rockies in New Mexico to Glacier National Park in Montana — and further up into Banff and Jasper parks in Alberta.
My wife wanted to see bears. When we camped, she threatened to tie a peanutbutter sandwich to a string and drag it through the campsite, saying, “Here, Mr. Bear. Here, Mr. Bear.” I persuaded her that was a bad idea, but we found several bears on the side of the road as we drove.
Then, there are the Sierra Nevadas of California, some of the most photogenic peaks in the country, and the background to so many cowboy movies of the ’30s and ’40s. The mountains are home to the sequoia forests and Yosemite National Park. The lowest point in the U.S. is Death Valley and the highest peak in the Lower 48 is Mount Whitney of the Sierras and they are only about 80 miles apart. You can practically see one from the other.
The Sierras eventually turn into the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington, and a series of giant volcanoes, such as Mt. Baker, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Rainier. And Mt. St. Helens. I have climbed up portions of Rainier and walked along the Nisqually Glacier on its southwestern face. On a clear day in Seattle, the snowy, ghostlike presence of Mt. Rainier seems like a permanent cloud on the horizon south of the city. It is immense.
The desert West is the one I know best. I lived in it for a quarter of a century, in Phoenix. But it is not Phoenix that I miss, except for the friends I left there. No, Phoenix is merely Cleveland in the desert. But outside of the city the desert is beautiful. In a good year — about one in every 15 — the winter rains make the desert floor a paint palette of wildflowers. The January explodes.
To the north of the city, the Colorado Plateau is what I miss the most, those long vistas of grassland and badlands, the Navajo and Hopi reservations, the mesas and canyons, the Colorado River and a half-dozen national parks. The plateau continues north into Utah and into the southern parts of Colorado.
Petroglyphs scar the rocks and cheap souvenir shops, like those called “Chief Yellowhorse” dot the interstate.
I can no longer count the number of times I have visited the Grand Canyon, both north and south rims, and the forlorn and uninhabited parts of the western stretches of the canyon on what is called the Arizona Strip. Anytime someone visited us in Phoenix, we took them up to see the Canyon. Pictures just don’t suffice; you have to see in to understand the awe. A picture is static, but the canyon changes color minute by minute as the sun slides across the sky and clouds pass over the rock. One of my great experiences was to arrive before dawn and watch the growing light slowly illuminate the stone and see the slim, glowing white ribbon of river a mile below us.
South of Phoenix, there is the Sonoran Desert, with its Saguaro cactus and unending greasewood plains. And rivers with no water in them. The common joke in Arizona was about a long-time desert rat who took a trip to New York City and when he returned, his friend asked him about it. He saw all the sights, including the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. “And did you see the Hudson River?” “Yeah, but there weren’t nothing to see; it was covered in water.”
The picturesque parts of the desert are certainly attractive, but what I miss are the unlovely bits. The decrepit mobile home parks of Quartzsite, in the middle of nowhere, with its pyramid monument to Hi Jolly, the camel herder hired by the U.S. Army in a futile experiment. The burned out and abandoned shacks in 29 Palms, Calif.; the stink of dead fish along the shores of the Salton Sea; the shimmering fata morgana over the Wilcox Playa; the city-size holes in the ground where copper is hauled from the pits; and the mountain ranges of slag heaps hanging over the cities of Miami and Claypool.
In so much of the desert, it is not the unsullied nature that used to be there, but the used-up quality, the peeled paint and weathered wood and broken-out windows, the abandoned and rusting cars, the roads cracked with weeds growing through. These would never be called pretty, but they have an intense kind of beauty about them. There is something very human about the ruins that no bland red sunset can match.
As I said, it is the physicality of the West that speaks to me, not the idea. It is the West as it is, not as it is imagined to have been.
This is true also of the Pacific West. I have written many times about Los Angeles and the parts of the city I love most: the concrete river,
the oil wells on the Baldwin Hills,
the thousands of little strip malls and their ethnic restaurants and food markets. The bungalow houses, the back streets, the Deco architecture.
I have driven from Tijuana to Vancouver along the coast, soaking up cities and redwoods, mountains and rushing rivers; the Samoa Cookhouse of Eureka; the bridges of Conde McCullough; the stonehenge of Maryhill; the Channeled Scablands; the floating bridge over Lake Washington; the Olympic Mountains.
I have visited every state except Hawaii and every Canadian province except Prince Edward Island and Labrador, and I have absorbed the geography into my tiny head, swallowed whole.
We all become the landscape we have lived in. It is what makes a Southerner so darned Southern, the Yankee so taciturn, the desert rat so possessive of his burning sun-broiled gravel. In the past — and still in the American South — people tend to live within a few miles of where they were born, and their regional differences become part of their DNA. In more mobile times, when so many move around the country or even to foreign climes, that conflation of land and psyche may attenuate. But it is still there, defining, in lesser or greater extent, who we are and what we feel and think. It is why red states tend to be rural and blue states urban.
And because I lived in the dry air so long, with the greasewood flats and the arroyos and the roadrunners and javelinas, the West — not the idea, but the real thing — has become a part of my insides. It is why even in the gorgeous Blue Ridge, I miss the desert, mountains, plains and cities of the West. We are in some part, the same thing.
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