Living and Dreaming in the American West
By Philip Connors
Recently I spent a night in the heart of the White Sands National Monument, a trip timed to the rising of a full moon. Sculpted by millennia of wind and water into sensuously curving dunes, the gypsum crystals of the Tularosa Basin reflected the light of the moon so intensely that midnight arrived like an otherwordly dawn. I stayed awake through the night, wandered the dunetops, tracked the paths of the armored stink beetles in the phosphorescent sand. Dappled in nightshadow, the gypsum fields were as cool and strange as the surface of the moon itself.
/Toward morning I crawled in my sleeping bag for a nap, before the sun rose and turned my lunar playground into a merciless desert. My wake-up call was swift and brutal. Directly above me, seemingly within arm's reach, a black fighter plane pierced my dreams. The roar made my eardrums hum like a plucked guitar string, and the jet left a trail on my retina as if the sky had been unzipped by the hand of God.
"In wildness is the preservation of the world," Thoreau famously wrote, and as I stumbled back to my vehicle in the glare of the sunrise I wondered what the bard of American wilderness would have made of White Sands at the turn of the 21st century. In the White Sands Missile Range, that portion of the Tularosa Basin adjacent to the national monument (and off limits to you and me), men have been rehearsing the annihilation of the Earth for more than 60 years. In one of the gnarlier landscapes left in the Lower Forty-eight, bleached earless lizards skitter not far from the original Ground Zero. Kit fox lope among the detritus of unexploded ordnance. And the stink beetles leave their tiny tracks among the dunes while some of man's most sophisticated instruments of death stalk the sky.
In wildness is the preservation of the world. I couldn't jar the phrase from my brain. Too many encounters with eco-friendly postcards and Sierra Club come-ons. But another phrase begged to answer it: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds," the first words uttered by J. Robert Oppenheimer when he saw that ghostly eyeball otherwise known as the Trinity explosion. Travelers for centuries had called the stretch of country along White Sands and Trinity the Jornada del Muerto, the Journey of Death. Who could ignore the dark whiff of prophecy in that name for a place where the United States government both preserves and bombards the landscape?
This is the theater of irony and paradox we live amid here in the modern West.
At our worst, our response to such complexities shapes itself into a simple-minded rage. It would be easy enough to raise a belated one-finger salute to the fighter jet and mumble a few fruitless words about the depredations of the military-industrial complex. I wouldn't be surprised if on that fine, clear morning I did just that. A certain kind of righteous anger, particularly toward agents of the federal government, has never been expunged from the Westerner's DNA. Instead it mutates, seeking its full expression in new and interesting ways.
Part of our confusion, which too often results in that impotent anger, is the fault of our stories. No other region of the country has been fed so many myths about itself with such repetition. For every Gone With the Wind, I offer you 20 John Wayne morality plays. In the second half of the 19th century alone, nearly 2,000 novels about Buffalo Bill were published. This incessant mythmaking is dangerous insofar as it gives us no understanding of our reality, past or present, and no useful clues about how to deal with our shortcomings. We're constantly being told we have no shortcomings. We are the children of God, with the good fortune to have found ourselves in God's country. And at Trinity, we became a kind of God ourselves.
The dominant narrative of the Western experience involved decent folk who'd fled a society of hopeless corruption, always somewhere to the east, and arrived in a New World Eden, intent on turning a slice of it into something suitable in the plans of a Christian God—a manicured homestead, prosperous and tame, oozing good sense and rectitude. Alas, there were a few corrupt souls in the neighborhood—heedless savages, horse thieves, men with pistols on their hips—and our good pilgrims had no choice but to confront the bad guys on their terms, often with the aid of a taciturn hero on horseback. Violence, regrettable but necessary, ensued. The good guys were wounded but lived; the bad guys died in the dirt, a blood sacrifice to civilization. Meadows bloomed with wildflowers, and the creeks flowed strong and clear. The taciturn stranger had the decency to saddle and ride by morning, having left nothing but a silver bullet as a calling card.
Just how pervasive do these myths remain? Consider that two of our most recent four presidents, elected with the votes of patriotic millions, shaped their public personae with all the tropes of the dominant Western icon, the cowboy. At its purest, the myth of the cowboy exalts action over thought, threat over mutual understanding, and righteous violence as the ultimate response to conflict. What these modern-day avatars of an old and hollow myth never seem to understand—or perhaps understand quite cunningly, and cynically—is that the myth was just that, a myth. Cowboys in the Old West punched cows, not masked bandits with a taste for salty aphorism; they led a sweaty life of subsistence nomadism so ascetic in its material comforts that it serves as the exact antithesis of the American Dream. A further confusion of the mythos equated the cowboy with the gunslinger, when in fact the latter was customarily a shiftless mercenary or a lawless maniac. In the real Old West, men who lived by a code of righteous violence did not live long. Often as not they died from an unchivalrous shot in the back.
Some have said the myth of the cowboy is an uplifting little fiction we tell ourselves, a parable of moral decency and self-sufficiency meant to encourage our better instincts. But I am constantly reminded of my younger brother, a kid in search of manly examples who came West out of high school, bought himself a good pair of boots and two cowboy hats—one black, one white—and began to nurse a taste for whiskey and guns. Jilted by the woman he loved, he did what all tender-hearted cowboys do: He got loaded and went looking for trouble. He didn't have to go far. He found it in the closet, in the form of a semiautomatic rifle. This is another kind of Western, told far less often: The kind that ends with the hero's brains spattered on the walls of his apartment, the body slumped on the couch, the semiautomatic cradled in his cold dead hands. The hole in his hatless head, big enough to lob a softball through, is pretty stark proof that the tired myths of American masculinity failed him in the worst possible way.
My first encounter with the West was an instructive disappointment. I was 12 years old at the time, and my family drove from Minnesota, where we'd just lost our farm in a swamp of debt, to a resort in Vail, Colo., for an Amway convention. For a week we played the uniquely American role of drive-by pioneers. My parents hoped that in the thin and bracing air of the Rockies we would decode at last the hidden formula to the American Dream—which, in the world of Amway, meant fusing a transformative love of Jesus Christ with the simple financial miracle of selling soap to family and friends, who would then be recruited to sell more soap to family and friends. I wasn't much interested in Amway at the time, except as a means to allow me a glimpse of the world I'd come to love in the novels of Louis L'Amour. Fifty of them sat on a shelf in our house, and I'd read them all twice in my impatience to get my hands on his other 50. As we drove into the Front Range of the Rockies I scanned the horizon for a familiar image from those books—a little fenced homestead, a cabin with smoke curling out the chimney, a horse tied to a wooden rail. Instead we slid off the interstate, took our lunch at McDonald's, and later that evening checked into the fanciest hotel I'd ever seen. All that week I spent my mornings swimming in the heated pool, and afternoons I wandered through the hotel conference rooms, seeking abandoned buffet lines, where I might pluck a couple of cold chicken wings from the clutch of congealed grease. Instead of being shown a world of pioneer self-sufficiency, I was stuck in a tony resort town that catered first and foremost to the whims of the idle Eastern rich (and those, like my family, who envied them). Another manifestation of the Western experience, though one not explored in the novels of Louis L'Amour.
The West is as much an idea as a place, particularly if you're somewhere east of it. The itch to move westward, whether for exploration or settlement, for reasons spiritual or material, is even older than America itself. Modernity enhanced the means and speed of transport and made it a more crowded place once you arrived; modernity, in the form of the US military, also nearly extinguished the people who'd lived here for millennia within the constraints of prevailing resources, a loss of cultural memory that haunts us to this day.
Cabeza de Vaca was the first man to write an account of his exploits in the American West. In 1527 he sailed from Spain on a mission to explore and colonize the North American mainland. He was second in command of a crew of 300, which triumphantly landed near Tampa Bay, Fla., in 1528. The triumph did not last. Shipwrecks, disease, starvation and conflict with the natives eventually reduced the crew to four, including Cabeza de Vaca, who for years endured slavery and then a career as a solitary, wandering trader among various tribes in what we now call Texas.
Upon reuniting with the other three survivors of the expedition, Cabeza de Vaca set out for the Spanish settlements of Mexico. Along the last stretch of the journey he was greeted as a faith healer; the natives, apprised of his approach, would bring their sick to meet him. By Cabeza de Vaca's account, a laying on of hands, an Ave Maria and a sign of the cross were generally sufficient to cure all who submitted to his ministrations. Shaman, peacemaker, herald of the coming order, Cabeza de Vaca was the first European superstar in the New World. His account of the journey, written for the king of Spain, remains to this day a strange and wondrous document, an underknown treasure of American literature, whose Anglophilic keepers tend to forget that the Spanish came before Jamestown.
In its day Cabeza de Vaca's story touched off a frenzy among rival explorers, who focused not on what he had seen but what he had purportedly missed. Somewhere beyond the edge of his route, which may have taken him as far west as southern New Mexico and Arizona, lay the Seven Cities of Cibola, a golden empire of untold riches—so the rumor went. Never mind that Cabeza de Vaca's story recounted myriad forms of physical deprivation and emotional hardship, with nary a glimpse of wealth worth the effort required to plunder it. The bottom line: He hadn't gone far enough West. The real West lay just over the horizon.
Cabeza de Vaca's literary effort thus set a pattern that continued well into modern times: It established the first-person explorer as the ultimate storytelling persona of the West. Lewis and Clark's journals, John Wesley Powell's observations on water in the West, John Muir's rambles and ruminations through the California wilderness—all were anticipated by Cabeza de Vaca's story. Yet his authority, grounded in close observation and intense experience, was ignored or denigrated by those who wanted to believe in a different kind of West. It was the same for Powell and Muir: Rain would follow the plow, never mind the West's aridity; wilderness didn't need political protection, not when we had so much of it.
The desire for a soothing fiction has always, in the West, been stronger than the collective stomach for reality. Writers of pulp Westerns didn't manufacture this desire out of thin air, like a bunch of whiz-kid ad execs hawking sugar-laden cereal to children. They simply cashed in on a predilection for sentimental fantasy that predated them by centuries.
I don't mean to sound superior on the subject of Western dreaming. Few of us here are entirely immune to the old yearnings, least of all me. I've hitchhiked across the Northern Rockies in the dead of winter for the sheer Kerouacian thrill of it; I transferred to the University of Montana in Missoula after reading A River Runs Through It, hopeful I'd inhale, like secondhand smoke, a bit of the native genius that produced that modern masterpiece. As a boy I imagined a wilderness life of manly self-sufficiency, a log cabin built with my own two hands, a trusty mule in the corral. Perhaps I'd take up whittling and trade my stylish canes once a year in town for supplies to last the winter. Or maybe I'd prospect in the hills back of my homestead, pickax slung over my shoulder, unearthing the occasional gold nugget of a purity not seen since the Klondike. I'd teach myself to make venison jerky, and in the evenings, warmed with a nip of moonshine I cooked up in the still behind the corral, I'd play mournful songs on the mandolin, with self-accompaniment on harmonica, while the sun went down like a bloody yolk over the mesas to the west.
Instead I left Montana straight out of college for a job at the Wall Street Journal. It helps to have a sense of humor about the divergent lines of life and dream.
And it doesn't hurt to have faith and flexibility. A few summers ago the alchemy of luck, timing, and one key friend in a very high place bequeathed me the most romantic job still available in the United States of America: fire lookout with the US Forest Service, in the Black Range of the Gila National Forest. The literary pedigree is impressive: Norman Maclean, Gary Snyder, Kerouac and Ed Abbey all spent summers on top of the world. The views aren't bad either, 80 miles in all directions from my particular perch, Mexico to the south, Arizona to the west. The nearest road is a six-mile walk. When the occasional day hikers stumble up, I act the part of living exhibition in the Museum of the American Frontier: bearded, steely-eyed, taciturn, binoculars slung jauntily over my shoulder (in place of the pick-ax). And they love it. It tickles them enormously that someone still gets to live like this.
I do not mention the helicopter that delivers propane every spring for my refrigerator and stove. Nor that I listen to NPR in the afternoons so as not to lose touch with events in the wider world. Nor even that the only wild turkey I've ever bagged—despite their abundance near my post—comes bottled at 101 proof. (Much more convenient than brewing it oneself.) I entertain myself in the evenings not with a mandolin—I have no musical talent whatsoever—but with novels of urban anomie and Major League Baseball on the AM radio. I know to some of my fellow citizens, particularly those of an acquisitive nature, the deprivations of the job still sound almost primeval—no telephone, no electricity, no running water, not to mention no health insurance or 401(k)—but Grizzly Adams I am not.
Still, this is a finer place than most from which to consider the ironies of life in the modern West. Beyond my window lies the first stretch of country in the world to be officially designated wilderness, thanks to the foresight of Aldo Leopold. The example of the Gila Wilderness led, 40 years later, to the capstone of the American preservation movement, the Wilderness Act. Meanwhile, in the Gila, wolves and grizzlies were exterminated to make the land safe for cattle, and as a result the deer population exploded so radically a road was blazed through the heart of Leopold's wilderness for the convenience of motorized hunting.
There are those who argue a wilderness without cattle is utterly worthless as a natural resource; there are those who believe a wilderness without large predators is a wilderness in name only. These two camps have been at war for decades. They can barely talk to each other. There remain bars in these parts in which to wear sandals is to invite a beating. Recently, as the Fish and Wildlife Service has pursued a plan to reintroduce the Mexican gray wolf to the Gila, ranchers have cried betrayal, and environmentalists have tentatively applauded. Except the poor wolves keep straying beyond the man-made line on the map meant to encompass their habitat, and must be rounded up and let loose again within their proscribed turf. Occasionally one of them kills a cow and is in turn hunted and killed itself, for simply doing what comes naturally. Nobody is thrilled about how the plan has played out—perhaps least of all the wolves—but such is the devil's bargain we struck when we invented the concept of "managed wilderness."
In fact, the peak on which I type this might aptly be renamed Devil's Bargain Vista. Forty miles to the east you'll find the man-made lake of Elephant Butte. Last year, after an eight-year drought, the level of the lake dropped precipitously—to a mere five percent of capacity—and what had been prime beachfront property was suddenly a desert lot with a dim view of murky water. Powell's old warning still unheeded.
Forty miles to the southwest you'll see a mammoth, man-made hole in the ground called the Santa Rita mine, on which the town of Silver City has long depended for prosperity. The town of Santa Rita once did too, until it was swallowed by the pit. When the price of copper is up, Silver City's bars fill with big spenders, and money washes through the whole community. When the price of copper falls the layoffs hit, and the big spenders suddenly survey an economy where the most stable job is as a greeter at the local Wal-Mart.
Rolling away in all directions is the Gila National Forest itself, the biggest devil's bargain of all, managed for "multiple uses," many of them in direct conflict with one another. The hunters, the fishermen, the ranchers, the bird watchers, the backpackers, the drive-by sightseers—none have ever entirely made peace with the presence of all the others, and maybe they never will. The only thing they agree on is that this chunk of country, 3.3 million acres, some of it as wild as you could yet hope to find in the continental US, is worth fighting over. Each group dreams of exactly how the Gila should be shaped to approach an ideal of health and happiness for man and creature, and each dreams with a righteous fervor that borders on the religious.
The dreaming never ends.
As for me, I've about finished with adolescent notions of pure solitude and self-sufficiency. My dreams these days tend toward community, a sense of belonging. My yearly summer idyll at 10,000 feet brings me incomparable pleasure, but it still comes with costs, the biggest of which is the winter scramble after a paycheck in whatever form it can be had. This past winter, for instance, found me tending bar in a little Silver City dive that beckons to the thirsty with a classic neon sign of a cactus in the foreground and a cowboy drifting alone into the distance. The regulars with whom I whiled away the evenings, sharing off-color jokes, were generous with tips but not generous enough, and eventually it behooved me to invite a little weekend entertainment to bring in the crowds: bands with evocative names like Bowels Out, New Mexican Erection and Dirtnap. Believe me, it all makes for an interesting counterpoint to summers spent alone in a little glass tower. It's also a recipe for schizophrenia. One mor
I think we know the answer to that. So I'll be searching, scheming and dreaming, hopeful that the ticket to the good life awaits in the help-wanted ads of next Sunday's paper. Like the millions who've come before me to this gorgeous stretch of country, I'm open to the possibility of self-reinvention. More than open to it: it's the reason I'm here, the reason so many of us are here. The West allows us that. We call it freedom, a favorite word of ours. Others might call us naive. Call us whatever you like. No doubt we've heard worse.