The Hundredth Meridian is now a decade old in conception, though a year short of that in reality. It had its origin in a biweekly column I was hired by James Hill to write in the winter and spring of 1993 for the Sunday Perspective section of the Arizona Republic, which James was editing at the time. The subject of the column was broad enough: the state of Arizona, viewed from a northwestern visitor’s perspective. I wrote about bullfighting south of the border, about the confrontation between environmentalists and the University of Arizona over the university’s plan to build a telescopic observatory on Mt. Graham, about camping in the desert in spring. My honorarium covered a studio apartment on the top floor of a handsome apartment house in downtown Tucson overlooking the Praesidio through the fronds of half a dozen or so soaring palm trees, and I enjoyed writing the column. By early May, however, finding the weather too hot for comfort and missing the largely nonexistent Wyoming spring, I loaded my typewriter and table, a suitcase, two boxes of books and papers, and three parrots into the pickup truck and headed home to Kemmerer, from where I filed the last two columns. Summer in Wyoming is as busy as it is brief, with plenty of distractions from the craft of literature. It wasn’t until the end of elk season, when I had butchered two antelope, a deer, and an elk and stowed the hunting and camping gear for the winter, that I discovered I missed writing my Arizona Republic column, and it was nearly Thanks-giving before the obvious struck, out of nowhere and with the blinding glare of false genius: The American West is bigger than Arizona. Why not consider the whole elephant, instead of just the Southwest hindquarter?
It is no easy thing to shoehorn an elephant into a magazine column—even an open-ended column like this one—of 2,300 words: more frustrating than pummeling a down sleeping bag back into its stuff sack. Recalling Sherwood Anderson’s advice to William Faulkner, I began by concentrating on my own little postage-stamp-sized territory in the southwestern corner of Wyoming and worked outward from that. Fortunately, the West—like the elephant—is of a piece, its striking morphological components bound together under the all-encompassing wrinkled, tough, and dusty hide. What goes for the topology of the West, moreover, goes for its sociology as well, with the exception of such regional megalopolises as Denver, Salt Lake City, Boise, Las Vegas, Tucson, Phoenix, and Albuquerque (swollen, sprawling, and formless from uncontrolled immigration and the logic of the machine; none recognizable as Western or even, in the historical sense of the term, as cities). At the outset of The Hundredth Meridian, I attempted to convey an idea of the sociology of the indigenous contemporary West, its political culture, and its political ideals through a half-dozen or so introductory essays intended to provide a generalized context within which a succession of grounded, specific narratives could be understood and appreciated.
Ten years later, looking back over 80 or so installments, I am relieved to recognize that the experiences from which the narratives were made are, in the short run and, indeed, for the foreseeable future (so far as I can tell), timeless; that is, they are all, without exception, repeatable today, in spite of the explosive growth of populations, the encroachment of cities, the proliferation of governmental regulations, the greed of developers, and the power mania of so-called environmentalists. In the American West of 2003, you can still get lost (accidentally or otherwise) in the back country, hunt bear and elk for days out of earshot of another man’s rifle, pack a revolver on the street and even into the supermarket, run cattle, organize a rodeo, and drive 90 miles per hour between towns set 120 miles apart without—if you have in-state license plates—much fear of arrest. The sky still shows a depthless ultraviolet at the zenith, the setting moon opposes the rising sun at the equinoxes across the vast emptiness of the Colorado Plateau, the hammered mountain ranges make a blue-and-silver palisade fronting a vast wilderness of green. Away from the big cities or the resort towns, nothing much of the natural Rocky Mountain West has changed—or appears to have changed. Otherwise, everything is changing or else locked, like a Greek sculpture, in an embrace of static combat.
I am speaking here of the traditional Western sense of self-identity and of its expression through the Western political system and the political culture that shapes and sustains it. It is not a matter of topicality—the coming and going of familiar public faces and their replacement by unfamiliar ones, the appearance and disappearance of items in the ceaseless procession of causes du jour—but of something profound: a basic alteration in the posture assumed by the West toward the rest of the country. It is a posture of resignation amounting almost to surrender in the face of an aggressive campaign for the forcible modernization and assimilation of the Rocky Mountain West, waged over decades by an overbearing and intolerant national culture that, for half a century, has resented the West’s independent spirit, which it views—correctly—as a throwback to the ethos of the 19th-century frontier. Worn down by relentless assaults on its way of life and swamped by carpetbaggers driving SUVs, the West shows every sign of having given up. The Sagebrush Rebellion of the 80’s and early 90’s, which sought to assert and preserve a regional culture as well as to liberate and promote an economy, is as dead as Shay’s Rebellion, its defiant impulse replaced by a resignation in which the dispirited former rebels feel themselves lucky to wrest a few bureaucratic concessions from Washington and the national culture.
The Bush administration, with its pro-development and anti-environmental policies, points toward the more complete destruction of the American West as a distinctive region, not toward its regeneration. The easement and even the reversal of bureaucratic policies developed by the Clinton administration, away from local control in the direction of further centralizing the managerial operations of the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and other federal agencies, benefit mainly alien corporations with national or international identities and loyalties; their effects are unlikely to be felt at the regional and local levels, except indirectly and in a limited way. So the colonization and general takeover of the West by imperializing national forces continues: political and economic centralization, homogenization, urbanization, industrialization, post-liberalism, environmentalism, recreationism, tourism, and the consumerism that views every object of human appreciation, each and every aspect of Creation, as a commodity whose sole value is its marketability by the consumer-capitalist dynamo.
The agents of deformation include carpetbaggers and other alien subversives, quislings (native sons and daughters aspiring to East and West Coast values and ideas—and their rewards), and the general run of immigrants to the region, whether they arrive from California, Mexico, Africa, or Vietnam. The public culture of the Western states—government, newspapers, television, schools—for years now has been heavily influenced by enlightened ideas and attitudes reflecting the national agenda, while, even in the small towns, the reflexive response to the shibboleths of multiculturalism and “tolerance” is widespread among local officials, who are eager to demonstrate their cosmopolitan sophistication (meaning, their fitness to represent their constituents in Washington, D.C.). Because the West, unlike the South, has never developed a coherent political and cultural defense of its way of life, Westerners have no schematic basis from which to counter the fanatical and fantastical ideology that assails them. Meanwhile, a national administration headed by two Westerners—one of them, a cheap counterfeit; the other, an expensive retrofit—makes its stand on behalf of the custom and culture of the West by countermanding Bill Clinton’s policy of barring snowmobiles from Yellowstone. (Yellowstone isn’t the West, for God’s sake: It’s a national park. The good ole boys can see it on snowshoes or else run their noisy, smelly, obnoxious machines in the far larger and more scenic national forest reserves, “Land of Many Uses.” If snowmobiles belong in the Yellowstone, why not allow dirt bikes in the Grand Canyon?)
The logic—the intent, in fact—of Cheneyism is the greater industrialization and despoliation, social and economic as well as environmental, of the Rocky Mountain West. And so is the logic of environmentalism as represented by such national organizations as the Sierra Club and nearly all the regional and local environmentalist groups across the West.
Along with the nation as a whole, the American West is being transformed by immigration. Like those of the East, South, and Midwest, the big Western cities are mobbed by immigrants from all over the world. In the case of the West, immigration is compounded by the relocation of native populations escaping the colonizing Third World outposts on the two coasts for the Mountain States heartland. The city of Denver is now one-third Mexican, while the explosive growth of the suburbs and towns along the Front Range between Colorado Springs and the Wyoming border is substantially the result of a huge influx of white refugees from California. A similar population mix—illegal Mexican immigrants and escapees from California, Oregon, and Washington—swells Rocky Mountain resort towns from Jackson, Wyoming, south to Santa Fe. But environmentalists (as distinguished from immigration restrictionists who are genuine environmentalists) have nothing to say about the connection between environmental degradation caused by the overpopulation of the waterless West and mass immigration, with the exception of the occasional impolitic outburst. (The Sierra Club, resolutely ignoring a significant and vociferous minority of its membership avid for immigration restriction, suggested, a couple of years ago, that native-born Americans ought to have fewer children in order to reduce the demographic impact of more than a million legal immigrants each year, plus a few million illegal ones.) This constrainment of environmentalists by political correctness is reinforced by the unconcern of urban Westerners made blasé by a combination of familiarity and social remoteness and of rural ones for whom immigrants are either absent or invisible.
What remains of the Old West is cooperating in its own destruction by a characteristic provincialism—a legacy of its historic geographic isolation—in the form of inattentiveness to events beyond its immediate experience and what it imagines to be its proper concern. The formative New West, similarly—the West of environmentalism and industrial recreationism—is conniving at the destruction of everything it seeks to defend and preserve by moral cowardice and by its embrace of the multicultural fantasy it shares with the broader leftist movement. “Everyone knows that mass immigration has to defeat everything the environmental movement has worked for for forty years,” an environmentally minded Wyoming journalist remarked to me recently, “but nobody wants to say it.”
And so West finally meets East and is annealed with it, absence of mind and weariness meeting at last with nihilism and the demiurge to self-destruction.