Thursday, June 03, 2010

Last ride of the codgernauts (Part 2): The beginning of the West

To answer the question of where the West begins is as much a matter of idealism as it is of geography, and fluid from speaker to speaker unless one hews to the 100th Meridian theory. A rancher in northeast Kansas once looked stricken after I mentioned my initial hesitation toward trading mountains for tallgrass prairie—the West for the Midwest—leading to a few uncomfortable moments where he sputtered his indignation at my apparent ignorance. “This is the West,” he spat, in a tone caustic with implications that only a fool would think otherwise. To which I replied, “No, it’s not.”

At least two cities, Mandan, N.D., and Ft. Worth, Texas, bill themselves as “where the West begins,” understandable perhaps from a marketing standpoint but patently absurd. The terrain is much more encompassing than the few square miles of concrete and glass. If I say the famous Gateway Arch in St. Louis almost got it right by calling itself the Gateway to the West it’s because of an inherent weakness toward soaring architecture and fabled sentiment more than anything else. For the pioneers embarking on the Oregon Trail, St. Louis definitely was the gateway, and back then the West indeed began on the banks of the Mississippi. We can’t take that from them.

The actual delineation is probably subjective, though Powell got closer to nailing it down to a cartographical line in the sand. The 100th Meridian, which bisects the northern hemisphere from Canada to Mexico, was designated as the western border not because of a neat round number but because east of that invisible line lies outside of the rain shadow cast by the Rocky Mountains. More precipitation equals less reliance on irrigation.

The characterization is as good as any. I haven't always agreed with it, nor would I care to view it as an undisputed actuality, but it’s far superior to Arthur Chapman’s infamous poem, “Out where the West begins.” Written in 1917 to instant acclaim (and by an Easterner, no less), today it invokes a gag reflex with its sappy sentiments. One stanza will suffice: “Out where the skies are a trifle bluer/out where the friendship’s a little truer/that’s where the West begins.” I think not.

By the time we codgernauts departed Sand Creek and, shortly thereafter, the ruins of Chivington—not completely dead but in advanced terminal stage—we were indisputably beyond the boundaries of the Midwest. By Lamar, where we spent the first evening, the menu in the truck stop was enough to hammer the geography lesson home. I staggered away after consuming a half-pound open-faced hamburger smothered in melted cheese and pork green chile sauce, a big bubbly gooey mess that left me rhapsodic if not delirious. Nevertheless, in the deepest recesses of my being I didn’t consider ourselves to have crossed that demarcation.

I wanted mountains. Specifically, I wanted the twin snowy Spanish Peaks and the pyramidal Mt. Mestas flanking La Veta Pass, by any standard the true gateway to the West. Reaching that point involved crossing a huge expanse of sagebrush desert which we called the Big Empty, and not with much affection.

I have no idea what non-birders do to keep themselves occupied while traversing the seemingly limitless shortgrass prairies of eastern Colorado other than lapsing into a dazed stupor, but we looked for birds and shouted them out: Kingfisher! White-faced ibis! Avocet! Bullock’s oriole! Rough wing swallow! As the miles thrummed beneath the tires and receded in the rear view mirror the official road checklist fleshed out into an evermore western orientation. Yellow-headed blackbirds in the cattails of a small marsh; black-billed magpie on a fencepost; cinnamon teal in a shallow playa; burrowing owl in the cratered moonscape of a prairie dog colony. The sky utterly without clouds, an uncluttered field of turquoise pressing down on us as we watched and waited for the mountains to hove into view.

This anticipatory drudgery coupled with the inhospitable expanse of the Great American Desert surely imbued the American psyche with its Wordsworthian romance toward the West. Separated from the populous East by a broad divide splitting the nation into three defined segments, the West was where the cowboy roamed, iconic for his grit, determination and can-do attitude. That the same never applied to the farmers who broke the land into submission seems all the more puzzling. Theirs surely was a harder existence but then they never had the luxury of the penny-dreadfuls of the 19th century that forever mythologized (and caricatured) the exploits of those who packed heat. For all its utilitarian value a plow could never hope to compete against a Colt .45.

So, too, the prairie takes second place to the mountains. For most of my life I felt the West began at the upsweep of the foothills and not an inch to the east, though in later days I grudgingly moved the boundary to the opposite side of the Colorado-Kansas line. Perhaps I was simply settling for the conventional designation over a personal perspective, an act both generous and disloyal. Since moving to Kansas I sometimes prefer the 100th Meridian concept because it gets me closer to my destination when I’m on the road. Expediency always trumps conviction.

As I wrestled with these thoughts, I kept an eye peeled for a long-billed curlew. I hadn’t seen one in well over a decade and felt for this trip at least it would stand as the harbinger of the western lands. Hearing one would be even better but nearly impossible at 65 miles per.

About the time the mountains lifted above the horizon like pale mirages, Jim pointed to a large black bird circling above the road. “Raven!” he yelled. “We’re in the West now.”

He said it with such relish that I didn’t bother to refute him. After all, his description was as good as any. We were in the West.

(To be continued)

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