Kemmerer, Wyoming: Population 3,500, more or less; throw in another thousand or so for Frontier and Diamondville, the three together making Greater Kemmerer. Five churches, two Mormon stake houses. The Lincoln County Courthouse and the Lincoln County Law Enforcement Facility (late 20th century term meaning Sheriff’s Office). Five motels, two supermarkets and an ALCO store, five restaurants (not including fast-food joints), seven bars. Archie Neil Park, the Kemmerer Field Club and golf course. The Lincoln County Library and the Frontier Museum. No art gallery, no symphony orchestra or string quartet, no ballet, no movie theater, no research library, no bookstore even. A stripped-down existence, you might say. Ld rather be dead (others have suggested). Nevertheless, I like it—in fact I flourish—here.
“Why would you want to live in Wyoming?” the horrified editor of a prominent neoconservative journal asked me about a decade ago. “Don’t you like people?” a learned professor inquired at a literary conference in Jackson, Wyoming, last spring. In spite of my unconsidered reply (“Not much”), the truth is that I do of course like people, in particular those of the female persuasion. But I do not care for large concentrations of people, and I am even less fond of the sort of environment that modern people in large numbers create for themselves and seem to enjoy. For one thing, these environments—called “cities” or “suburbs”—are human and aesthetic disasters, designed primarily for a more abundant life for the machines that inhabit them and only secondarily for the flesh-and-blood robots that operate the machines; for another, I prefer a setting where the natural rather than the manmade world is the dominating inescapable presence. Not just do men and women seem to be most themselves living in small communities adrift in natural space, they appear to appreciate each other better too. Cities were good enough things in centuries past when they were, at least by comparison with the megalopoli of the present age, relatively small, and even more so when enclosed by walls that prevented them from metastasizing like cancers. But at some point in the 20th century cities ceased being centers of learning, the arts, and even trade—or perhaps it is fairer to say that learning and the arts virtually ceased to exist, while the objects of trade became humanly worthless, consumerist baubles produced by the greedy for the stupid, the ignorant, the lazy, and the depraved. Unhappily, coincident with these developments municipalities degenerated into command centers for an imperialistic modernism whose aim is to make over the provinces and hinterlands it despises as “provincial” (what else?) and “unprogressive.” It is possible that finally they will not succeed in the endeavor, since living in Kemmerer, Wyoming, or in Magdalena, New Mexico, or in Wolf Hole, Arizona, in the 1990’s often seems comparable to watching from a lifeboat at a safe distance as the Titanic goes down. These are times for prudent and thoughtful men to position themselves a little beyond the maelstrom, for perspective’s sake as well as security’s. And to keep their powder dry. Probably freedom has less to do with constitutions, bills of rights, an independent judiciary, free markets, and free speech—all of which can be repealed by the stroke of a pen—than with living far out on the edge of things where you’re hard to find and keeping a sidearm handy. Not that it helped Randy Weaver much.
I suppose life in a small mining town in western Wyoming must have its limitations, though for me they are so slight or so little galling that I ceased to be aware of them many years ago. No art gallery means Robert Mapplethorpe exhibits don’t visit here, while looking at landscape paintings in Wyoming is like examining Botticellis at the Chicken Ranch. Movies are the Enemy, and television, for which you need a cable hookup costing $25 a month in Kemmerer, is an even greater enemy. (I don’t have any hookup; writers ought to economize.) Needless to say, for such minor privations outweighing compensations exist, or I wouldn’t be here.
The first of these is exactly that provincialism so repugnant to all American moderns, in particular Easterners, Californians, and moderns everywhere—including in the provinces. Provincialism, so far from representing human existence tragically blighted, is actually its fullest realization; in Mexico it is symbolized by the Tree of Life, a gaudy ceramic work in the form of a spreading tree whose branches are filled with human figures (including Christian saints), birds, butterflies, and other creatures. Unlike megalopolitan life, the life of the provinces blends forms and levels of human experience that in cities either do not exist or else are sharply stratified, including a familiarity with nature and with natural forces, with animals, and with a variety of human types directly shaped by natural reality and mutually dependent upon one another, both economically and socially. Even at this advanced date, the artificial life is largely a construction of the suburbs and the cities, and if it is still worth living, it is hardly worth examining, as recent American “literature” suggests.
Unlike the first, the second compensation is almost exclusively every native Westerner’s birthright, the fundamental ground and condition of existence throughout the Rocky Mountain region: I mean space, of course, space enough to allow a man ten square miles to back a pickup truck around in, if he wants or feels he needs it. The spaciousness of the West is a thing that non-Westerners can never imagine but only experience, and often enough it produces an overpowering sense of loneliness if it doesn’t scare them almost to death. The tourists call it emptiness—an emptiness enhanced by the nakedness of the gigantic landforms, treeless between the mountain ranges and cedar breaks and covered by only the thinnest layer of soil, if by any. And above and beyond the land itself is the sky, where the cloud formations approximate the underlying terrain with an amazing correspondence similar to ethereal reflection and five or six different weather systems transpire together. When Jim Bridger, after a life of trapping and exploring in the Mountain West, recalled from the west-facing porch of a Kansas City boardinghouse how it had been possible to “see forever” in that country, he anticipated Walker Percy who, convalescing from tuberculosis in New Mexico almost a century later, marveled at what he termed the “pure possibility” of the West—a state of mind that, for those susceptible to its allure, swiftly becomes nearly as indispensable to the spirit as air is to the body. And in a formerly wide-open continent where space is increasingly constricted, this openness—compounded in the social structure and identity of the American West—is more and more at a premium.
After a century and a half, the temptation to glamorize life in the West persists even though the glamour never existed outside the imaginations of non-Western observers—perhaps it is more accurate to say that the glamour of the West is and always has been an absence of glamour epitomized by the strenuous workaday existence of the frontier, relieved slightly by imported Eastern fashions and amusements. At one level contemporary Western culture, informed by the national television and radio networks and shaped by the sound studios of Nashville and the Hollywood producers and scriptwriters, is indistinguishable from that of the rest of the United States. Modernity has established a beachhead here, even if for the time being at least it is mainly restricted to the educational establishment, the welfare bureaucracy, and the media—the only havens in the Republican Rockies for our homegrown moderns, who take their cues from the National Organization for Women and the Clinton administration while remaining, like modernists everywhere, blissfully ignorant that modernism for most of this century has been the fundamental instinct of the American middle class to whom they consider themselves superior. At other levels, however, the West trails the national culture by several generations, a lag that is probably attributable to its closeness to nature, its pre-postindustrial and agricultural labor force, and its sparse population. The average Westerner—man, woman, or adolescent—knows how to break and ride a horse, handle a rifle competently, track, shoot, and butcher an elk, fell a tree with a chain saw, build a house, repair an engine, make fence, and construct a wilderness camp, as well as how to treat his neighbor. (Last summer a man ran his car off a typically lonely stretch of highway in Wyoming and waited until two men in a pickup truck offered him a lift to the nearest town. He accepted their offer and drew a gun on them several miles down the road, shot them to death, robbed the corpses, and stole the truck. In a region where many states have mandatory good Samaritan laws on the books in recognition of the perennial hazards of severe weather, inhospitable terrain, and remoteness from human habitation, such a betrayal of common trust is the West’s unpardonable sin.) Glamorous or not, Western life continues to reflect a kind of reality that has been almost completely expunged from the thoroughly modernized portions of North America.
Socially speaking, of course, the American West is no more than the sum of the rest of the country, transported crumb by earthy crumb in the bootsoles of pioneers from the pine forests of New England, the mountain slopes of Tennessee, the Mississippi bottomlands, and the rich black prairies of Indiana. If the Westerner really exists as a type it is a type of character he represents, not a type of culture or even an amalgamation of cultures. Marc Reisner, in his superb history of water policy in the American West, Cadillac Desert, speculates that the mountain men who were the first white explorers of the region discouraged rather than encouraged its settlement by their subsequent tales of adventure: “You could live off the land in better years, but the life of a trapper, a hunter, a fortune seeker—the only type of life that seemed possible in the West—was not what the vast majority of Americans sought.” Nor is Western life—the thing itself, not the life of Vail or Jackson or Santa Fe—what the majority of modern Americans want, as opposed to most Westerners who do not make their homes in places like Rangely, Colorado, Moab, Utah, Kemmerer, Wyoming, or Great Falls, Montana because some giant corporation based in Houston sent them there.
The typical man or woman of the Rocky Mountain West, though not opposed to “progress” and appreciative of the goods and creature comforts that “progress” supplies, retains a commitment to an ideal that “progress” directly opposes and threatens. Call it hypocrisy, call it naive romanticism, call it have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too: the fact is that when the West, challenged by the assault of the Clinton people, promises to fight rather than surrender its accustomed style of living, its protests ring true in a way that similar declarations from other parts of the country—California, for instance, or the South—do not. Westerners are indeed Americans and, being Americans, are “progressives,” but they are not moderns and are likely to become less modern in the foreseeable future, under pressure. As Americans they continue to welcome capital from outside the region as well as the contributions newcomers make to the local tax base; as Westerners they are made nervous by the arrival of strangers with their epicene manners and clothes, their determination to gentrify traditional folkways and practices, and their half-hope that the bust phase routinely succeeding the Western boom will send them packing back where they came from. Though such ambiguity is obviously not restricted to the West, it does seem to run deeper here than elsewhere, while—so far, anyway—modern attitudes have not succeeded in prevailing over traditional ones as they have in the rest of the United States.
This state of affairs may not last, of course. The South has its tragic past; the West may well have its tragic future. Then again, it may not. “You can’t stop progress” is a hoary American saying to which the vast majority of Americans still subscribe. But progress can stop progress and probably will, sooner or later; and if we in the Rocky Mountain West are fortunate (we have been quite fortunate for a century and a half now), the huge humming dynamo that Henry Adams despised will run down before our unique high-country civilization is totally destroyed. It is something to pray for, and if prayer doesn’t work, there are other means available. Until then, the West remains a place dedicated to the proposition that all men are not created modern. As long as it remains so, my fellow Westerners and I are here for the duration. And maybe even beyond. Where, after all, would we go?