West always dying in our literature | VailDaily.com
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West always dying in our literature

Don Rogers

The West has been going to hell ever since the beaver were trapped out in the 1830s. No region on earth has been more romanticized, or constantly mourned, than right here, our home. Our nation’s very image to this day is defined by the myths of our West. And I’m not just talking about “cowboy” President Bush. All our presidents have been viewed abroad as roughnecks stamped by the frontier. That’s nothing new. Teddy Roosevelt, who transformed from sickly youth to his robust bully self on a Montana ranch and spent a good deal of his time here, was the cowboy of cowboys, at least to the East Coast and European mind. Bush, a Yalie who never lived west of Midland, Texas, merely inherits a symbolic mantle that’s been assigned to all Americans for a very long time, now. The negatives and the positives of the myth alternate pretty much with fluctuations in the world’s political climate. Yes, a cold wind cuts painfully right now.Incidentally, Roosevelt wrote his own book mourning the passing of the West, in “Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail.”You can pick your era when the West was no longer really the West. The mountain men, the miners, the ranchers, the farmers, the ski resorts, the second-home invasion, the Internet age, the advent of the “active retiree,” the invasion of the big box retailers.Our literature is rife with its passing. Tomes on our “vanishing West” have been written since before Twain and certainly have not lost steam now. Contemporary books fundamentally about the demise of the good “old” days of the ski towns – like “Powder Burn,” by Daniel Glick; and “Downhill Slide,” by Hal Clifford – fit the theme perfectly.As does “Requiem for the West,” filmmaker Roger Brown’s take on Vail and the rest of the region from his home in the Gypsum Valley. His book, headed to publication and then sale in November, is a thought- and soul-provoking look at our West and where it’s going. We currently are serializing his story in the Daily with a new part each day.Roger, as you may know, is one of Vail’s pioneers, coming here in 1962. One of the things I love about this place is that so many of our “pioneers” are living. “Vail” 50 years ago was a few ranches in a side valley. This incarnation of the West arose and then metastasized in just a wink, although it should be noted that the mountain man’s beaver era came and went in about half the time.The wide open spaces that I and other recent refugees from metropolis see have shriveled to Roger, and so our perspectives are much different. I see advantages at a critical mass this valley has not arrived at where he and plenty of others see devastating loss.We’re at different ends of the West continuum. Five years here and I still see the possibilities of frontier in this valley, which has hard borders ensuring that even with buildout I can get into wild country within a few minutes. Forty-something years and Roger sees the ruin of what he held dear, much as others did at the end of other stages in the American history of this region.The migration of peoples before the Caucasian invasions suggests similar births and deaths of eras in this harsh, drought-prone region. Paradoxically, while the Inland West remains by far the least populated region in the United States, statistically we actually stack up as the most urbanized. That is, by ratio more of us are city folk than anywhere else in America. I learned that in “Mountain West: Sacred Landscapes in Transition,” a book looking at religion here, by Jan Shipps and Mark Silk.While many of the mountain towns are growing, much of the range and plains are becoming more desolate. The West is getting wilder and coalescing into population centers at the same time. Roger Brown’s book shows the passages of eras as he rues the one he helped build and now sees slipping away into something darker. What makes his book particularly poignant is his center is right here, where of course it has all played out. Another book out this year, “The Great Divide: The Rocky Mountains in the American Mind” explores similar ground in wider sweep. Author Gary Ferguson takes the reader Michener-like from the upheavals of the land through history to today. It’s a fascinating history even if it ultimately crashes into the same shoals all these books inevitably do. It may be that I am just contrarian by nature, but I’m amazing that we haven’t figured out our West thing by now. The West has died so many times, in so many times, that we are missing the whole point. The hold of the West on us isn’t its death but its near constant renewal. The continual passings are not really ends, but changes. The culture here – like the weather and the geology – fluctuates sharper and more often than elsewhere. It’s what makes the West dynamic, gives it that ever-frontier feel while at the same time leaving so many of us in mourning. Here’s the irony: More than anywhere else on earth, perhaps, there’s nothing so constant about our West than the fact that it is always changing.Indulge me one more title for you. It’s my favorite so far, by Los Angeles Times writer and editor Frank Clifford: “The Backbone of the World: A Portrait of the Vanishing West Along the Continental Divide.”He doesn’t flinch from the modern conflicts and pressures on the current West. As the title suggests, the theme is central as he travels from stem to stern of the Continental Divide, stopping in this valley and at timberline with a sheepherder who runs his flock during summer above Vail. But his portrayals of the characters living closest to frontier standards stand out in a way that, paradoxically I suppose, make me more confident in the sense of possibility that yet lingers here.It may well be that I just haven’t lived here long enough to endure that change that feels like the very end. Or, living in much of the rest of the country, realizing that for all the struggles, this remains the best place of all, where great hope can still be found with a gaze at the landscape itself. Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or editor@vaildaily.comVail, Colorado


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