I sometimes wonder if the West I yearn for is an impossible ideal, a mythical place conjured from separation, distances, the romanticism of childhood memories and the insatiable hunger of longing. When we lived on the far side of the 100th Meridian I never knew doubt but existed utterly as one on his own homeground, undiminished and inseparable, or so I believed. It wasn’t until the advent of Kansas that the cracks began to form, leaving me now unmoored, a man ruptured with dual geographies and neither fully inhabited. The inevitable conclusion is that entering the West is akin to being flayed with razors or submerged in a deep cave, until, at least, I acclimate to my surroundings. After that I’m myself again, more or less.
But what is the West? Writers and thinkers much more astute than I have wrestled with this for decades. The more sensible consider the true West less a geographical expanse and more a mindset, though certainly the one cannot exist without the other. Geography informs and grounds us. And yet even the most contrary farmer or philosopher will agree that geography is more than the sum of its parts. At heart we are bound to a certain place as if our blood and bones commingled with the soil and stones. Where I exist in that realm remains in constant flux.
As does the West itself. At the gas station in Lander we noted mountain bikers cruising by garbed in multicolored spandex outfits, pretty college girls ordering expensive lattes and a beanpole-thin cowboy sauntering in so bowlegged that he appeared to straddle a barrel. “Now, there’s the real thing,” Chod said with a trace of admiration and perhaps a ghost of sadness for what was passing away before our very eyes.
Outside of town we ran into the mother lode of birds in a pond bordered by cattails raucous with the screeching of yellow-headed blackbirds. Hook-billed ibises and avocets foraged in the shallows while a dozen species of waterfowl plied the deeper waters. I tried pishing up a marsh wren but could manage only a common yellowthroat, a small yellowish warbler with a black bandit mask.
We crossed into the Native American West, sparsely populated, riddled with poverty, one miserly hovel linked by a long green hose to a water tank on the bed of a pickup truck, their only water supply. Arid sagebrush gave way to redrock bluffs and the snowy ranges of the Absarokas, the Wind Rivers and the distant Owl Creek Mountains. Fort Washakie, the only fort named after an Indian chief, appeared a rundown, cinderblocked husk littered with rusted government vehicles whose utility seemed questionable. Witnessing the decrepitude of the reservation came as a shock but only in the sense of its contrast to the white settlements with their obvious, if not ostentatious, wealth. The shameful treatment of America’s indigenous races is depressingly familiar, a marriage of greed cloaked in high intentions and a religion based on a special dispensation of grace to those with the most firepower. Try as I might I’m not sure but we’re going through the same vicious cycle all over again.
Once past the reservation the new money appeared in expansive log cabins and mansions infesting two- to five-acre plots of wet meadows fringed with quaking aspens and blue spruce and driveways sprouting BMWs and Volvos, and in whose mirrored windows reflections of similar tracts staring back. The drive to own a piece of the boundless American West is no less feverish now than it was a century ago but it’s become much more exclusive. Housing for service people and employees invariably lacked aesthetic appeal and amenities and remained hidden from the main road, though one such jumble of trailers caught our eye: The Whistling Wino Mobile Home Park. “Sounds like a place I’d like to live,” Jim said.
The town of Dubois bills itself as an authentic western town (“Where real cowboys work and play!”) as if on the shoulders of the Absaroka and Wind River mountains it could be anything but. And yet the incongruous juxtaposition of gourmet coffee shop and massive plastic jackalope complete with saddle and stirrups placed it squarely in the odious tradition of Fred Flintstone Village in the Black Hills and other monstrosities that should summarily be razed. My language upon seeing the jackalope was admittedly and unabashedly blue.
Smoke plumbed into the rarified air as a shiny fifth wheel blazed to cinders. Streams and rivers ran milky from snowmelt. We rose into a lush and privileged world of rarified air and tastes and breathed freely only when we entered the national forest.
This was our West, owned by ourselves and every other citizen of these United States, and to my relief it was as luminous as the West of my imagination. Snow lay deep on the passes and we began picking up montane species such as Stellar’s jay and Wilson’s warbler. But birds weren’t the main focus as we crossed the continental divide and began our descent—it was the Tetons, the iconic mountain range immortalized by Ansel Adams. At this altitude streams ran clear over colorful gravel, leading always toward some snowy massif. Woods were dark and mysterious and inviting. And when the first glimpse of the Tetons appeared we swerved to the shoulder and sat there slack-jawed. They were much, much bigger than I remembered.
Near Jackson Lake Junction we parked and spilled out with cameras ready. A group of Japanese cluttered the best view of the broad Snake River with Mount Moran as backdrop so we waited impatiently until they wandered off. Other photographers jockeyed for position.
“I hate tourists,” Chod said.
“We are tourists,” I reminded him, and turned back in awe to the majestic spectacle of the Teton Range.
(To be continued)