What Makes the West the West?

Apart from geography, I mean, obviously. As we were getting ready to leave on this trip we told a friend that we thought we wanted to live on the Oregon coast, but wanted to see the rest of the country first. I offered that I didn’t think it was possible to wind up in the eastern part of the country. Incredulous, she chided me saying I’d never spent any time there, how could I write it off so easily?

Irrespective of presuppositions, we headed out on this crazy trip and the unexpected gems of the East were a delight! The first one was underscored by another exchange I had just before we left with my friend Nate. I mentioned to him we were going to pass through Vermont and New Hampshire on our way to Maine. With a faraway look in his eyes he said that he would love to spend more time in New Hampshire. I had my doubts on the inside, but politely let it go without comment.

Then I drove though them. My god, it was beautiful! Unfortunately it was on a 15 hour-long driving day and New Hampshire was almost entirely in the dark. But from those too few moments driving through those states on an Autumn’s evening I can say I completely agree with Nate. I would love to spend more time there! Beyond that, Maine was a delight in too many ways to mention. If it wasn’t for the winters there I would want to move there right now. And the gems of the East continued: the seascapes and shoreline of Cape Cod are the stuff of legends. The Delaware river Water Gap is supremely beautiful. The Appalachian Mountains are the spine of the East; their dense woods a regal garment for Mother Earth.

The time we’ve spent on the “other” side of the country was far more amazing than I could have hoped for. From there we remained a while with friends and family in Oklahoma. Oklahoma is in itself an odd antithesis to regional generalities: it’s not the East, not the West, not the North, not the South. As we left there something uncanny happened. In spite of the tremendous logistical challenges of the departure  that day (including a five hour delay due to Charley’s breakdown/repair) we still managed to covered over 700 miles. The sun set before we crossed the border from Oklahoma into the Texas panhandle. From there we pushed on all the way to Albuquerque without me ever catching a glimpse of the country we were driving through. I didn’t want to avoid experiencing that land, but our lodging was arranged in a domino pattern; sometimes you have to decide between pushing hard to stay on schedule or laying up and, in turn, creating for yourself a couple of days work just to knock the dominoes down and then to set up a new set all over again.

Regardless, it was still a most appropriate turn of events. We had spent a lot of time in the East, then we had spent a lot of time in Oklahoma. Consequently we had been displaced from any lasting sense of home for a long time under the auspices that we were seeking to find a place that could be home. To have a very long, hard day to transition to New Mexico (completely in the dark) only to check into a hotel around midnight, then crash: that’s a good reset.

I woke up at 10 AM well rested after the herculean effort of the previous few days. I knew we were in Albuquerque, but that had no meaningful significance in my mind, much like I knew I had brown hair. So what? I stretched, crawled out of bed and began the morning routine. At the teeth-brushing stage I though I should go out on the balcony and take in our surroundings. Yes, our posh HoJo room on the third floor had a balcony that we couldn’t be bothered to inspect the night before since there would have been nothing to see as it was dark, cold and we were dead tired.

Tooth-brushing underway, I pulled the curtain back just enough to open the door and slipped through it into the blinding sunlight.

I was stunned. It was about 35 degrees but the direct sunlight was so warm. I could see all the way to the horizon to the south. The backdrop of mountains framed the folds of city underneath stretching across the valley; not crammed in, open enough that you could see the earth between them. It was high desert, there were no trees, but each rock layer in the hills glinted in the sun with a different color, like the roughest jewels untouched by human hands: green, orange, pink and tan. The sage and scrub grasses dotted the entire landscape under the sun. Some might say it looked desolate, to me it looked like home.

While still brushing I leaned out over the railing gazing to the west and saw yawning valleys diminishing until the feet of even more mountains that lay on that horizon. Then I looked east and, for the first time, I saw the Sandia Mountains. My eyes boggled, I stared like a yokel; I’m surprised I didn’t drool toothpaste foam on my feet. I had forgotten what mountains – real mountains – had looked like! I clamped my jaw shut and went back inside.

I finished the morning preparations and we went for breakfast. We wound up at The Shop. Biscuits and chorizo gravy with roja sauce? Yes, please! The person we were ordering from was covered in tattoos, had black hair with bright green highlights and a healthy dose of piercings. She was incredibly friendly and incredibly genuine; open and easy going. While you can find people like this all over the west coast I hadn’t come across the likes of her since probably Missoula, Montana. The patrons were from all walks of life, yet none could be described as dull or cookie-cutter. It’s not that appearances are actually important, but unique flair is difficult not to notice. As I set our coffee cups down at a booth the most gussied-up business man in the joint walked up to me and asked “Mind if I plug my phone in here?”

Not at all.” I replied.

He plugged in his phone and charger in the outlet at our booth (the only spare outlet in the place apparently) and then walked away to converse with his friends on the other side of the establishment. He left it there the whole time while we were there, apparently never concerned that we might steal or at least mess with his phone. And we didn’t. Why would we?

Once the delicious breakfast was consumed we were on the road for Santa Fe. I almost freaked out when I saw a wild prickly pear growing on the side of the freeway. As we crested the hill on I-25 north of town we saw the northern horizon; it was all craggy, snow-capped peaks: the Rockies. The continental divide loomed imposingly and I knew in just a few days we would be in the midst of them; I couldn’t have been happier.

We pulled off the freeway before hitting Santa Fe to taste some local craft brew at Santa Fe Brewing Company. The crowd in the tasting room was even more eclectic than the one at the breakfast joint. Some of them could have been homeless vagabonds for all I could tell. Of course I am a homeless vagabond myself at this point, but I’m just a dabbler. Some of these guys looked like pros. But they were all friendly and excited for any chance to talk about beer or just engage in some general carousing at 2PM on the outskirts of a mountain town at 7,000 feet above sea level. A town that is know for its native heritage, as well as the colonial imperialism of the Christian church (though it maintains a PC face on that history), and still it is a haven for artists, spiritualists and freethinkers or all stripes.

There is something different about the West that can’t be put into words. I’ve used words to point towards this reality with just a few examples. But it’s not the superficial reality of the examples that’s the point. They indicate a flavor – an ethos – of what it is to be in the West.

The West of course has it’s own share of problems. And every problems the West has is shared by some other place. But the combination of the life, the land and the peoples here is undeniably unique.

We don’t know where home will be for us. But the morning when I almost drooled toothpaste on my feet while gawking like a yokel at my first glimpse of New Mexico, I knew: wherever home would be, it would be in the West.

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