Flying home from the East, I usually honor crossing the Mississippi as the occasion for my first double dry martini, which means that passing the Hundredth Meridian, equidistant between the towns of Kearney and North Platte, Nebraska, is generally the cause for celebrating with the second. For at least a century and a half, the Hundredth has been the line of demarcation between the Eastern and Western portions of the United States, the meteorological instant at which the polite old East expires and the Wild West lunges forward. In the days of prop and turbo-prop planes, the Hundredth also coincided roughly with the start of the perceptible upward sweep of the continent, climaxing in an orogenic burst of snowy granite as the aircraft bumped and scraped over the ragged Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. Experienced at ground level, the geographical transition from East to West is less dramatic, essentially a matter of increasing aridity rather than of elevational rise. Still, somewhere east of Scottsbluff the Nebraskan Sandhills provide enough lift that the native Westerner, taking note of the depleted ozone, thinning air, snow squalls (in June), and—especially—the ubiquitous odoriferous sagebrush, long before he catches sight of Chimney Rock above the North Platte River perceives that he is almost home again.
On a morning flight last fall from Salt Lake City to Chicago, the view off the left wing over Evanston, Wyoming, included the Wasatch Mountains of northern Utah, Bear Lake straddling the Utah-Idaho line, the Wyoming and Salt River Ranges north of my hometown of Kemmerer (Wyoming), the Grand Tetons more than 200 miles to the north, the Green River Basin, the Wind River Mountains, and beyond them to the north and east the Absaroka Mountains on the southeastern boundary of Yellowstone Park and the Owl Creek Mountains that form the southwestern rim of the Bighorn Basin. In spite of acrid ocherous smogs drifting from Los Angeles and Salt Lake, the copper smelters of Arizona, and the electric power plants at Page (Arizona), Four Corners, and Colstrip, Montana, you can still see nearly forever in the Great American West. More important even than what you do see, however, is what you don’t. From 30,000 feet, every human construction is recognizable: every town, every mine, every reservoir, every highway—even many of the dirt roads. Why? Because there are so few of all these things, comparatively speaking. With no trouble at all, I can trace the central public road system on a blank map of the state of Wyoming, which at the close of the 20th century remains substantially undeveloped, and therefore substantially open, and for that reason substantially free.
The low population density of the Rocky Mountain states and Nevada, and the relative insignificance of industrial “improvements” made by human beings to the region, emphasize what never needed emphasis to begin with; namely, the titanic heroic landforms of which it consists. Often when contemplating a trip—400, 800,1,000 miles—I catch my mind’s eye drifting down the highway ahead of me like a space probe, snapping and transmitting familiar images of every salient geologic and geographic feature between, say, Kemmerer and El Paso, a distance of exactly lOIO miles. The plains of western Wyoming . . . the Wasatch Front . . . Soldier Summit . . . the Roan Cliffs . . . the Book Cliffs . . . the LaSal Mountains . . . Ute Mountain and Mesa Verde . . . the Nacimento Mountains . . . the Sandias behind Albuquerque . . . the Jornada del Muerto . . . Elephant Butte . . . the Black Range . . . the Organ Pipe Mountains . . . El Christo Rey above The Pass itself. The Mountain West is of a boldly discernible piece, the Colorado Plateau merging logically with the West Slope of Colorado, the Mogollon Rim in Arizona forming a plausible transition between the northern Sonoran Desert and the aforementioned Plateau, the Basin and Range formations of the Great American Desert advancing with discreet precision from eastern Utah to eastern California. Writing this, I seem to be standing in a darkened room gazing down at a lighted relief map of the entire Rocky Mountain West spread at my feet.
Such ease of conception leads to love, and love to jealousy—an emotion as defensible, even admirable, when its object is the land as it is indefensible where persons are concerned. “My home,” Edward Abbey wrote, “is the American West. All of it.” So is it mine, but it makes an awfully big home to love—and to defend. And the West today is in critical need of defense as extra-regional forces, eager as well as resentful ones, gather for a final assault that is part the ultimate land grab, part a process of gentrification, part an assertion of the new Manifest Destiny—also known as Modernization.
Among the most effective rhetorical sleights-of-hand in history is the conflation of the antonyms “progress” and “modernization,” a trick that has depended for its success upon a cynical appeal to all men, religious and secular, who have believed that Homo sapiens is somehow called to create a civilization increasingly more just, wise, sensitive, intelligent, and reflective of his truest nature. That these words are not synonymous is suggested by the fact that while the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus Christ was manifestly an improvement over every society to date, including that of the ancient Hebrews, 2,000 years of subsequent modernization not only have failed to institutionalize it, but have instead produced societies even more decadent than the ancient Roman Empire that God’s Kingdom was meant to supplant.
In somewhat of a reverse parallel, the American West, thoroughly Americanized in the middle and late 19th century, has not since been modernized except in such un-Western outposts and oases of modernity as Las Vegas, Vail, and Lake Tahoe. For approximately a century after the American frontier was declared officially dosed, life in the Rocky Mountain states persisted as essentially a frontier culture without the rest of the country being aware of this until a couple of decades ago, when the emergent environmentalist movement took notice of the fact and decided the time had arrived to close out what remained of the frontier for good and all. Since the early 70’s, environmentalists looking to return the West to unworked wilderness have joined forces with transplanted urbanites seeking to gentrify it, while environmentalism and urbanization, as impersonal forces, have created conditions in which the old Western ruralism based on ranching, agriculture, mining, and timbering may be destroyed. Contributing mightily to the process of change is the current exodus, beginning almost overnight, from the nation’s greatest non-Western—in particular Far Western—cities, caused by what can fairly be described as the collapse of a once great civilization (our own). While the refugees tend to flee, as if by instinct, to the hinterland, their destination is usually the urban, not the rural, West, which at first thought seems like a blessing. So long as the majority of these Conestoga Californians, Texans, Washingtonians, and Connecticut Yankees pen themselves in glittering ghettoes, why worry about them? One answer is water, the West’s scarcest resource. Another is that the newcomers, urbanites all, regard the hundreds of thousands of square miles surrounding these cities as their rightful playground and preserve.
This is the real story behind current headlines having to do with grazing and mining reforms, with the demand for more wilderness closures, with the hoopla emanating from the Bureau of Reclamation that promises an end to the era of dam-building and similar grandiose projects and the start of a new age of “quality water management,” by which is meant cutting off the supply of water to ranchers and irrigation farmers and diverting it instead to the misplaced lawn-growers of Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Denver. From all around the country, the baby-boomers are arriving on the Western scene (if only for a few weeks’ vacation each year), looking around, and declaring: “We like it here!” And the chief of all baby boomers in his Big White Teepee in Washington, Dee Cee is set to deliver it to them. After all, they have the votes. And the money.
Owing to its vastness and still relatively small population, the Rocky Mountain West is preeminently the sole portion of the United States (Alaska perhaps excluded) that remains American, as opposed to Modern. It was in part to retain this quality of being American that the South fought the Civil War—and lost. In defeat, it suffered the accelerated imposition of 100 Percent Modernism, so that by the 1950’s it had become more even than its own unrecognizable descendant: a travesty rather, a caricature of the rationalist utilitarian colossus that had conquered it. A similar fate may well overtake the West unless present trends are substantially alleviated or reversed. A decade and a half ago, the rebel yells of the Sagebrush protesters had the slightly cracked tone of secessionism, but the Sagebrush Rebellion has come to nothing, for the time being at least when the native sons of the West will be hard pressed to hang onto the tenuous ground they now occupy. Meanwhile, Westerners continue to survive in the only portion of the Lower Forty-Eight where wilderness, official or not, is the absolute condition of human life rather than a scenic backdrop to a pale facsimile of it; where the weather, day in and day out (not just in hurricane season), is a matter of life and death; where man’s relationship to animate nature is the true and primeval one of kill or be killed; where men—and women—go routinely armed; and where, consequently, the old American dream of freedom survives. For these reasons, issues affecting the future of the West are and ought to be of vital interest to all Americans, who may one day stand to benefit from Western intransigence in what seems more and more to be end times for the country as a whole.
It is ironic that the apostle of the New Nationalism, Teddy Roosevelt, should have described the West, admiringly, as a place where “you can still plug a man in the belly and get away with it.” But why not? Better a society where bad men go free than one in which decent men and patriots go to jail.