I have lived now in the West 20 years, two years past the age of liability for military service (if there were a Western States of America, and if they had a draft) and one year short of my political majority and the suffrage. Although you can have spent half a century living in a small town in the rural West and still be considered an outsider if you arrived there from someplace else at the age of 20, the truth is, if 20 years don’t make a Westerner, nothing will. What, then, is a Westerner? According to my definition, he is simply a person who cannot imagine living anywhere but the West, even if he should be compelled, for economic or other reasons, to do so.

“Why go into the desert?” Ed Abbey asked. “The Great American Desert is an awful place. . . . Even if you survive, which is not certain, you will have a miserable time. The desert is for movies and God-intoxicated mystics, not for family recreation.” Why, for that matter, go into the West at all? The leached and ruined towns, the sprawling, congested, modernistic, mechanized, militarized cities, hideous to look at; the arid lands, hundreds of thousands of square miles of cactus, creosote, and sagebrush, overlooked by the “shining” mountains, in reality bastions of naked rock and ice surrounded by gloomy, inhospitable subarctic forest inhabited by grizzly bears, mountain lions, and Sasquatches; the climate, roaring hot in the Southwest and cold enough to freeze molecular action in the North; the human population, divided between people (the native Westerners) who don’t read books and others (environmentalists, mostly) who read the wrong ones; in the hinterland, the lack of employment and of nubile, unmarried women; the neglect and contempt of the East, where Significant People live, and the consequent near-impossibility of finding place and preferment (you can’t share a power lunch via your computer); isolation, separation, and loneliness, much as on the frontier in pioneer days. . . . Every small Western town I know of has people like me and my friends in it, people who would be objectively happier—richer and more powerful, better connected, professionally more advanced, married and with a family, even—had they chosen to settle somewhere else, or simply stayed put where they were raised, back East or on the West Coast. All of these people—including me—have no sensible or even plausible reason for sticking it in the West, and yet we do stick it. We just can’t imagine living anywhere else.

There are times when it seems almost possible. The close green hills of New England, the open rolling parks of Virginia, the rich Mississippi Delta bordered by piney hills on the east and to the west the tangled, snakey bottoms of the great river, the blue-green, level horizon of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, watery and pale like a painting in oils overthinned by turpentine—a visit to any one of these places and others is capable of creating an illusion of choice in the heart of the dedicated Westerner, native or transplant. But it doesn’t last. Returning home to pack his stuff, he looks at the country around him and decides he just can’t do it. He knew it hundreds of miles ago, in fact, crossing the Missouri River at 33,000 feet or catching sight of Chimney Rock from Highway 92 southeast of Scottsbluff, Nebraska. For goners like us the West is a fever, a sickness we must suffer from in order to be fully alive. That is to say, it is a form of dependency, an addiction made freely accessible to the American people only as the result of an oversight attributable to scientific ignorance on the part of the same primeval FDA that missed its chance to criminalize coffee and beef One whiff of pungent sagebrush or the astringent alkali dust, a glimpse of distant mountains, snow-covered, beyond the velvet plain or a solitary, century-old cottonwood tree trailing green foliage about its fluted gray trunk, a rustbound windmill with its pinwheel jammed standing above a battered stock tank, or simply the endless border of yellow clover, dancing on a steady wind where the asphalt meets the gravel shoulder of the two-lane highway—and it’s over, the breakout thwarted once again. The Westerner isn’t going anywhere, and he knows it. Except to throw a saddle and pack on the Appaloosa and ride into the mountains for the night. Or take the rifle from the gun rack in the pickup and shoot a buck antelope at 300 yards after stalking him for two hours on the prairie. Or maybe just drive 70 or 80 miles round-trip to the nearest saloon where they have a sign tacked to the backbar saying HELEN WAITE IS OUR CREDIT MANAGER, IF YOU WANT CREDIT GO TO HELEN WAITE and all the women are married to friends or relatives of yours. Not that that ever stopped anyone, necessarily.

A postcard in my possession shows a pickup truck photographed head on and four individuals in the cab: the driver on the left side of the truck, another young man on the right, and, between them on the seat, two large dogs. On the back of the card is the printed caption “Doubledating in Montana” and two inscribed messages, in different hands. The first and briefer of these says, “Chilton—is it really this bad?” The author is a friend and colleague in Michigan. The other, obviously written by a woman, I may not print—no gentleman ever reads another’s mail, much less publishes it—except for the signature, “Jane & Ted.” Since my Michigan friend is an active environmentalist (in addition to being a wellknown advocate of restricted immigration), I am able to make an informed guess at the identity of the undersigned couple, living part-time in Montana. To reply to his question, however, the answer is, “No —not quite.” But almost. The American West is about isolation, and the contemplation of loneliness. That is its fascination, and has been for seven or eight generations of the American people—not those who experienced the West only through books and newspapers, of course, but the ones who lived it, breathed it, and had their being in it, from Jim Bridger and Joe Walker through John Muir, Charles Ingalls (Laura Wilder’s father), Theodore Roosevelt (even Teddy, who had to tear himself finally from its near-fatal allure to fulfill a more glorious destiny in Washington, D.C.), Aldo Leopold, Mary Austin, Zane Grey, Wallace Stegner, and Ed Abbey, to name a few West-intoxicated souls known to history. The same goes, however, for hundreds of thousands of anonymous hard-scrabble mountain men, hunters, guides, miners, powder-monkeys, saddle-stiffs, lumberjacks, roughnecks, sheepherders, and ranchers— maybe even unpublished writers, who knows?—who stayed on in the Mountain West long after their hopes of achieving any substantial accomplishment or reward had been dashed. (It does not go for environmentalists, who are fiercely tribal themselves and herd their women the way bull elk guard their harems.) “Looking at this country makes me so lonely I want to cry,” the wife of a friend of mine from western New York State remarked 20 years ago, when Jack Mootz and I were roughnecking together in the oilpatch around Kemmerer, Wyoming. Western space, the spread of the vast landscape and the sky, affects many people that way. “I am an easterner,” Robert Kaplan of the Atlantic Monthly has written,

with an easterner’s sensory prejudices. In the eastern United States, the shorter distances between towns, the huddled-together hills, the heavy humid air, and the ranks of tall trees that partially block the view ahead and the sky above contract the landscape, so that every curve in the road brings a new surprise, a new chapter in a developing story. In the southwest, though, everything is far away and the earth is naked of tree cover. The dry, thin air of these high plateaus expands the view and the sky, so that everything is seen at once; there are no developing chapters, no narrative: just an all-encompassing monotone where one strip-mall town follows another.

For the Westerner, the nakedness, the thinness, the encompassment, the distance that makes a window onto a dimension beyond narrative are what is compelling in the Western landscape—and the tight-stretched, omnipresent sky with several kinds of weather going on in it. Though the space is real, the emptiness is illusory, and the loneliness, while real enough, is actually lonesomeness, an affirmation of the final unimportance of being lonely and also of the opportunities it offers. The Westerner doesn’t look into the far distance and see fear and abandonment and nothingness; instead he sees openness, endlessness, and the possibility that comes with being able to see forever—the chance for contemplation, as the Catholic existentialist Walker Percy saw when visiting New Mexico as a young man. What makes the big Western cities terrible is their social, cultural, and aesthetic underdevelopment, unredeemed by closeness with the natural world they have set at a distance by smog, strip malls, and suburbanization, and the car culture. In his affluent, shiny new city with its distantly picturesque setting, the urban Westerner suffers an aloneness that, having no lonesomeness in it, is the greatest loneliness—loneliness of the modern, shut-in, solipsistic variety.

Escaping the city of Las Cruces, New Mexico—a spreading cloaca of fake adobe houses and collapsing real ones, vacant lots strewn with broken glass, shopping plazas, car lots, Lotaburger and Pizza Hut, ATMs, health clubs, shut-up boxing clubs, IHOP, student apartments, on-off ramps, two converging interstates, flood-control dams, trailer parks, gas stations, golf courses, government buildings like warehouses, public schools like penitentiaries, and housing developments rising out of the valley of the Rio Grande to overspread the mesas on either side—I drove north by the river road to Hatch and southwest from there on the cutoff to Deming, around the northern end of the Sierra de las Uvas, or Grape Mountains. The mountains were a uniform brown in October, the plain below them lion-colored. The highway topped a hill, and I saw ahead, 20 miles away across the vast desert, the Matterhorn snag of Cooke’s Peak rising from the purple folds of the sere brown mountains. The road was fenced on both sides beyond the right-of-way, and in the distance were trees surrounding what looked like cattle sheds, the corrugated iron roofing glinting in the fall sun. In the paler region of the sky, between dome and landline, something else flickered intermittently in the sunlight: a gathering cloud of discrete particles drifting downward and narrowing as it went. like smoke flowing back into a chimney. I drove until I was abreast of the place and stopped on the shoulder of the highway, 250 yards from the desert stock pond where the birds were alighting. A hundred or so of them were already down and resting beside the water in which a few stood cooling their feet. I stepped from the truck to glass them through binoculars, tall gray and brown birds with square red caps, curving long necks, and longer legs: sandhill cranes on their migration southward from Canada, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming to Mexico.

From where I stood I could hear their gravelly croaking as they called the rest of the flock in. High overhead birds kept materializing in flights out of the blue where, a few seconds before, there had been no birds, only their distant calls. Five and six or eight at a time they appeared, descending in spirals that seemed slow but put them on the ground in under a minute, their spread feet trailing at the end of the hanging legs, wings curved to cup the air, pale undersides gleaming against the black edging that ended in discrete black primary feathers gripping the air like strong fingers. Down they came, dropping along steep planes of air until, several feet above the ground yet, they braked themselves with three or four strong wing flaps and made a precise landing among their standing friends. There were a couple of hundred birds at least beside the water and still the cries came from the sky, more birds appeared, circled, descended, landed, encouraged by those on the ground sounding their strange supernatural cries. Once down they stood close together, 300 or more facing all in the same direction and paying no attention to me or the sporadic traffic passing on the highway. The resting flock appeared weary but not exhausted, and I wondered whether the pond were a waystop for them or whether they had chosen to spend the night in this place arranged for their convenience by merciful Providence in the person of a remote, unaware cattle rancher.

I waited until the last of the birds were down before putting up the field glasses and driving on across empty desert toward the Cooke’s Range turning blue as the afternoon sun edged behind it. Thinking That’s why I stay in the West. It’s why we all do.