« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

A natural and cultural history of the Rocky Mountains

  The backbone of the West, the Great Divide, stretches some 1,100 rugged miles from Montana to New Mexico. It’s been the home of Native Americans, artists, miners, mountain men, preachers and charlatans, back-to-the-landers and trust funders. Each group has defined the landscape for its own purpose, leading author Gary Ferguson to conclude, "Hardly a story is told of this region in which the land isn’t cast as a major character."

Ferguson profiles many of the West’s familiar figures, such as the hunter, guide and soldier Kit Carson, who once employed a public relations flack to shape his image. But Ferguson covers unexplored ground as well. Readers learn, for example, how a rich canon of Native American literature dating back to 1772 was violently swept away: "More than 6,700 pieces of English-language work were published by two thousand Native American writers, few of which have even been recognized, let alone discussed by popular historians." Ferguson agrees with other scholars that the omission occurred because our nation’s sense of Manifest Destiny was in direct opposition to the survival of native tribes.

Ferguson leans heavily throughout the book on the history of Colorado, locating the delightful chapter "Season of the Freaks" in Crested Butte. Here and in other mountain towns in the 1960s and 1970s, baby boomers blew in from lower altitudes with their VW microbuses and acid tabs, forever changing the personality of traditional logging and mining communities. Their idealism led to a new style of community called "bioregionalism," which held that "those who actually live in a particular system … are the people in the best position to figure out what uses are appropriate."

Although there wasn’t always peace between the longhairs and the working-class locals, a bond evolved as a common enemy emerged: wealthy real estate developers. Money always seems to trump idealism, and in the Rockies, like just about every other place on Earth, whoever has the most of it gets the best views.