The West means many different things to many different people yet there is a common thread that ties most people's minds to the vast space between where the woodlands end and prairie grasses begin and where the ocean tides touch jagged coast lines. The tie that binds is unlimited vistas. The skies draw your eyes upward and outward across stretches of land that end only where the earth's curves obscure the next stand of grass or sage. Further west, the pacific coast borders on the largest expanse of water in the world. Like elsewhere in the west, along the coast your eyes are drawn outward then upward to the arching heavens. Always the view is outward and upward. In the interior West, a person=s eyes travel across winter deserts, with shimmering mirages, then up to to high peaks where snow never melts but instead solidifies into glaciers. Here glaciers and sand dunes are only a few miles apart, not across a continent. It is a land of contrasts but, more importantly, it is a land of contradictions.
The people that live in the West live with the contradictions. Sinners and saints, oilmen and environmentalists, "Mormons" and "Branch Davidians," businessmen and cowboys, scientists and poets, Native Americans and Chinese immigrants reside on a land more known for the frontier past than the nature of people who lived there. Here men from eastern woodlands meet men from the wooded coasts of Japan. Women from Serbia lived beside women whose family roots lay in Africa. To the immigrants who came from lands far greener than the plains and basins of the West, the land seemed stark, even "gray." The vast treeless stretches seemed too empty and too barren, but to willing observers bent on finding what the land contained, they found it rich in diversity and full of life. And where plains met mountains and the land touched sea, some of America's largest cities emerged. These cities team with ethnic and cultural diversity. Meanwhile, there are still vast stretches of emptiness between the urban sprawl. But the emptiness is deceiving. In the open land between the new western cities are remnants of a past that foreshadowed the diverse nature of future waves of immigration.
In reality, the West never was empty. The open spaces one now sees once held the continent's first homes. Houses of hide and stone contained Native American children that spoke languages as different as Chinese and French. Today the most dramatic remains of the past lives of native peoples in the United States are found in the rock art and ruins tucked in remote canyons of the Southwest. Ruins and rock art in strikingly empty spaces housed the ancestors of the Jemez, Hopi, Aacoma, Laguna, Sandia, and Zuni Indians. The beauty of the ruins combines with the infectious beauty of the landscape.
The first inhabitants of the land left symbols of their world carved in stone. I appreciate rock art as a medium of expression, not just for the style or symbols contained in the piece but also because the creator chooses a space to lay down his or her ideas that sometimes seem to transcend time. Crafting an idea into stone gives the work a permanence that e-mails and paper lose due to their less durable nature. I have seen petroglpyhs that date to the last ice age, and it is rather stimulating to look at the art and the landscape and, in some areas, sense little has changed. There are places with open vistas with no power lines, but here there is the open space and the art. It is illusory I know. Much has happened at the places where the art was cut into the stone, but the open spaces make me think that little has changed - and then, of course, I linger too long and wait until the stars come out, and that is when I really let my imagination wander and think about the timeless nature of art on rock. The space above and the star charts that the carvers left at some spots make me think more poetically than scientifically, and my imagination runs backwards toward when the artist laid down the northern star or big dipper on a piece of stone in such a way that you can still imagine what the creator was trying to convey. Then there are those pieces of rock at that mark the passing of time. At Chaco Canyon there is one such place where when the sun comes up on the longest day of the year a ray of light strikes the center of a carved circle measuring time in terms of light cast into the shadows. The southwest contains many such places where the rock art conveys very specific messages about time and culture.
Whether it is the red sunrises, the fire in the sky at dusk, or the shimmering mirages in the heat of the day, there is a beauty in the Southwest that ties the imagination to the land. It is an ancient land where the discovery of stone tools proves that people have lived in the region for thousands of years. The items left behind and the sandstone cliffs cutting across the sky convey a sense of endless expanses, but the cliff dwellings and empty kivas show that in a land of apparently limitless vistas, there are endings. The contradiction is haunting, and the empty kivas, open spaces, and the sunset capture hearts and souls, drawing visitors back to the Southwest, seeking new places and old remains of stone villages and homes.
Marie Wormington, one of the Southwest's first women archaeologists, understood the attraction of the region's land and heritage. She wrote a history describing the lives of the Indians in the Southwest based on archaeological facts. Of the land, she said she awoke one morning and the place owned her, owned her in the sense that she needed to return there to work and feel at home. Marie wrote: "There is something infectious about the Southwest. Some are immune to it, but there are others who must spend the rest of their lives dreaming of the incredible sweep of the desert, of great golden mesas with purple shadows, and tremendous stars appearing at dusk from a turquoise sky." She added that once infected by the Southwest, "there is nothing one can do but strive to return again and again."
When Americans and Europeans began to travel West, many found the land stark. Few comprehended the depths of its history or the fact the land was not uninhabited in the past. To them the treeless nature of the land; jagged, exposed rock formations; and shifting sand did not mystify or terrify but troubled them. Where desert and prairies existed, they wanted to pass across the open spaces and speed onward to their destiny, often Oregon or California. Nothing better portrays this than the journals of westward-bound immigrants.
Many nineteenth-century trail diaries posses a literary quality. Yet they are describing the area in terms of people unaccustomed to deserts and high altitudes. Many who keep journals wax poetic in trying to find words to describe what they saw. One particularly vivid diary was written by a man traveling the Overland Trail in 1863. From the headwaters of Bitter Creek to a point near the Green River in present Wyoming, A. Howard Cutting left a remarkable written record of a region unfamiliar to him. Since his diary so well illustrates many people=s views of the area, it is worth looking at in detail.
Traveling west in 1863, Cutting passed through present southwest Wyoming in early summer. By that time, Overland Stage stations had been built along the trail. Cutting describes many stage stations in 1863. A keen observer, Cutting possessed a sense of humor, something he exemplified in his description of sagebrush as "the dreariest mockery of vegetation that ever grew." He went on to claim that sagebrush "is an exotic from the Valley of Desolation, a ghost of departed brush heaps, a ghostly skeleton of a plant, of an ashy pale color, and as dry as the sand it stands in."
Little is known about Cutting's origins or where he finally settled, but by June 7, 1863, he had reached the Black Butte Stage Station, about 218 miles west of Salt Lake City, Utah. Along his entire route in early June, he was following Bitter Creek. His description of Bitter Creek was not complimentary. He does, however, give an excellent description of the valley. He writes:
June 7th. Camped at Black Butte Station about 10 o'clock. The station man here told us some bunch grass two miles off the road so we camped and took out the stock to it. Very good grass the best we have had for a long time but the water in Bitter Creek (all we had yesterday and) all we are likely to have today is so strongly impregnated with Alkali we can hardly drink it without using Sartaric Acid or Vinegar in it. The creek the water is stagnate so low it can't run, the sides of the bank crusted . . . by the water evaporating in the sun and leaving Alkali. The water is a dirty reddish color and tastes no one can know how till they try it. We stayed here till late in the afternoon, the station men (two) treating us very kindly. Tim Connells horse sick from Alkali water also one of Boners. Gave them melted lard and vinegar. Camped at night within three miles of Rock Point. Longwell so drunk he fell of[f] his horse, and Poker had to carry him to Camp in his wagon. The water grows worse, so bad now, that even Whiskey won't help it. It gives us a kind of pain in the stomach which is hard to bear. Pokers child very sick this evening from the effects of the water.
June 8th. Poker's wife and Hetrick have a grand row and he talks rather rough to her. Passed Rock Point where there are some Sulphur Springs. The water is pretty good in comparison to Alkali Sulphur water. We are passing today huge mountains of rock some of which are full of holes and crevices in which birds make their nests. These rocks remind me of lumps of furnace stone magnified. Stop at Salt Wells where we had been told we should find good grass. The Station man says two miles beyond we shall find grass. He would tell us where there was good grass if we would pay him, but we told him we know there was grass near the Station and we were going to find it. Then he said he would show us the grass, but would have to charge us for water from the well. Said they dug the well themselves and had to charge Emigrants for the water to repay them for their trouble. The grass about two miles off the road from station proves to be splendid and we decide to stay here today and let the horses have a good feast. The well water is very salt[y] and tastes and acts when used for washing just like sea water. Bureau Co. train with 49 head of stock arrive at the well brining Tobey and his colt. The station man charges them $3.00 for watering their stock. Bitter Creek which runs directly past the well is almost unfit for any purpose, seems to grow worse the further we travel on it. A miserable lonesome country here. No wonder the stage men charge for water, should think they would need to charge for being looked at and then not get paid for staying here. This afternoon Poker and Hetrick have a grand settlement of their family troubles, and are separating their traps so they can travel each on his own individual hook in future. One of the Col's horses gave out in the forenoon, but he has a good pair of Mules. The "Guard" for the first time, has to go two miles away from Camp to guard the stock (34) and a cold job it will be as the night's in this miserable country are extremely cold.
June 9th. Water frozen 2 inch thick this morning. Henry Kemper, Bob Lee, Tobey, and Pete Lauson on guard last night. They all went out to the stock taking their blankest and two only standing guard at a time, the others sleeping on the ground. Kemper and Bob stood the first part, and at 12 o'clock waked Tobey and Pete fairly up, so they went to sleep again and there was no guard after part of the night. On waking up they discovered that 20 of the animals were missing. They rode up to camp and gave the alarm, when we soon hunted them up. Paid 15 cents a head for horses. Three times watering, five cents each time. Passed Rock Spring about noon, a long 14 miles from Salt Wells. Gave our stock a good drink of very bad water and flour, at a cold lunch ourselves and pushed on for Green River 15 miles farther on, and a very long 15 miles it proved to be. [Actually distance was 17 miles according to the Overland Stage Company.] The road near here wound around among the hills so we had to travel near three miles to make one toward the river. Arrived at the river about 5 o'clock and camped on the bank. It was truly an oasis in the desert to us as we have not had water fit for a dog to drink for the last four days. . . . Green River is a very swift stream, about 150 yards wide and too high at the present time to ford. Shall have to cross on a Ferry similar to the one on the No. Platte. This is the first respectable stream we have seen running toward the Pacific. Bitter Creek is too miserable a stream to have a name. Tho' I don't know how Emigrants would get across this desert country without it. We have some very fine view of Bluffs or rather Mountains along the river, with huge piles of rocks on their tops, looking like great towers, can see these different ones from the river crossing. The sides of the mountains are nearly as white as chalk and present a great contrast to the opposite side of the river where the hills have some signs of vegetation.
One of the charms of the West is that the land described by Cutting still looks much like it did in 1863. Uncluttered, not settled, dry and dusty, it looks like the world has changed little and that few people have traveled through the Bitter Creek valley since the days of wagon trains and calvary details. This illusion is far from the facts. No place in the lower 48 states has not witnessed human foot falls. And more since the 1950s, the West has been walked over, driven through, and explored by uranium prospectors, petroleum geologists, federal land managers, and recreationists. Cutting's dusty valley has been the object of intense oil and gas exploration. Beneath that dust lies one of the largest natural gas fields in the world.
The interesting thing is that if we move forward in time, we still find people cursing the land Cutting passed through in 1863. Many people feel justified in hating a land marked by wind and filled with dust. In fact, there are those that today say the vast empty spaces of the West are where we should drill for oil and strip the soils as miners plunge deeper into the earth. The content, according to their thinking of the land, has little value other than the minerals that lie beneath the desert soils.
It is here I want to linger. In the 1970s and early 1980s the federal government encouraged energy companies to seek fuel beneath the public land in the West. People moved into the remote reaches of the American outback overnight and left nearly as fast. Many of the newcomers had read western novels and watched western movies. The idea of moving West to work in the energy industry, where money came easy, appealed to their romantic notions. In many cases, they found what Cutting found - dust, wind, and alkali water. Many moved away almost as fast as they came. The end of the energy boom spelled the creation of new ghost towns. Empty houses lay in ruins, and as the wind and vandals broke windows, an emptiness appeared once again.
The continuities between the West prehistory and historic past are empty ruins. All over the region structures lay vacant in areas where resources ran out or the environment changed. And when the ruble of the ruins began to melt into the landscape, the West regained an appearance of a land never settled or occupied. So each new generation that drives between the urban cities in the West gets the false impression that they are passing through a frontier, unaware that close by not only are there the remains of past settler's homes but also newly buried fiber optic lines, pipelines, and other vestiges of modern technology. Still, the impression of wide-open spaces and the fact that wildernesses still exist enables younger generations of Americans to believe the West is a new place, unspoiled by humans.
The West I love faces a new energy boom. The price of coal has tripled and natural gas has exploded to five times its value. I have seen the boom and seen the bust. The boom, spanning 1973 to 1982, left in its wake nearly ten years of activity, but in some areas, few intensive population settlements remain. Then came the 1990s and Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado had urban areas that exploded. California, Washington, and Texas became economic giants, while the interior retained pockets of little growth.
When they began to drill for oil in the west in the 1970's no, one in positions of power bothered to seriously take into account the accumulative affect drilling for oil and gas would have on the landscape. The wisdom of the time was to space the wells on forty acre pads and thus spread the damage out in a way that it would not be too noticeable. But the fact that natural gas abounds meant that well pads were excavated in a way that left the land looking from air like a bomb zone. The new boom, that had its beginnings in the late 1990's, began the process anew of blading areas and setting in drilling rigs.
It is the sparsely settled areas that the energy barons are turning toward to find new reserves of natural gas and oil. Cutting's Bitter Creek cuts through the head of this land and the silence has been broken by the sound of diesel drilling rigs and trucks hauling pipe to the wells. Not long ago the desert was silent. Only burrowing owls and coyotes could be heard on still nights. The promise of the West as a place where one could go to be by themselves gave way to the need of finding energy. But there are still those places where cell phones and the sounds of the twenty-first century give way to silence.
Not far south of Cutting's path are juniper tree groves where Fremont Indians built their homes. In the trees above the canyons, there are still places where you can lay in your bedroll and watch stars move and hear coyotes or mountain lions penetrate the silence with their wails. Laying snugly in a bedroll and watching a fire die, then turning and looking as the stars cross the heavens, time has a way of going slower, and life seems slightly simpler.
Annie Proulx, the author of The Shipping News and Close Range: Wyoming Stories describes a silent pocket in Wyoming with a beauty contained in a simplicity. She writes:
When I first came to Centennial, I noticed two or three codgers sitting on the bench in front of the Friendly Store, watching the tourist traffic head up into the Snow Range. In the afternoon the fellow seemed to be a little smashed, even belligerent. If they thought the traffic was moving too briskly they would shout "Slow down!" "Slow down!" at the offending vehicles. The funky old police car near the highway was supposed to strike terror in the speeders' hearts and persuade them to ease off the pedal. The "light" on top was an old coffee can with shiny aluminum roofing-nail washers wired on. Even then its headlights were smashed and the windshield cracked.
The codgers have gone now to the great bench in the sky, the police car tires are flat, all the glass smashed out. But in the winter holidays it takes on a new character, spangled with a net of light, reminding us all to get on Centennial Time and slow down.
The promise of the West is open spaces and natural resources. The question is, can the natural resources be removed and still leave the West with places that run on Centennial Time?
If you have any questions please feel free to contact Dudley Gardner.