Here and there when I am traveling people ask What's it like to live in the West?
And they always ask it with that capital W on West, you can really and truly hear it,
And this just happened in Illinois, in the seething earthy redolent middle of nowhere,
A young man asked it, and you know how sometimes way too many answers crowd
Into your mouth at the same instant so you really are technically speechless for once?
So we stood there, the curious student and the gaping older guy, me wanting to emit
Something eloquent about mountains being testy Mountains and not old mossy hills,
Or the clarity and power of wild water, or salmon and elk and falcons and wolverine,
Or maybe quote my boy Wallace Stegner on how the West is the geography of hope,
Or say that people here are riveted by new ways of living and are bored by classness,
Or quote my boy David Duncan about how the American West is in the final analysis
The place where the Rockies make love to the Pacific Ocean and we all get to watch,
Or say something piercing about aridity being the true story except where I get to live,
Or something politically prescient about Cascadia extending from Northern California
Deep into Alaska and east as far as where huge trees peter out and the sage takes over,
Or for once be a totally honest man and say I don't have the slightest idea whatsoever
About the nature of the West, there being just as many Wests as there are Westerners,
But then something did pop out, without me thinking about it, just like Ronald Reagan,
Who for all his ranching and horses and seeming Westernness was a guy from Illinois,
And I have been thinking about what I said ever since, pondering the thing like a koan.
There's a day in spring, I said to the student, when cottonwood trees let go all at once,
And the air everywhere you turn is filled with cottonwood snow. It's cooler than cool.
That's what it's like to live in the West. And the student, to his eternal credit, grinned.
I think he got it. It's hard to explain why it's so cool but somehow it's just everything.
It only happens when the sky is so blue you want to just stand there and laugh all day.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, in Oregon. He is the author of eight books of essays, nonfiction, and "proems," most recently Epiphanies & Elegies.