Why I Came West

Why I Came West

by Rick Bass

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In this searching memoir, Rick Bass describes how he first fell in love with theWest — as a landscape, an idea, and a way of life. Bass grew up in the suburban sprawl of Houston, attended college in Utah, and spent eight years working as a geologist in Mississippi before packing up and heading west in pursuit of something visceral and true. He found it in the


In this searching memoir, Rick Bass describes how he first fell in love with theWest — as a landscape, an idea, and a way of life. Bass grew up in the suburban sprawl of Houston, attended college in Utah, and spent eight years working as a geologist in Mississippi before packing up and heading west in pursuit of something visceral and true. He found it in the remote Yaak Valley of northwestern Montana, where despite extensive logging, not a single species has gone extinct since the last Ice Age.

Bass has lived in the Yaak ever since, a place of mountains, outlaws, and continual rebirth that transformed him into the writer, hunter, and activist that he is today. The West Bass found is also home to deep-rooted philosophical conflicts that set neighbor against neighbor — disputes that Bass has joined reluctantly, but necessarily, to defend and preserve the wilderness that he loves.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In the summer of 1987, nature writer Bass stumbled into the Yaak Valley in northwestern Montana and fell in love. A native of Houston, Bass worked as a geologist in Mississippi before heading west to find his home and his vocation as a writer. Over the years, Bass became increasingly drawn into the struggle to preserve the valley from logging and development, especially those areas that have yet to be marked by roads. This, his newest title, is a memoir in name only. Eight of the 13 chapters have appeared elsewhere in various forms, and each chapter stands more or less as a discrete essay. Actual biographical material is scant and often repeated, and his main points recur (the need to protect wilderness; the twofold nature of his beloved valley, its biological diversity and human venality and short-sightedness, for example). The book reads best as a series of variations on the theme of how our relation to the wilderness is essential to our being human. Bass is an eloquent defender of his precious valley. (July)

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Library Journal

Growing up amid the petrochemical excess of Houston, Bass (The Lives of Rocks) escaped to Utah for college and then headed to Mississippi for his first job as an oil and gas geologist. But the mountains and wilderness captured his imagination, inspiring him and his then-girlfriend (now wife) to head for a wooded, mountainous area where they could live cheaply since he had quit his job and wanted to write. After looking in New Mexico and Utah, they discovered the remote Yaak Valley in northwest Montana, where they found an old, abandoned lodge in which they could reside rent-free and begin a new life. Here, Bass tells of that life and of his transformation into an environmental activist. He writes of how, in an effort to preserve the surrounding wilderness, he protested logging in the area, but with the decline of small logging and mill operations locally, his activism frightened and alienated his neighbors. A compelling writer, Bass offers a clear-eyed look at the difficulties facing environmentalists. One cannot help but be inspired by his hard work, dedication, and religious-like reverence for the Yaak Valley and its wild inhabitants. Recommended for large public collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ3/15/08.]
—Nancy R. Ives

Kirkus Reviews
A nuanced blend of autobiography and environmental advocacy by the well-known novelist and short-story writer. Bass (The Lives of Rocks, 2006, etc.) laments that the hard work of saving his home turf, the Yaak Valley of northwestern Montana, has kept him from novel and short-story writing. "I used to be a fiction writer," he says. "I loved that craft, that calling. I've had to all but abandon it, to speak out instead for another thing I love now just as much as language-the woods. These woods." But that's getting ahead of the story a touch, which opens with his discovery of that remarkable landscape, at 1,300 feet a comparative lowland against the nearby Rocky Mountains, its geological history accounting for its extraordinarily dense and diverse carpet of all-devouring greenery. That quality, Bass writes, reminded him and his wife instantly of their native South, where he had been working as a geologist for years while plotting an escape to some undiscovered paradise. Topping a mountain pass and looking down at the Yaak was love at first sight, and much of Bass's nonfiction work of late has constituted a song of love for that land. He will turn away some environmentalist allies by his defense of hunting, which is modest and well reasoned: "In the Yaak, everything eats meat and everything is in motion, either seeking its quarry or seeking to keep from becoming quarry." Against a local economy that is extractive and colonial-nearby Libby being ground zero for a particularly deadly form of environmental destruction-Bass's willingness to live on renewable resources he has to work for is refreshing, even as he acknowledges the "impurity" attendant in being a human in a time of ecologicalcrisis. "I never wanted to go to war," he concludes. "And the war, I realize, will never end." A welcome summation of Bass's work to date, and a call for action.

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Read an Excerpt

Why I Came West

The forces of nature are huge, and we are tiny, and in the mountains it’s easier to remember this. I don’t think we’ll ever figure out for sure if the details of our lives, or even the patterns of them, are the result of intricate, foreordained design or simply the exquisitely random windblown flutterings of grace and confusion.
I live in, or rather below, the mountains for two basic reasons: because I think mountains are one of the last huge and wild and magnificent things we have left in this country, one of the last few things we have not yet, in places, grasped and squeezed and sculpted into some unrecognizable, and diminished, shape—a landscape, therefore, in which possibility still exists; and because in 1975 or thereabouts, Robert Redford starred in a movie called Jeremiah Johnson, which was filmed in Utah, in some of the most beautiful country I had ever seen.
We all remember critical moments in our lives when the senses were so deeply, and newly, touched—by a poem, a teacher, a book, a camping trip—and for me, that movie was one of those events. Sometimes I forget about Utah, and often I forget about art, about the aesthetic value of conjoining structure with idea and emotion, as that movie did.
I don’t remember if I saw the movie in a theater or on television. I might have watched it on Mars, so captivated was I by the visuals and—as a young man, an adolescent, really—by the story, a man running away to a new beginning, and recovery. I remember the physical senses—Johnson thrashing around in snow and cold water, chasing a trout; Johnson by a smoking campfire; Johnson being solitary, and struggling with that solitude, some days despairing, others exultant—and thinking, as a young man, I know this person. I remember after the movie was over watching to see where it had been filmed: the strange names of those mountains and the national forests. I went to an atlas that evening and looked them up on the map. I found the nearest college towns to those forests: Logan, Ogden, Salt Lake, Provo . . . I wanted to study wildlife science, in the mountains, in the West.

Because of the mountains in that movie, I went to Logan, to Utah State University, where they put me on the fourth floor of a seven-story dorm in what was known as the Gentile sandwich: three floors of Mormons above and three below, with the thin supply of out-of-state students—pot-smoking ski bums, most of them—packed into the fourth floor. Surrounded. And metamorphosed, as if by landscape, yes.
I don’t intend here to make cheap and easy fun of a culture, a religion, of such significant integrity, one with so many admirable values. I only want to say that being isolated, an alien in a strange and beautiful landscape in which it sometimes seemed I had as much in common with the rivers and stones and deer as with the people, was another of my lucky breaks. The world has become quickly small, and whatever we can do to make it seem large again, even if only in a few places, is probably a good thing.
I’d been around a Mormon or two before—I was aware of certain things about them, such as how they’d say, “Oh my heck,” or “H-E-double toothpicks” instead of hell—but by and large Utah State was an immensely new cultural territory for me: a new culture to go with a new landscape.
Did I want to become a mountain man like Jeremiah Johnson? Probably, yes. On weekends I’d haul off across the tops of the mountains on snowshoes with no tent, only a down sleeping bag, no matter what the temperature or weather. I’d make little lean-tos, build little fires, and read books all weekend long, shivering, turning the pages with clumsy mittened hands. Glad to be out of Houston. Glad to have a vision, even if only, for the time being, a borrowed one, from someone else’s work and art.
Scanning the course catalogue for easy but interesting electives, I chose by whim and whim alone a couple of bookish classes—an appreciation of the short story taught by Moyle Rice, and an essay writing class by Tom Lyon. I had no intention of ever becoming a writer, and had no idea, no way of knowing, that I had fallen into the pie and had signed on with the two finest writing instructors I would ever know. It was all chance and luck. But I suspect I would never have become a writer without those two classes, at the right time, in the right place. (I was not a natural scholar, and neither did I bring any significant amount of previous book learning with me. When, in the short story class, Moyle Rice was rhapsodizing about the work of a certain writer by the name of Flaubert, I spent twelve weeks believing he was referring perhaps to a great Native American chief of the region: Floww- Bear. I assumed then, and still do, that all literature is regional.) In the spring I’d head south to the red rock country to smell ttttthe sage and track poisonous Gila monsters—an endangered species—through the sand, following their singular swag-bellied trails through the heated dunes. I continue to suspect that growing up in the suburbs of Houston as I did was only one of the greatest determining factors in developing a love and a need for wild country. Thank God there is still some of it left, even if it’s not all protected yet. (Though even there, in Houston, my memories are strangely not of its awfulness but of nature: of hearing, for the first time each year, the autumn cry of migrating geese, and tasting—above the perpetual tang of benzene—the first cold front, or what passed for a cold front down there in the tropics. The strange prehistoric architecture of crawdads, latticed light falling through the longleaf pines, skinks rattling in dry oak leaves, locusts shrilling in summer. My childhood memories of Houston, from the very beginning, might as well be as those from a great and deep wilderness.) By examining my deeper memory—that which I am able to extract or which resurrects itself whenever I return to visit Houston—I can see those things about Houston, the petrochemical horrors, that surely must have existed then but that simply, against the seeming odds, failed to attach to me or the developing template of who-I-would-become and what-I-would- love. How could I have ignored, or never noticed in the first place, the clotted tangle of skyline billboards, the 99 percent soil saturation by concrete, the perpetual clanking, tangled glitter-and-chrome gnarl of gridlocked traffic? The hissings and belchings of smokestacks elicited from me back then no more angst than had they appeared in a distant harmless dreamscape. Where was I, really, in those years, present-but-not-present, as if existing instead in some West-dormant waiting-upon period?
There in Houston, as a child, I would from time to time hear whisperings and rumors of the farther West; and despite the condition of that highly urbanized and then suburbanized city, I still somehow came to believe in an ethos of the West, however that might be defined. Indeed, not so terribly long ago, part of Texas might have been included in that ethos, just as another part of it would have been included in that of the Deep South.
Whatever the West was, however—and in my mind it was wild country, with a healthy population of wild and free creatures, their comings and goings, their habits and processes largely unhampered and uninhibited by the interference or prejudices of mankind—I sensed that it lay just a little farther on, a bit beyond the reaches of Houston.
The West has perhaps always been this way—it just keeps moving—and when I was a child growing up on the outskirts of Houston I believed that I had just missed it, the West, by only a single generation, or at the most two, as maybe every generation believes it has just missed the West. Perhaps not just heat-washed clodhopper farm boys standing discontented hoe-side in gypsum-strangled Utah, or wildcatters dreaming fevered uranium dreams or visions of oil-laden anticlines like sugarplums, but maybe residents of all centuries have stood on a mesa and wondered at a farther, deeper wildness—over the next range of mountains, if not also further back in time. And even then, might they have understood or intuited that their place in that time, believed to be enduring, would in fact prove to be far more prone to disintegration than the physical elements of mountains, forest, plains?
A hundred and forty years ago, Major John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran who explored the Grand Canyon and much of the rest of the West, said the unifying thread of the West was water, or the absence of it, and for sure that was, and largely is, one of the major physical threads. But there is something else too, some unseen thread of spirit. Perhaps it’s best not to pick or pluck at that thread too closely—perhaps what we perceive as spirit in the West is really only something as heartless and lifeless as geology, with the rock outcroppings of the East being some several million years older, so that the half-life decay of sun-burnished ions in the West seems still to radiate a bracing and at times intoxicating freshness, able still to be felt and noticed if not yet measured by even a species as insensate and oblivious as our own. Perhaps science will one day ultimately be found to be at the heart of religion, or faith—as almost everything, it seems, is eventually discovered or named or measured or otherwise colonized—but for now, no such explanation or discovery exists, only the inexplicable awareness that there is a difference between the West and the rest of the country, and that it is no less profound for its ungraspable immeasurability.
So powerful can be this bond between westerners and landscape that it’s possible to believe that the West might have existed in our brainpans long before the first paleface ever dreamed of conquest, possession, and that shadowed and seemingly illogical and inconsistent paradox, freedom. As human culture in the Deep South and the East is stacked in vertical layers of time, like geological strata, perhaps the building blocks of the West, particularly today’s West, the New West, are composed of chunks of physical space—basin and range, sunlight, boulder, forest, river, desert—possessing more of a horizontal breadth.
To say the West was always in motion would be conjecture. What can be said confidently is that it is moving now—moving with such alacrity, like an animal getting up from a resting place and traveling for a while, that almost anyone can see it, and that even in those places where we cannot see it we can sense its movement, its possible going away or leave-taking, and we are made uneasy by it, even as we are still, at this late date, yet unable to name or measure that going-awayness, that freshness and wildness, that westernness.
Certainly in 1960s Texas it, the West, was going away like a horrific backwash. Each Sunday on our way to church my family would pass the informally named Wolf Corner, where I would lean forward in my seat to see the corner fence post where ranchers had hung that week’s bounty, the little coyotes and the larger red wolves, by their heels, for all the honest world to see. It was out by Highway 6, which was once gently waving grassland—it’s blanketed now with dazzling superstores, a twelve-lane highway, and vertical glittering skyscrapers reflecting the hot Houston sun in myriad directions, like the light envisioned perhaps by the prophets who beheld in their own exalted dreams the streets of heaven (assuming they were not holding the wrong end of the spyglass and witnessing instead the oppositional alternative territory described by those same prophecies). But back then it was only sweet balming tall-grass prairie, which yielded weekly its grisly bounty—the little wolves’ legs fractured and bloodstained from where they had gnawed for hours or even days at the traps’ grip, some of the wolves and coyotes stiffened and sun-dried, hanging like loose shingles after a storm, and others, newly killed, still limp and soft, like sheaves of tobacco hanging in some deathly curing house.
Always there was something there, placed partly as warning and partly as triumphant victory-show, a marker of how the war—against . . . what? obsolescence, frailty, insignificance, loss?—was faring. Some weeks there were more carcasses than others, and over the years the offerings gradually declined, though almost always there would be at least one, as if the ranchers were trawling the grassy sea, and as if their nets would always find something, some wildness deep within that green grass. As if that country to the west—just beyond the barbed-wire corner fence post—would slow but never entirely cease in giving the wolves up.
This was the dailiness and drama of my childhood, situated peculiarly between the Deep South and the far West, in oil-hungry, oil-rich, brash and arrogant and violence-born Anglo Texas. The vertical currency—the strata of time—mattered, but the story, the myth, of the West’s frontier was also present, just over the horizon, and just beyond the field from which those wolves and coyotes had been gleaned. There was not just the echo of it; there was still, barely, the real and physical essence of it—we saw it, every Sunday. In those first few years of the 1960s, while the rest of the country—the Southeast, the Northeast, and Los Angeles in particular—stewed and boiled over civil rights issues, we were attending the premieres of movies such as How the West Was Won (1962) and The Alamo (1960), in which—not to sound too much like a bleeding-heart liberal—vast territory existed for the taking and, quite naturally, force was the way to take it, particularly since it was inhabited by Mexicans or Indians. Let Mississippi stew over drinking fountains and bus seats, and Boston and New York argue over segregated schools and busing; in Texas, we were busy looking longingly to the past, and to the West.
So with this background maybe I was always secretly summoned to this far corner of Montana, but a movie—art—helped fuel me. And in Utah, as a student, whenever I’d haul off into the Wellsville Mountains and scramble across the slatey talus slopes, examining the fossils of trilobites from half a billion years ago—when I’d splash out into the Bear River marsh, chasing giant carp, or when I’d hunt wild pheasants in the cattails—I would be aware, even as a young man, that all of that bounty came basically from the genesis of having sighted, and been touched by, the view of those same mountains in a film.
Maybe I should stop overstating the obvious; maybe in our olden lives—once upon a time, thousands of years ago—grace and bounty did not seem miraculous but were instead commonplace. But how rare, and how treasured, bounty seems, these days: bounty of any kind. And every time I look at these mountains where I live now, I remember debts: an awkward enough word, which surely does not exist in the relationship between mountains and mankind but which is as close as I can come to describing the imbalance between what I think the mountains give us and what we give back.

In Utah, playtime ended; I finished school and had to go to work. Witnessing the unhappiness of several friends in the field of wildlife management—prisoners of paperwork—I had changed my major to geology. (I hadn’t yet even dreamed, at that point, of becoming a writer.) I took a job in Mississippi—was sucked back east, as if the world does not desire for our old cut grooves to be jumped so easily—where, as a geologist, making maps of the invisible worlds below, I tracked the unanswerable comings and goings of ancient, buried oceans, imagining landscapes below as sublime as those here above in the present. It was a fantastic life, that first one, the life of a geologist; or rather, perhaps it was already my second life, with childhood and its mystery- filled passage the true first. Then in this second life, the mapper, the oil cartographer, the dreamer, was given only the smallest clues, the smallest data points hinting at any possible solution to the mystery, with even those known facts few in number: a certain lithology found at one known depth or another, and a known porosity at one tiny sample point, gotten from a single borehole sunk into that old underground sea, frozen now in a tractless expanse of stone—a wilderness of stone. The eight-and-five-eighths-inch drill hole letting such a tiny shaft of light, or space, back into that tight-locked heart of rock, rock that had not known the light of the sun in more than a hundred million years that such brief and limited awareness to the mapper was really no more tangible than the sudden pulses, the spears and shafts of light, that infiltrate one’s vision sometimes when one turns to look for a bird, alerted to its passage not by the bird itself but by a quick-drifting shadow. And in so whirling, the mapper sees not the bird but only the blazing sun.
And yet armed with but a handful of such piercings, such dream fragments, the geologist proceeds, and sometimes he or she is successful.
How much of such success, then, is science, and how much luck, and how much faith? What is the role of desire and passion in such pursuits? I believe that of the latter, much was, and is, required; and that in the pursuit, even more is generated. Eventually, however, the passion can wear down, wind down, run out. What tempered balance is finally struck, in one’s life and in one’s labors—and should one ultimately accept the nearing of that balance or instead continue to howl at the ever-present injustice?

Certainly, there was no winding down for me, back then: all the world was so new, and so much was possible. I was in Mississippi for a while: but that first, fierce vision of Utah’s mountain landscape was held within me, as were held the countless subsequent visions, memories, and images of physical engagement that followed from that initial heart’s response.
If landscape is direction for some of us, what will we do when it is lost—or rather, when the grand and the sublime within it are lost?
I think I knew all along, while I was in Mississippi—and I was there for eight years—that it was not the right fit. Possessing the malleability as well as vigor of youth, however, I made out all right; I engaged with the world, fed my senses, and glided. In retrospect, I was gliding toward Montana, though I would never have realized it then, holed up in the hardwood forests and riding my bike through the green pastoral landscapes of agriculture. Nor would I have realized my eventual arc or summons—not even a clue of it, or a yearning—while working as a geologist, probing those old landscapes that were nearly three hundred million years old, and sniffing around like a bloodhound for old oil, the sweet black distillation that no one had ever seen before, had never touched or smelled or burned before. Searching, with hunger, even if for the wrong thing.
Or rather, for me, at that time, it was the right thing. Later on—and these days, I am amazed I lasted eight years—it would become the wrong thing, and I would have to start over and go out and find the right thing, which would be a valley I had never even known existed, had never even heard of.
But for a while there in Mississippi, strange as it may seem, it might have been the right thing for me at the right time, even if it wasn’t the place or time that was meant for me, or, certainly, me for it.
Is not love also this same way?
After a few years in Mississippi, it was revealed to me that I was not really executive or even office material. I took my leave from that job—if I recall correctly, I quit in a pique of temper, though it now seems so long ago that perhaps my departure was more graceful than I recall—and I began working as a consultant out of my little farmhouse.
My girlfriend, Elizabeth, was an artist, a painter and illustrator, and our days were pretty halcyon; in that regard, it was the perfect place and time for me. I’d started writing, and so each morning I would go out into the field before it got too hot and sit shirtless at an old white metal table and work there until the sun grew too hot and the overhead light too brilliant, at which point I’d go back inside the shady farmhouse and draw maps of buried treasure.
Later in the afternoon, I’d go over to Elizabeth’s farmhouse, between Vicksburg and Natchez, on the Big Black Bayou. We’d go for a bike ride, or hang out in the hammock. Closer to dusk, we’d go into town and play tennis, then go out to dinner and a movie, or would wander the grounds of the old Vicksburg Battlefield National Park. Then we’d go back to her farmhouse, and the next day, the world, and our youth, would open up all over again, with pretty much the same wonderful pacing, though with enough slightly different variations each day—new things explored, or old favorites revisited—to keep us in love with that world and, not least of all, each other. The days were like the fine beds of strata that form in perfect parallel, one thin day atop another, as if at the bottom of a still lake, and then one year after another.
And then things changed, for no reason I can yet plumb or fathom. Not between us and each other but between us and that place, and us and that time.
Blind to consequence but knowing all that we needed to know—knowing the direction of our hearts—we got up and left our sleepy lives in Mississippi and headed west again: not quite desperate but suddenly awakened is how I guess I’d have to describe it. We loaded an old pickup and drove north and west, casting north then west, searching for a place that could match inside the strength of that first view that had taken root and then grown.
When we left Mississippi, we desired a place with forests, meadows, rivers, mountains of course, solitude, proximity to vast public wildlands, and free rent. We wanted a place where I could write and Elizabeth could paint.
We started out looking in New Mexico, didn’t find it—looked in Utah, almost found it—then headed up into Idaho and Montana before wandering across a summit and looking down onto a small green valley with a winding little river carving through it and smoke rising from a few chimneys, even though it was August, cool, blue August. We had no way of knowing then that the initial homestead we looked down upon from that summit where we first fell in love with yet another new landscape was the home of Mr. and Mrs. McIntire, whose son Tim had written the music for a movie called Jeremiah Johnson.
It was ten miles to the next homestead, the next little cabin with smoke rising blue. We drove on through an emotionally exhausting mix of magical old forests and clearcuts, old larch forests then clearcuts. We drove on down into the center of the valley, where—on that same first day—we found an abandoned lodge whose owners needed someone to live in it—for free—and we told them that we would.
I forget about my great good luck of making it as far north as Utah, straight out of high school, before being bounced back, pinball-like, to Mississippi for a while. And sometimes—enmeshed in such a physical world—I forget about the great good luck of art—seeing a certain movie at a certain time, or about lessons and ideas from those writing classes taught by Tom Lyon and Moyle Rice: the notion that art is selectivity. The urge to reassemble that which is loose and disparate, or, increasingly, that which is unraveling: this is the artist’s sensibility, and the artist’s response to life.
Are we drawn to certain places, and certain other lives, or does the world squeeze and shape and sculpt and direct us—often via our predisposition toward those places, and those lives?
I do not think it is a question that either scientists or artists will be able to answer. I think some things—some answers—are meant to remain a mystery, and might even possess shifting answers, with one aspect being true on one day and another the next. As even the seasons—despite their connections to one another—are always shifting, always living, and moving.

Meet the Author

RICK BASS’s fiction has received O. Henry Awards, numerous Pushcart Prizes, awards from the Texas Institute of Letters, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others. Most recently, his memoir Why I Came West was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

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