The Hundredth Meridianrnby Chilton WilUamson, Ji.rnOut Where the West BeganrnFlying home from the East, I usuallyrnhonor crossing the Mississippi as the occasionrnfor my first double dry martini,rnwhich means that passing the HundredthrnMeridian, equidistant betweenrnthe towns of Kearney and North Platte,rnNebraska, is generally the cause for celebratingrnwith the second. For at least arncentury and a half, the Hundredth hasrnbeen the line of demarcation betweenrnthe Eastern and Western portions of thernUnited States, the meteorological instantrnat which the polite old East expires andrnthe Wild West lunges forward. In therndays of prop and turbo-prop planes, thernHundredth also coincided roughly withrnthe start of the perceptible upwardrnsweep of the continent, climaxing in anrnorogenic burst of snowy granite as thernaircraft bumped and scraped over thernragged Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.rnExperienced at ground level, therngeographical transition from East tornWest is less dramatic, essentially a matterrnof increasing aridity rather than of elevationalrnrise. Still, somewhere east ofrnScottsbluff the Nebraskan Sandhillsrnprovide enough lift that the nativernWesterner, taking note of the depletedrnozone, thinning air, snow squalls (inrnJune), and—especially—the ubiquitousrnodoriferous sagebrush, long before herncatches sight of Chimney Rock abovernthe North Platte River perceives that hernis almost home again.rnOn a morning flight last fall from SaltrnLake City to Chicago, the view off thernleft wing over Evanston, Wyoming, includedrnthe Wasatch Mountains of northernrnUtah, Bear Lake straddling the Utah-rnIdaho line, the Wyoming and Salt RiverrnRanges north of my hometown of Kemmererrn(Wyoming), the Grand Tetonsrnmore than 200 miles to the north, thernGreen River Basin, the Wind RiverrnMountains, and beyond them to thernnorth and east the Absaroka Mountainsrnon the southeastern boundary of YellowstonernPark and the Owl Creek Mountainsrnthat form the southwestern rim ofrnthe Bighorn Basin. In spite of acrid ocherousrnsmogs drifting from Los Angelesrnand Salt Lake, the copper smelters ofrnArizona, and the electric power plants atrnPage (Arizona), Four Corners, and Colstrip,rnMontana, you can still see nearlyrnforever in the Great American West.rnMore important even than what you dornsee, however, is what you don’t. Fromrn30,000 feet, every human construction isrnrecognizable: every town, every mine,rnevery reservoir, every highway—evenrnmany of the dirt roads. Why? Becausernthere are so few of all these things, comparativelyrnspeaking. With no trouble atrnall, I can trace the central public roadrnsystem on a blank map of the state ofrnWyoming, which at the close of the 20thrncentury remains substantially undeveloped,rnand therefore substantially open,rnand for that reason substantially free.rnThe low population density of thernRocky Mountain states and Nevada, andrnthe relative insignificance of industrialrn”improvements” made by human beingsrnto the region, emphasize what neverrnneeded emphasis to begin with; namely,rnthe titanic heroic landforms of which itrnconsists. Often when contemplating arntrip—400, 800,1,000 miles—I catch myrnmind’s eye drifting down the highwayrnahead of me like a space probe, snappingrnand transmitting familiar images of everyrnsalient geologic and geographic featurernbetween, say, Kemmerer and El Paso, arndistance of exactly lOIO miles. Thernplains of western Wyoming . . . thernWasatch Front . . . Soldier Summit . . .rnthe Roan Cliffs . . . the Book Cliffs . . .rnthe LaSal Mountains… Ute Mountainrnand Mesa Verde . . . the NacimentornMountains . . . the Sandias behind Albuquerquern. . . the Jornada del Muertorn. .. Elephant Butte . . . the Black Rangern. . . the Organ Pipe Mountains . . . ElrnChristo Rey above The Pass itself. ThernMountain West is of a boldly discerniblernpiece, the Colorado Plateau merging logicallyrnwith the West Slope of Colorado,rnthe Mogollon Rim in Arizona forming arnplausible transition between the northernrnSonoran Desert and the aforementionedrnPlateau, the Basin and Range formationsrnof the Great American Desertrnadvancing with discreet precision fromrneastern Utah to eastern California. Writingrnthis, I seem to be standing in a darkenedrnroom gazing down at a lighted reliefrnmap of the entire Rocky MountainrnWest spread at my feet.rnSuch ease of conception leads to love,rnand love to jealousy—an emotion as defensible,rneven admirable, when its objectrnis the land as it is indefensible wherernpersons are concerned. “My home,” EdwardrnAbbey wrote, “is the AmericanrnWest. All of it.” So is it mine, but itrnmakes an awfully big home to love—andrnto defend. And the West today is in criticalrnneed of defense as extra-regionalrnforces, eager as well as resentful ones,rngather for a final assault that is part thernultimate land grab, part a process of gentrification,rnpart an assertion of the newrnManifest Destiny—also known as Modernization.rnAmong the most effective rhetoricalrnsleights-of-hand in history is the conflationrnof the antonyms “progress” andrn”modernization,” a trick that has dependedrnfor its success upon a cynical appealrnto all men, religious and secular,rnwho have believed that Homo sapiens isrnsomehow called to create a civilizationrnincreasingly more just, wise, sensitive,rnintelligent, and reflective of his truestrnnature. That these words are not synonymousrnis suggested by the fact thatrnwhile the Kingdom of God proclaimedrnby Jesus Christ was manifestly an improvementrnover every society to date, includingrnthat of the ancient Hebrews,rn2,000 years of subsequent modernizationrnnot only have failed to institutionalizernit, but have instead produced societiesrneven more decadent than thernancient Roman Empire that God’s Kingdomrnwas meant to supplant.rnIn somewhat of a reverse parallel, thernAmerican West, thoroughly Americanizedrnin the middle and late 19th century,rnhas not since been modernized except inrnsuch un-Western outposts and oases ofrnmodernity as Las Vegas, Vail, and LakernTahoe. For approximately a century afterrnthe American frontier was declared offi-rnJ AN UARY 1994/49rnrnrn