Jackson Hole, Wyoming
In early November, snow muffled the Teton Range, forcing the elk
down into the valley and a sudden intimacy on all of us. Outside,
a whisper worked in place of a shout and the great peaks had fresh
personality, bold and showy in the coat of the coming season. It was that
best of all times to be breathing air at eight thousand feet in the Rockies:
the few weeks when life is on the cusp of doing something else and the money
has yet to arrive and put everything out of balance.
I spent the morning trying to get closer to Grand Teton, and the evening
gathered in a circle of people who agreed on nothing about the American
West except that we all loved it. The morning had me feeling bouncy, kind
of infatuated. I dropped into Jackson Hole--the old trapper and Indian
refuge, the place where men who smelled of a three-month affair with
campfire smoke would scrub the creosote from their backsides in a thermal
pool--by Boeing 727. Grand Teton is the only national park that has a
large-runway jet airport inside its borders. You don't come over the rim or
through the valley or past a gateway of gray-shirted park rangers as you
enter this home of the natural heritage. It is strictly "Thank you for flying
Delta" when you arrive in the Hole, as many of us do, falling from thirty
thousand feet in an aluminum cylinder carrying a year's supply of yellow
But from there, the generic and interchangeable are left behind. No
billboards. No hotel ads. No digital traffic reminders. Fences around meadows
are made of wood, split and quartered. The signs just outside the airport are
of cedar, with the words carved into the grain; they are polite and trusting in
a way that only the National Park Service among all government agencies
can still get away with. Please do not feed the animals. Stay on the existing
trails. Enjoy your stay. A cynic is paralyzed. Animals? Trails? Enjoy? Are you
talking to me?
I found a trailhead at sixty-seven hundred feet, the ground covered by
seven inches of snow as light as a tuft of bear grass. Wilderness can cleanse
the toxins from a tarred soul, but it takes several days, at least, for the
antidote to work. I was in the instant-immersion phase, trying to recalibrate,
to forget sea level and the mean politics of the season. I had been around
too many county commissioners on rental horses, the cul-de-sac cowboys
mending fences for the cameras with their soft hands. I had seen
enough senators wearing creased jeans, and ministers blessing snow-making
machines. I had heard too many lies about the "Real West," flimflam and
fraud retold as gilded narrative by people whose grandparents took the land
by force and have been draining the public trough ever since to keep it
locked in a peculiar time warp of history. I needed a land without filter or
interpretation--the West, unplugged.
THE SKIES, now clear, were cluttered with ravens, magpies, and
the occasional red-tailed hawk looking for easy prey in the impressionable
snow. Jackson Hole seemed to have everything that has been enshrined
in Indian petroglyph form or frozen on canvas by Charles Russell. The
place was full of charismatic megafauna, as biologists say in moments of
attempted clarity. Bighorn sheep, moose, and mule deer were just starting to
congregate at the lower elevations, joining an occasional bison. And elk,
after six weeks of bugling and strutting, the males with harems of a dozen
cows or more, the females shameless in their provocations, were ready to put
their sexual appetites aside in search of winter range. The celebrity lawyers,
ski country socialites, and cowboy industrialists had yet to follow a similiar
migratory pattern; they awaited a signal that it was time for the herd to
The Snake River runs through it, gathering snowmelt from the high
Yellowstone plateau just a spit distance west of the Continental Divide and
sending it all on a slow ride to the Pacific. The ribbons of life, from the
Gros Ventre, Flat Creek, and other streams, support beaver, muskrat, trout, and
the ever-stylish-looking herons, strutting the watery runways with those
I could see flashes of icy gold down below, where the cottonwoods still
held a few leaves. Above me, the great temperamental bulk of Grand Teton,
just under fourteen thousand feet, came out again, lashed by the wind, and
then disappeared behind a cloud wrap. The West is full of mountains
imprinted with pedestrian names. But the French-Canadian fur trappers,
openly lustful, had it right when they named the Tetons for their wet
Looking for a little meadow at the base of the upper Tetons, I got tangled
in my thoughts, and wandered. I came upon a ghost forest from a fire,
black skeletons against the snow. The tips of new growth, saplings barely a
foot high, looked up beneath the standing dead. Clouds swooshed up and
over the summits and then settled in--a hint of menace in a shroud of mist.
I was chilled. My pulse quickened as the wind bristled. Snow fell. I was lost.
And I was home.
INDOORS, we argued. We came from big cities and ranches, reservations
and universities, downtown apartments and desert split-levels.
Some of us rode horses, some of us rode mountain bikes. A few people wore
bolo ties around their necks; others used them for shoelaces. We were
Westerners from Connecticut and Westerners from Wyoming. We were from
moss country and saguaro land. We had among us the strains of nationality
and blood conflict that form the West, the long-conquered and the uneasy
victors: Blackfoot Indians who once dominated a broad swath of north
country; Italian and Irish urbanites whose ancestors were the conscripts that
shot native bison herds as their introductory chore in the West and then
deserted the Army for homesteads or gold; Hispanos with traces of conquistadors
and Zunis in their family lines; Mormons who are still curious.
The topic was "The Next Hundred Years in the American West." We
were the storytellers, unsure to a person what the last hundred years had
been all about. But fenced in by dated metaphors, we were struggling to
find a new story to inhabit, a way to live in a West closer to the truth,
neither fairy tale nor a barren replacement. One side was fantasy; the other
was a pit of guilt and banality--Western ho-hum. Where was the sense of
wonder? Whether we spoke of the West of the imagination, the West of open
spaces, or the West of mythology, this region's hold on the American character
never seemed stronger. A person puts on a cowboy hat anywhere in the
world, even if alone in a room, and starts acting differently--sometimes
stupidly, sometimes nobly, but it is a new personality. The land west of the
100th meridian is full of tombstones under which are buried people who
lived longer than any doctor ever gave them a chance to do. "It's the air,"
they used to say, arriving in the desert pallid and hacking up blood. Yes. And
What is the West, beyond an incongruous grouping of eleven American
states holding basin, range, and plenty of room to hide, a place where people
think that geography alone makes them different? It was, until recently,
a process instead of a place. Teddy Roosevelt's four-volume history of the
West never even got beyond the Mississippi River until the end of the last
book. And the essay that rerouted a caravan of American historians, Frederick
Jackson Turner's 1893 thesis on the death of the frontier, was all about
homesteads and perpetual movement. By that reasoning, the West died
more than a century ago. The Prairie States are flat lands with a separate
personality, but they are not the West. Nor is Texas, the blood of its violent
past coursing through its boundaries; part of the old Confederacy, it is a
state and region unto its own.
If land and religion are what people most often kill each other over, then
the West is different only in that the land is the religion. As such, the basic
struggle is between the West of possibility and the West of possession. On
many days it looks as if the possessors have won. Over the past century and
a half, it has been the same crew, whether shod in snakeskin boots or tasseled
loafers, chipping away at the West. They have tried to tame it, shave it,
fence it, cut it, dam it, drain it, nuke it, poison it, pave it, and subdivide it.
They use a false view of history to disguise most of what they are up to.
They seem to be afraid of the native West--the big, cloud-crushing, prickly
place. They cannot stand it that green-eyed wolves are once again staring
out from behind aspen groves in Yellowstone National Park. They cannot
live with the idea that at least one of the seventeen rivers that dance out
of the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada remains undammed. They are
disgusted that George Armstrong Custer's name has been removed from
the name of the battlefield memorial, the range of the Sioux and Crow and
Arapaho, replaced by a name that gives no special favor to either side: the
Little Bighorn Battlefield. Worse, the person now in charge of the memorial
is an Indian.
But, given a chance, the West will leave most people feeling a sense of
light-headed exuberance. The mountains, the space, the distance from anywhere
that "counts." Who can look at rivers that boil out of the ground, or
Las Vegas at dawn, or the hunchbacked, flute-playing Kokopelli incised on
a side of sandstone, and not laugh? I could not get Grand Teton and those
cartographically incorrect trappers out of my head. Was there still a place in
the next hundred years for someone smelling of dust-caked sweat and animal
blood to come before a panel such as ours and propose naming the
most glorious mountain in our midst, The Big Tit? Or, for that matter, The
Big Gut, a loose translation of "Gros Ventre"?
David McCullough told us about a time when he was researching Roosevelt's
early life on the Dakota Plains. He could not get over the wind;
harsh, howling, it was unrelenting.
"And it's a good thing," a farmer said, straight-faced, to McCullough.
"Because if this wind ever stopped blowing, the chickens would all fall
Curly Bear Wagner, a Blackfoot from Montana, recalled a talk he had
given recently about native culture. Afterward, a member of the audience
approached him with an earnest question.
"How long have you been an Indian?" she asked.
George Horse Capture, of the Gros Ventre Nation, told a similar story.
"A man and his wife, on vacation, were pointing in my direction," he said.
"The man yelled out: `Hey, Martha, come look at this.' I looked around.
Then I realized they were pointing at me. `Here's an Indian--look at this!'"
Of late, I had heard a lot of ranchers compare themselves to Indians, saying
they were being pushed off the land. I was very troubled by this line of
reasoning. In the eye blink of history it took to move Indians to the margins
of their former homeland, the Federal government gave away as much of
the West as it could, until there were no more takers. But first, the new
inhabitants wiped out one of the great natural bounties of all time, the
bison herds that had blotted the range. In the bison's place, they planted a
European animal best suited to an English bog attended by sour-humored
men in tweed. Today, that system is serviced by a handful of United States
senators who hold it up as the high point of Western culture, a belief
grounded in a one-dimensional version of a full-bodied history. Who owns
the West? goes the perennial question. By the plundered-province view, it
may be the last lobbyist to lunch with Senator Larry Craig of Idaho.
There were no whiners in Jackson that November evening. The ranchers
had the mark of high-altitude western workers, with skin-cancer cheeks.
They did not complain about the government or the urbanites who surround
them--86 percent of all Westerners live in a city, the highest proportion
of any region in the country--or the Indians or the wild animals trying
to regain a foothold in their old haunts. Just about weather, the curse of the
"The old earth which created us all is disappearing," said Drum Hadley,
a rancher and poet from the Border Country. He seemed perplexed, and
genuinely saddened. The Southwest was being sucked dry, red-earth calcifying
and blowing away as the climate changed into something new and fearful.
Cows were choking the timid streams, but nobody wanted to go the
faux route, giving up the land to work as an ornament in a billionaire's
Beyond our circle, all the troubles of the West were just outside the
window. In Jackson Hole, $5-million residences were being built on spec, and
anything under a million was considered a starter castle. The terraces above
the valley were stuffed with log mansions, some with a dozen fieldstone
fireplaces. A home with twelve hearths is a home without a heart, deeply
confused. There were trophy homes for movie stars, trophy homes for
investment bankers, trophy homes for the idle rich, the hyperactive rich.
But a cop, or a firefighter, or someone hired by the Teton County school
district to teach the children of the trophy homes how to read, could not
afford to live in the valley.
What happened to the old mountain towns of northern Italy, Ernest
Hemingway wrote, was that the rich came in one season and never left.
Money flows to beauty and then attracts more money, pushing out everything
that does not fit. Aspen, Telluride, Park City, Taos, Sandpoint,
Sedona, Jackson Hole, and the place where Hemingway fired a pistol shot
into his mouth, Sun Valley--the golden ghettos of the West might as well
be sealed and gated, even if some of the streets are technically open. In Santa
Fe, there is one real-estate agent for every one hundred people; closing costs
are about as wild as it gets in some people's West.
What is left, what seems inviolate, is public land--turf without title
attached to it, unique among the nations of the world. We sketch our
dreams and project our desires on this American inheritance. And we fight
over it with lawyers and guns and history. Nearly half of all Western land--better
than 500 million acres--is public. I grew up in a big family with little
money, but we had the outdoors: Rock Creek in Montana, Lake Crescent
on the Olympic Peninsula, Upper Priest Lake in Idaho. We were rich. And
only later did I realize why I never had a truly sad day in the outdoors: This
was Wallace Stegner's Geography of Hope.
Not all Westerners appreciate what they are entrusted with, but much of
the rest of the world certainly does. I saw a map of the West published in the
German-language edition of the magazine Geo. It was a contemporary map,
but what it highlighted was the invisible empire of the past: the native tribes
and their homelands, the wild animal herds and their long-ago range, the
silent cities of the Anasazi. The map also showed wildlife refuges, national
parks, and the blank spots protected as formal wilderness. It was everything
the old world of Europe does not have--sections of public land bigger than
some countries, and a past yet to be fully deciphered.
Think of what should never be taken away:
The light that enchanted D. H. Lawrence, who said New Mexico's high
country was "the greatest experience from the outside world that I ever had.
It changed me forever."
The canyonland arches, showing the age lines of many geologic eras;
they convey a random sense of mischief, something that could collapse at
any moment, or in another thousand years.
Joshua trees in the Mojave Desert, looking like discards from the sketchbook
of Dr. Seuss.
North Cascade Mountain alpenglow, in July, when it is the most perfect
place on earth.
Bristlecone pines wrapped in centuries-old embrace with a patch of
College football in Missoula, under the big "M" on the mountainside,
the Clark Fork rushing by.
Fish that don't come from hatcheries, beasts that weren't hatched in
theme parks, and full-throated thunderstorms.
The shadow of the Front Range at dusk, stretching to the horizon of the
Above all, the big empty, where humans are insignificant, or at least
allowed to think so.
Thrill to the names--El Dorado, Searchlight, Medicine Bow, Mesa
Verde, Tombstone, Durango, Hole in the Wall, Lost Trail Pass, Nez Perce
National Forest. Active names, implying that something consequential is
going on: the Wind River Range, the Magic Valley, the River of No Return,
the Painted Desert, Wolf Point, Paradise, Death Valley, the Crazy
WE WENT back and forth on the aches that divide Westerners,
talking into the evening. Then Terry Tempest Williams said something that
has stayed with me. She traces her family lineage back five generations to
Brigham Young's day, when Mormons, like prickly pear cacti, were considered
freaks of this land, something you could bring home to the geologic
society in Boston and poke at under a harsh light. We sounded like her family
at a recent reunion in Utah, she said. They fought, scrapped, and
dodged. Her grandfather became upset at the bickering, finally brokering a
temporary peace. He asked, What do we agree on? Two things: they all
loved the land, but the old ways were not working anymore. Perhaps what
the West needs, she said, is a grandfather--some grounding in a common
story, not a mythic one, nor a plunderer's tidied-up view.
Statues are scarce in the West, for good reason: sometimes, it takes
longer for concrete to dry than it does for today's consensus to become
tomorrow's historical heresy. It may be easier to lasso the wind than to
find a sustaining story for the American West. Still, as storytellers it is
our obligation to keep trying.
So I have tried to find a true West at the start of the next hundred years,
leaving the boundaries of the old metaphors in search of something closer to
the way we live. This West needs very little adornment, but it does need a
grandfather. This West is still one of the wildest places on the planet. It is
home to buried cultures as intriguing as the imagined West of pulp fiction.
It is the foundation of societies sprouting overnight in settings where it was
said people could never live, and cities making disastrous errors because
they are misreading the land. It is where Clint Eastwood finally arrived at in
his best Western, Unforgiven, a pig farmer under a hard sky, pouring
rotgut liquor down his throat while he laments how awful it is to kill a man.
And one day this West may no longer be boastful about its worst qualities, or
afraid of its best.