While visiting out-of-state friends in Jackson last summer, I was involved in a conversation with a just-married couple who had moved to Wyoming two months before from Los Angeles for the now-familiar purpose of escaping drive-by shootings, berserk retired football stars, and the multifarious Sons and Daughters of Emma Lazarus. In the course of our discussion my hostess, a lady from Florida, overheard me warning them that Jackson is not Wyoming—a remark she later asked me to explain. My reply was an invitation to visit me at home in Kemmerer and see for herself, but all I needed to have said was that the state of Wyoming, unlike Jackson Mole, remains a frontier society—as do the greater geographic portions of Montana, Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. Which is why, to answer another question by my friend, I choose to live in Wyoming. Bill Kristol can’t find the place on a map, and Father Neuhaus doesn’t know to look for it.
The dictionary defines “frontier” as 1) a border between two countries, and 2) a region that forms the margin of settled or developed territory. The American frontier as described by the primary definition was erased 20 or 30 years ago, and replaced by a no-man’s land along the Southwestern edge of the United States. Strangely, while the frontier in the modern political sense has disappeared, the frontier of legend is still recognizable at the end of the 20th century, a hundred years after its official demise was pronounced. Though much—too much—in the American West has changed since the late 19th century, the basic characteristics of the Western frontier persist to this day: spaciousness, harshness, and scarcity on the part of nature; hardiness, resourcefulness, and independence on the part of man. While the Old West is dead and gone, the New West retains many of its attributes. (Westerners, statistically speaking, are overwhelmingly an urban people. The truth behind this often-stated and apparently contradictory fact is that millions of transplanted Angelenos, Chicagoans, and Northeasterners are not Westerners, and that the life led in Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Salt Lake City is not the Western life, which dominates territorially, though not numerically, across the vast expanses still separating those cities.)
Of these attributes the first, most obvious, and basic is, of course, space. In spite of urban growth and the arrival of retirees, lone eagles and computer cowboys armed with modems, and second-home builders in the most picturesque mountain towns, the West today is what it has always been: a fierce wide open place eager to embrace and engorge the naive and the careless. Between the Hundredth Meridian and the Sierra Nevada, the wilderness—not wilderness as defined by the purist prisses of the Sierra Club, but wilderness in every reasonable sense of the term—continues to be the overwhelming fact of existence. The second, equally determinant and inescapable, is weather, characterized by extremities of heat, cold, and elevation producing sandstorms, hailstorms, electrical storms, flash floods, and blizzards of Wagnerian proportions that occur above impassable mountain chains and across perilous deserts extending for hundreds of miles. In the rural West, a bank teller needs to be able to read the winter sky as accurately as a rancher or game warden in order to reach home safely at the end of the day, while oil- and gas-field employees contend, equally with agriculturalists and foresters, against the natural elements. Third, while most of the rest of the nation has wandered off into the postindustrial age, in the rural Mountain West the preindustrial era survives. The world that Western men, women, and children experience and confront on a daily basis is not the manmade artificial one that has interposed itself between man and nature throughout most of the rest of the so-called developed (meaning deconstructed) world, but the natural world in all its confusion, travail, obstinacy, recalcitrance, and danger, as well as in its openness and beauty. Fourthly, Westerners tend not to be, like postmoderns, specialists: they are likely instead to have the knowledge and skills to be competent in many jobs beyond their paid line of work, such as operating a backhoe, repairing a truck engine, building a house, shoeing a horse, cutting cows and sorting sheep, killing and butchering domestic animals and big game; felling trees. Their versatility makes them self-reliant, and self-reliance keeps them independent, without precluding the cooperativeness whose absence makes frontier life impossible.
The Hungarian-American historian John Lukacs expressed what he took to be the poignant brevity of a fleeting historical moment when he described the American West of a century ago as being in “that wondrous, half-mystic phase when the marriage of civilization to virgin land had just occurred.” Yet in the rural American West today we have a Euro-American civilization continuing to hack out an existence for itself in a stark natural environment that after more than a century and a half has still to be dominated, tamed, and reduced to Euro-American standards of development, comfort, and security. In the West, life persists in combining the virtues and benefits of Western civilization with the precivilized condition that postcivilized people, in their cocoons of abstraction, either know nothing of or ignore, from the mistaken belief that it is irrelevant to human experience and abhorrent to human nature. Frederick Jackson Turner, who came to praise the frontier even as he buried it at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in 1890, recognized it as a uniquely American development, creation, and condition. “Little by little,” he said, “the [pioneer] transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe . . . here is a product that is American.”
“True human freedom,” Edward Abbey believed, “economic freedom, political freedom, social freedom, remain basically linked to physical freedom, sufficient space, enough land.” This freedom was partly what Professor Turner had in mind when he observed that “American social development has been continually beginning over and over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating the American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the great West.” Having roamed the Mountain West for 18 years, I can attest to the physical freedom that inheres there; as a resident of Wyoming for the past 16,1 have witnessed at first hand that “fluidity of life,” as a major economic boom was followed by a bust to match it, itself succeeded by the present boom, based on recreationism rather than on the extraction of gas and oil, and certain to end in another bust, as the immigrants from California freeze to death and their financial tanks rupture. The frontier economy almost by definition is relatively undiversified, so that in the event of the collapse of any one of its components the remaining few are unable to absorb the human fallout, which is forced to become migratory once more, or live by its wits. (Freedom is never to be confused with security.) As the Indian tribes moved on in the wake of natural upheavals and disasters, so Westerners of the present time respond to economic crisis, abandoning the depressed oil fields of Wyoming for the gold mines of Nevada or a second-home construction boom in central Arizona; not infrequently they leave the intermountain region altogether, at least for a few years. These mini-migrations keep the overall population sparse, and a small population in turn circumscribes the politicians’ opportunities for demagogy and oppression. Bruce Babbitt, for example, had to leave his home state of Arizona and move to Washington, D.C., from which he is now trying to reenter the West by the back door.
In 1995, I or any other citizen of Wyoming can place a personal phone call to Cheyenne and speak with Governor Geringer almost at any time. Former Secretary of State Kathy Karpan showed up on the front doorstep several years ago, looking for my wife; last year when she ran for Governor I ambushed her as she was leaving the Frontier Saloon in Kemmerer and, in the presence of the waitress and three or four late diners, chastised her harshly for supporting a woman’s right to abortion while claiming to be at the same time a practicing Catholic in good standing with the Church. In the Mountain states, state and local laws remain relatively few, and, unlike most of the federal ones, not oppressive. Sales and property taxes, except in places like Vail, Jackson, and Santa Fe, are low, and Wyoming— among other states in the region—has no income tax at all. We Westerners continue to enjoy, in substantial degree, the freedom that is ordinarily associated with 19th-century America in general and the American frontier in particular, but that has also largely been forfeited elsewhere in the country in the course of the 20th century.
In The Winning of the West, published only a year before Turner delivered his famous address, Theodore Roosevelt argued that the preservation of wilderness and a wilderness code was necessary to save the modern American from devolving into “the overcivilized man, who has lost the great fighting, masterful virtues.” (Roosevelt’s definition of wilderness was not the Sierra Club’s: a region devoid of human beings, and of every kind of human activity beyond hiking and birdwatching. Otherwise, he would have advocated the removal of the Western Indian tribes, along with the pioneers, to New Jersey.) Though Roosevelt would surely be appalled by the changes that have occurred in the American West since his lifetime, he would just as certainly recognize the 19th-century Western character substantially preserved in a recognizably frontier setting. But the American West today, like everything else in America that is great and good and American, is under assault and targeted for destruction. It must be preserved; but through some means by which devolution is arrested without the motion and fluidity that makes it worth preservation becoming frozen. Once that means has been found, and the process of saving the West actually begun, it may be possible for the region to inspire the rest of the country by its example, and, with the aid of the Western mystique that has managed to survive a generation of debunking and demystification by left-wing and countercultural propagandists, lead the way to self-renewal. How could this be accomplished? By armed revolt, for one thing. Of course, I’m joking. For now, anyway.
Three factors distinguish the history of the Western from that of the non-Western states, with the exception of those made up from what in the late 18th century was known as the Northwest, and that modern historians call the Old Northwest. The first I have mentioned already: space. Not only does space confer an incalculable psychic freedom for all except agoraphobics, there is simply no substitute for living where the government —any government—can’t find you. The second is that the Western states, from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, were territories first—not political colonies, though I am aware that the history of the trans-Appalachia region in some ways matches and foreshadows the Western territorial condition, as it certainly does that of the Western frontier. The third is that these territories, because of their vast distance from Washington, D.C., and because the revolution in communications had not yet occurred, enjoyed true territorial government—meaning, except in cases of emergency involving Indian attack and foreign governments jousting for empire, self-rule. Although the federal government fixed the terms of settlement, assumed the combined role of real-estate agent and land-promoter, and created the greatest incentives (such as water development and generous mining laws) for settlers to go West, the territorial governments operated for the most part independently of Congress, while, within the territories, the counties—and, within the counties, the towns—enjoyed similar freedom. In territorial times, the most common agent of external interference, as well as of unrestrained and undemocratic power, was not Washington but the great and rapacious corporations chartered by Washington to “develop” the West, ship its resources East, and enrich themselves in the process.
The space remains. What the West needs to regain is the spirit and even the fact of territoriality, modified to fit present realities: at the very least a true federalism, similar to what existed under the Articles of Confederation, or even more so. In a time when such a sober and respectable critic as George Kennan has suggested that the nation be redesigned as an association of regional states, the idea may be more realistic than at first it appears. The chief problem entailed by the return to territoriality, or regionalism, in any form is the disposition of the federally owned lands in the West, which the Sagebrush Rebellion in the late 1970’s and early 80’s claimed for the Western states. This demand is perpetuated in the 90’s by Western states’ rights groups, and also by a variety of so-called wise use, or multiple use, organizations throughout the West. The question of public lands ownership is more than a vexed issue; it is a distressing one. On the one hand, it is hard to see how the Western states can be expected to achieve even the circumscribed federalism currently enjoyed by Maine or New York State so long as the federal government continues to own from 49 percent (Wyoming) to 89 percent (Nevada) of their physical extent. On the other hand, there exists the possibility (I would say the probability) that the state governments, once in full ownership of the former federal lands, would proceed to sell them off to the highest bidders—that is to say, to those with the greatest financial assets, meaning corporations and wealthy individuals from the East and West Coasts, as well as those transplanted to the great “Western” cities. The result would be that the West had escaped the iron hand of Big Government only to fall once again under the steely claw of Big Business: Big Government’s ally, in fact its alter ego. Thus the West would have reverted to the colonial status (economically speaking) it experienced in the 19th century, with this difference: the colonizers would not only own and operate, they would inhabit the colonies whose economy they controlled! For all their meddlesome officiousness and petty tyranny, the small army of federal bureaucrats posted in the West from the Progressive era to the present time has effected no direct change in the social and cultural complexion of the region. Like the rest of us, the occupiers—some of them quislings—like to fish and camp, keep a few head of horses for elk hunting, and prefer a real bar to one that sells cappuccino in cups-and-saucers. Aliens though they are, they have proven themselves to be culturally assimilable. And their numbers are statistically negligible.
What the national environmental organizations have yet to grasp, as some of the local ones have already done, is that Bill Clinton and Bruce Babbitt expect to sell them out, too, after they have destroyed their enemies, the ranchers, miners, and loggers. Babbitt and Clinton are not interested in the so-called environment, but in stealing Western water, owned by the states, to deliver to the big Western cities whose non-Western inhabitants have the votes to carry the Western states for the Democratic Party. A few weeks before Babbitt, addressing a dinner meeting of Trout Unlimited, gladdened Ed Abbey’s ghost by assuring his audience that his chief ambition in life is to take out a really big Western dam, he was in Sierra Vista in his home state of Arizona, promising the blueheads that he supports extending the Central Arizona Project’s canal from Tucson to their booming but thirsty retirement community in the desert, 80 miles to the southeast near the Mexican border. As for Clinton, the central scandal of his administration rises from his operations as a land developer and speculator himself. (Does the Sierra Club really sympathize with his and his wife’s scheme to build a recreational resort on the pristine banks of a free-flowing river down in Arkansas?) Still, a revival of the Sagebrush Rebellion, at a heightened and more radical level of political activity, is probably necessary to the survival of the frontier West. In addition to being indispensable as an engine of political reform leading to regional semiautonomy, it would go far to reinvigorate a territorial tradition of popular volatility and suspicion of government in the West. The most heavily armed citizenry in the nation, angry and mobilized, already has the capability of making the federal government afraid of the people, rather than the reverse—as is presently the case even in the Mountain states, whose inhabitants perceive Washington, D.C., as the Enemy, with not just the strength but the will to destroy them economically. Already in Idaho, Oregon, Washington State, and Montana, private militias are forming and training, often with the sanction of county commissions, to oppose what they see as possible future attempts by an international government, aided and abetted by the United States government, to suppress American constitutional freedoms.
Though Abbey insisted that the West was won not by mountain men, Indian fighters, and prospectors but by Big Business and Bigger Government, he was only partly correct. First it was won by trappers, fighters, and nugget-panners; then it was stolen by the federal government and the corporations, which desired it for bombing ranges, nuclear testing sites, useless or destructive dams, giant mines and power plants, gambling oases, vast tracts of lumber to sell to the Japanese, and concentration camps for rich but equally stupid old people. “Money,” Abbey said, “means power, not merely wealth. Money gives us power over others—to command their labor, their minds, even their souls. Even their behavior, conduct, attitudes. No wonder money possesses such glittering attraction for those who crave power. In a nation where all people were self-reliant—a nation of artisans, craftsmen, hunters, trappers, farmers, ranchers—the rich would have no means to dominate us… . Our dream is to escape the hierarchical order; neither to serve nor to rule.” And so the preservation of what remains of the frontier and even, if we are lucky, the recovery of some of what has been lost, demands the reinvigoration and spread of classic Western populist attitudes and ideas, engendered and argued by the Populist parties in the post-Civil War era, and finally coopted and swept aside by the Progressive Movement presenting itself as the real thing, though in fact it was its antithesis: a populism for the over-rich, the overeducated, the genteelly deracinated, the politely godless, and the hubristic. The future of the frontier depends not on curbing the government in Washington alone, but the corporate boards of Canadian companies who own and direct the largest mining projects currently operating in or planned for the American West, and those in Japan, which are rapidly buying up and buying out as many large-scale ranches as they can get their hands on. Power is power, whether economic or governmental, since both kinds of power are political, and politics—as water used to in the West before the federals created their Steven Spielberg system of dams, pumps, and pipelines through the region—seeks its own level.
Once the Western states, acting in concert or as a federation, have made discernible progress in regaining the political and social freedoms that the federal politicians either wrested from them or sweet-talked them into surrendering, the West will find itself in a position to proselytize the other American states and regions, by argument and by example, for the purpose of persuading them likewise to recapture the political, economic, and social fluidity and simplicity of republican times. Obviously, Rhode Island cannot expand its territory to equal that of Montana, and the population of New York City cannot independently raise and butcher its own food, though New Yorkers are becoming increasingly adept at slaughtering what they do not eat. Every part of the United States began as a frontier society and evolved into something else. Only in the West, perhaps, is the frontier the final, which is to say the natural and best form, because of its spaciousness, its harshness, and—especially—its lack of that most basic resource: water. But this does not mean that other regions, having left the frontier stage long ago, have not developed beyond the form that is natural and appropriate to them, and to which in their own best interests they owe it to themselves to return. We tend to think that progress means taking a thing as far as you can carry it, and of the frontier as only a very small beginning in pursuit of something far greater, while in fact it may and should be its own end. And while it is indeed impossible to turn back the clock, it is very possible to renovate historically the house that encompasses the clock. In fact, it is being done every day.
America, it is said, has no traditions (except for unlimited immigration, of course, which former Governor Richard Lamm of Colorado correctly predicts will destroy the West unless it is drastically curtailed): only the prospect of endless change, perennial flux, continuous adaptation, all of them directing us in a predetermined trajectory from which we cannot —and should not—hope to deviate. The truth is, we have one great and overriding tradition: the frontier, which led and shaped the history and form of America from 1607 until 1890, nearly three-quarters of our history as a people. It is the last 105 years, not the 283 preceding them, that have witnessed the betrayal of the American ideals that our increasingly un-American politicians claim to be defending—against Americans!