Ways of the West

America: The spirit of the wide-open spaces can still be found out there. All it takes is a little prospecting, a little luck and a pioneer's sense of adventure. Happy trails.

April 18, 1999|By Stephen Trimble | By Stephen Trimble,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Try to find Goldtooth, Ariz.," Tony Hillerman says. "It's a great exercise in understanding the West."

When Hillerman, a best-selling mystery writer, tried to find the deserted Navajo settlement himself, using his trusted AAA "Guide to Indian Country" map, he couldn't find it. He went back to Tuba City and asked a Navajo woman for directions. She didn't say, "Turn left where the windmill used to be" (my favorite from my own travels). But she came close: "Go up that big hill past Moenkopi Wash and look for tracks where people have been turning off the pavement."

With plenty of gas and water, Hillerman retraced his route and found the turnoff. Driving the back road for miles beyond where he thought he should be -- past the last people, the last hogans, the last "disconsolate Hereford" cows -- finally, he arrived at two windowless stone buildings: Goldtooth.

If you undertake this journey, Hillerman says, "by the time you get back to the main road, you have come to understand Navajo Country."

You've also come to understand that the West is not just endless, empty open space, but a place where intimate connections between people and landscape constantly surprise the traveler.

Writers of the West look for these connections. They spend their lives searching for stories that capture its places and peoples. When I asked several of these writers to advise travelers looking for the heart of the West, they emphasized twin truths: the continuing survival of real people in the big-empties, and the mixture of rural and urban cultures that invigorates the whole region.

We still expect to find the West shared by Native Americans living on reservations, by square-jawed ranchers and their pie-baking wives and by national park and forest rangers preserving the remainder as open space for all.

But 80 percent of Westerners today live in cities. More than half of Native Americans live in cities. The natural landscapes of the West -- our public lands -- rise as backdrops to sprawling urban corridors. Designated wilderness areas exist, but they often lie within easy reach of such large cities as Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Tucson, Las Vegas, Denver.

Change comes as the West fills in. Every four minutes, one acre of working land in Colorado is developed. Feed stores metamorphose into espresso bars, hay meadows become golf courses and four-lane highways whisk you across the Great Basin or Mojave deserts, but not into them.

New Mexico's Two Grey Hills Trading Post, a store that for generations has used pawn more than cash, is losing business to the malls in Farmington. The Wagon Wheel cafes on countless Wyoming Main streets -- each with a big table reserved for the local ranchers' bull sessions -- now have to fend off the big truck stops at the edge of town. Outlets and franchises and chains of conventional America seem determined to overwhelm the unconventional West.

Subhed: `The intimate West'

The spirit of the West endures amid such change. It lies off the main roads in contemporary families whose rhythms don't match the stereotypes. And in what writer Teresa Jordan calls "the intimate West."

Raised in a Wyoming ranch family, Jordan points out that the on-screen "handsome bandannaed man" riding off into the sunset to stirring music misleads us. In Hollywood's script, he just performed some lone heroic deed. In the real West, more likely he helped at a roundup, mended a fence or pulled a neighbor's calf from a cow in trouble -- even if he didn't much like the neighbor. After a simple act of cooperation with his neighbors, he was riding home to his family.

Writer Ivan Doig rails against the "willful short-sightedness of the old masculine view of the West," where men (never women) tamed the land through stubborn independence. Sure, American history in the West starts with a handful of mountain men, and lonesome herders still exist. But Doig understands the necessity of cooperation to cope with the harsh winters and the distances and the droughts. He suggests travelers in his native Montana pay close attention as they leave Glacier National Park and drive east from the face of the Rockies and out onto the plains along the "High Line" on U.S. Highway 2 across the top of the state. "Where you see farming prosperity," Doig says, "you are seeing Hutterites, the communal, German-speaking Anabaptist set of colonies. They are making that farmland prosper -- insofar as it can -- not through the old individualism of those big-bellied wonders Louis L'Amour and John Wayne, but through a sense of community held together by culture and religion. They are like the Amish, with the added inspiration of Henry Ford and Cyrus McCormick."

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