from Jim Bridger and Joe Walkerrnthrough John Muir, Charles Ingallsrn(Laura Wilder’s father), Theodore Rooseveltrn(even Teddy, who had to tearrnhimself finally from its near-fatal allurernto fulfill a more glorious destiny inrnWashington, D.C.), Aldo Leopold, MaryrnAustin, Zane Grey, Wallace Stegner,rnand Ed Abbey, to name a few West-intoxicatedrnsouls known to history. Thernsame goes, however, for hundreds ofrnthousands of anonymous hard-scrabblernmountain men, hunters, guides, miners,rnpowder-monkeys, saddle-stiffs, lumberjacks,rnroughnecks, sheepherders, andrnranchers — maybe even unpublishedrnwriters, who knows?—who stayed on inrnthe Mountain West long after theirrnhopes of achieving any substantial accomplishmentrnor reward had beenrndashed. (It does not go for environmentalists,rnwho are fiercely tribal themselvesrnand herd their women the way bull elkrnguard their harems.) “Looking at thisrncountry makes me so lonely I want torncry,” the wife of a friend of mine fromrnwestern New York State remarked 20rnyears ago, when Jack Mootz and I werernroughnecking together in the oilpatchrnaround Kemmerer, Wyoming. Westernrnspace, the spread of the vast landscapernand the sky, affects many people thatrnway. “I am an easterner,” Robert Kaplanrnof the Atlantic Monthly has written,rnwith an easterner’s sensory prejudices.rnIn the eastern United States,rnthe shorter distances betweenrntowns, the huddled-together hills,rnthe heavy humid air, and the ranksrnof tall trees that partially block thernview ahead and the sky above contractrnthe landscape, so that everyrncurve in the road brings a new surprise,rna new chapter in a developingrnstory. In the southwest,rnthough, everything is far away andrnthe earth is naked of tree cover.rnThe dry, thin air of these highrnplateaus expands the view and thernsky, so that everything is seen atrnonce; there are no developingrnchapters, no narrative: just anrnall-encompassing monotonernwhere one strip-mall town followsrnanother.rnFor the Westerner, the nakedness, thernthinness, the encompassment, the distancernthat makes a window onto a dimensionrnbeyond narrative are what isrncompelling in the Western landscape—rnand the tight-stretched, omnipresent skyrnwith several kinds of weather going on inrnit. Though the space is real, the emptinessrnis illusory, and the loneliness, whilernreal enough, is actually lonesomeness,rnan affirmation of the final unimportancernof being lonely and also of the opportunitiesrnit offers. The Westerner doesn’trnlook into the far distance and see fear andrnabandonment and nothingness; insteadrnhe sees openness, endlessness, and thernpossibility that comes with being able tornsee forever—the chance for contemplation,rnas the Catholic existentialist WalkerrnPercy saw when visiting New Mexico asrna young man. What makes the big Westernrncities terrible is their social, cultural,rnand aesthetic underdevelopment, unredeemedrnby closeness with the naturalrnworld they have set at a distance by smog,rnstrip malls, and suburbanization, and therncar culture. In his affluent, shiny newrncity with its distantly picturesque setting,rnthe urban Westerner suffers an alonenessrnthat, having no lonesomeness in it, is therngreatest loneliness —loneliness of thernmodern, shut-in, solipsistic variety.rnEscaping the city of Las Cruces, NewrnMexico — a spreading cloaca of fakernadobe houses and collapsing real ones,rnvacant lots strewn with broken glass,rnshopping plazas, car lots, Lotaburger andrnPizza Hut, ATMs, health clubs, shut-uprnboxing clubs, IHOP, student apartments,rnon-off ramps, two converging interstates,rnflood-control dams, trailerrnparks, gas stations, golf courses, governmentrnbuildings like warehouses, publicrnschools like penitentiaries, and housingrndevelopments rising out of the valley ofrnthe Rio Grande to overspread the mesasrnon either side—I drove north by the riverrnroad to Hatch and southwest from therernon the cutoff to Deming, around thernnorthern end of the Sierra de las Uvas, orrnGrape Mountains. Tlie mountains wererna uniform brown in October, the plainrnbelow them lion-colored. The highwayrntopped a hill, and I saw ahead, 20 milesrnaway across the vast desert, the Matterhornrnsnag of Cooke’s Peak rising fromrnthe purple folds of the sere brown mountains.rnThe road was fenced on both sidesrnbeyond the right-of-way, and in therndistance were trees surrounding whatrnlooked like cattle sheds, the corrugatedrniron roofing glinting in the fall sun. Inrnthe paler region of the sky, betweenrndome and landline, something else flickeredrnintermittently in the sunlight: arngathering cloud of discrete particles driftingrndownward and narrowing as it went.rnlike smoke flowing back into a chimney.rnI drove until I was abreast of the placernand stopped on the shoulder of the highway,rn250 yards from the desert stockrnpond where the birds were alighting.rnA hundred or so of them were alreadyrndown and resting beside the waterrnin which a few stood cooling their feet.rnI stepped from the truck to glass themrnthrough binoculars, tall gray and brownrnbirds with square red caps, curvingrnlong necks, and longer legs: sandhillrncranes on their migration southwardrnfrom Canada, Montana, Idaho, andrnWyoming to Mexico.rnErom where I stood I could hear theirrngravelly croaking as they called the rest ofrnthe flock in. High overhead birds keptrnmaterializing in flights out of the bluernwhere, a few seconds before, there hadrnbeen no birds, only their distant calls.rnFive and six or eight at a time theyrnappeared, descending in spirals thatrnseemed slow but put them on the groundrnin under a minute, their spread feet trailingrnat the end of the hanging legs, wingsrncurved to cup the air, pale undersidesrngleaming against the black edging thatrnended in discrete black primary feathersrngripping the air like strong fingers.rnDown they came, dropping along steeprnplanes of air until, several feet above thernground yet, they braked themselves withrnthree or four strong wing flaps and maderna precise landing among their standingrnfriends. There were a couple of hundredrnbirds at least beside the water and still therncries came from the sky, more birdsrnappeared, circled, descended, landed,rnencouraged by those on the groundrnsounding their strange supernaturalrncries. Once down they stood close together,rn300 or more facing all in thernsame direction and paying no attentionrnto me or the sporadic traffic passing onrnthe highway. The resting flock appearedrnweary but not exhausted, and I wonderedrnwhether the pond were a waystop forrnthem or whether they had chosen tornspend the night in this place arrangedrnfor their convenience by mercifril Providencernin the person of a remote, unawarerncattle rancher.rnI waited until the last of the birds wererndown before putting up the field glassesrnand driving on across empty desertrntoward the Cooke’s Range turning bluernas the afternoon sun edged behindrnit. Thinking That’s why I stay in thernWest. It’s why we all do.rn50/CHRONICLESrnrnrn