If you are of mind to think about the West
One, “An Empire Wilderness,” is hard-boiled in facts and the author’s travels from St. Louis west, with trips north to Canada and south to Mexico chronicled in a quest to understand today and the future.
The author, Robert D. Kaplan, is one of those very bright foreign correspondents who took to writing books about the regions he covered, including the Balkans and Afghanistan. The Massachusetts resident treats the West like the foreign country it is to him.
Kaplan sees this country spotted by urban centers and populated mainly by city folk, in contrast to the lore about the wide open West and rugged individualists largely living out of town. He also sees government boundaries meaning considerably less to the Western life and economy than the region’s ties to Mexico, Canada and Asia.
He shows hollowed-out inner cities with distinctly colder suburbs ironically blowing west from most of the metropolises he visits. He takes us to post-urban Orange County, thriving but with no one center, which seems to puzzle him. And he finds Vancouver, B.C., which delights him with its street bustle in downtown.
I think Vail would fascinate him, and by Vail I mean the whole valley along I-70, with the trail of expansion eating its way west. But the gentrification he describes in Bozeman and Missoula, Mont., is as close as he gets to our situation. And Taos, N.M., though his descriptions of that bejeweled town more closely fit our cousin Aspen, true embarrassment of riches.
His book is a journalistic effort that tries to peer ahead, though I have the feeling he doesn’t quite get the West and forms too many conclusions from his short though intense experience.
The other book is an anthology, a best-of collection, from the seminal magazine Mountain Gazette, which M. John Fayhee has resurrected from his base in Summit County. The newsprint magazine, which these days comes out every other month, gave rise to such shiny publications as Outside magazine, most notably. Original writers and the editor of the first Mountain Gazette moved on to Outside, in fact.
But they are very different publications. I was a big fan of the early Outside, later souring on it as it evolved as some of the Vail oldtimers unhappily watched Vail progress from their tight little mountain town-ski community to playground for the yuppies, who brought all the bad and sad of upper-reaching suburbia as well as their money.
The new, retro Mountain Gazette is refreshing for its return to poverty, or at least the feel of such for readers. It embraces an anti-modernday magazine ethic, with long stories, cryptic photographs and paucity of quick hitter features that litter today’s efforts. Where Outside comes from this old mother, who knows, other than both deal with the outdoors and the mountains.
Mountain Gazette is the Grateful Dead or Widespread Panic of the magazine world. The refrains are too long, too much the same and the fans too hard core for me to quite appreciate.
I confess, I’ve mocked the magazine as romantic fluff, even laced with profanity as the stories are in their quest for recognition as literature. The larger story here is Eastern, slightly effete English majors come west and discover the mountains and prattle on romantically, exploring their feelings and go on and on with ruminations aiming to touch the meaning of life. A lot of navel gazing.
These folks are forever holing up somewhere to write, and they include this in too many of their stories. Well, duh, I’m reading a story – someone had to write the damn thing. Why do we have to see them writing? What’s next, a chapter on going to the bathroom? Please.
But out of the muck there is some great stuff. The anthology exhumes the old magazine and mines rich veins in the resurrected version for pure gold. Among the most notable nuggets are pieces by Edward Abbey, the legend of “Monkey Wrench Gang”; John Nichols, who wrote the “Milagro Beanfield War”; Galen Rowell, the great outdoors photographer and climber who died in a plane crash near Bishop, Calif., a couple of weeks ago. My favorite might be Doug Peacock, Abbey’s buddy who was the model for the great “Monkey Wrench” character Hayduke.
Fayhee himself is no wuss, though he does begin life on the eastern side of the country. Beard, baseball cap, sleeveless flannel shirt, hail-fellow brash and with nonstop stories over beer and more beer – at least that’s how I met him after a booksigning at Verbatim in Lionshead a couple of months ago – this is a guy’s guy. I see NASCAR and Skoal before I see the editor and soul of the new Mountain Gazette. It’s an intriguing mix of the person I drink beer with and the pieces I read.
Reminds me that first impressions can be deceiving. Huh, a clue to a meaning of life. Excuse me, I have to go to my room for writing. Between these two books, there’s a lot to work out.
Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or at firstname.lastname@example.org