Lasso the Wind: Away to the New Westby Timothy Egan
Lasso the Wind is a moving, funny, and incisive look at the eleven
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," writes Timothy Egan of the West in his new book, but "this region's hold on the American character has never seemed stronger."
Lasso the Wind is a moving, funny, and incisive look at the eleven states "on the sunset side of the 100th meridian" that Egan regards as the true West. Fishing rod and notebook in hand, he travels by car and foot, horseback and raft, through a region struggling to find its future direction under both the ideological weight of the past and the commercial threats of the present.
He visits the Sky City of Acoma, which may be the oldest continuously inhabited community in America, and then goes to an instant town on the Colorado RiverLake Havasu City, built around the transplanted London Bridge. He meets an outlaw cowboy in New Mexico, grazing his cattle on federal land. From Las Vegas, a sprawling, ever-expanding monument to gaudiness and glitz, to the relatively untouched wilds of Idaho's Bitterroot Mountains, Egan leads us through the world of industrialists, politicians, ranchers, and developers, back to the heart of the land itself to see the wealth and grandeur that have inspired the dreams of generations.
Interweaving historical accounts with explorations of the contemporary landscape, Egan shows how and why the region came to its current state. We see why the errors and perils of the past continue to repeat themselves to this day, how enormous reserves of public land are beingsteadily chipped away by commercial interests and the demands of a growing population. But we also learn how some communities manage to avoid repeating these mistakes and to win successes, played out in the land and water, in the struggle between possibility and possession.
Lasso the Wind eloquently captures the American West in all its promise, in all its pain, and in all its glory.
The New York Times
--Terry Tempest Williams
"Here is the REAL West of today--some of it still Old West, much of it New--told in wonderful, entertaining style by one of America's most perceptive journalists. Egan is himself a well-rooted Westerner, and we couldn't ask for a better guide to all the excitement and change going on out there today."
--Alvin M. Josephy, Jr.
From the Hardcover edition.
- Knopf Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1st Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 6.40(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.21(d)
Read an Excerpt
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 goldfish crackers.
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 move.
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 pencil-thin legs.
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 dreams.
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 much more.
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 down."
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 rancher.
"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 fantasy.
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 rock.
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 Great Plains.
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 Mountains.
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.
Meet the Author
TIMOTHY EGAN is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and the author of seven books, most recently Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, named Best of the Month by Amazon.com. His book on the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time, won a National Book Award for nonfiction and was named a New York Times Editors' Choice, a New York Times Notable Book, a Washington State Book Award winner, and a Book Sense Book of the Year Honor Book. He writes a weekly opinion column for the New York Times.
- Seattle, Washington
- Date of Birth:
- November 8, 1954
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