East to the West
A writer contemplates the beginning of the West
May, 2004. Homeward bound from teaching in New York state, I'm driving west from Chicago on Interstate 80, passing stubble fields, white farmhouses, little round-topped silos, and the mounded, freshly leafed-out crowns of hardwood forest between the farms. La Salle, Rock Island, the Mississippi River -- no, the West doesn't begin here -- and into Iowa as a slight roll comes to the green land. There's a muddy stockyard full of cows near Iowa City, the prairie patched with fields and pastures, and fewer trees now -- clumps, singles, strands along fencerows and small rivers. Toward Council Bluffs the land takes longer swells, and I'm crossing the Missouri -- no, not here either -- under a lowering, gray-plate sky, storm warnings breaking into the radio talk show, new corn a few inches high in the moist fields.
In Nebraska, the speed limit jumps to 75, a sure sign of westering. Near Lincoln the fields stretch out plainsier now, and closing in on Grand Island, in bright sun, the Midwestern roll is gone from the land and big-wheeled sprinklers shine in the fields, ready to boost the summer rainfall that won't be enough. So here, maybe? But now I-80 falls in with the Platte River, its braided channels lush with forest. The names are Western now -- Pioneer Village Motel, Stagecoach Restaurant -- and three or four miles short of Kearney, the earth is dry enough for a scatter of pines. Under the Great Platte River Archway Monument that spans the freeway -- definitely not here -- I'm cruising at 80, a windmill spinning hard to my left, a tractor throwing up clouds of dust, neat-rolled hay bales spotting the sprawling fields. Irrigation equipment is everywhere, for corn and hay. I ride the Plains neck and neck with a Union Pacific freight train, off to my right -- if we're not in the West, we're mighty close -- and then, a few miles past Gothenburg, under flat-bottomed cumuli in a vastness of sky, to the southwest there's a low, solitary ridge specked with junipers.
There won't be another cornfield. There will be cattle in pastures and feedlots, the bumpy fringe of the Sand Hills to the north, ranch houses with windbreaks of tall poplars, outcrops of volcanic rock, power line towers marching into the distance, a few oil rigs bowing and rising, and settlements of doublewides with sheds, old vehicles and assorted machinery. The first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains will come just over the Wyoming border, but by then, in my book, I'll have been in the West for 200 miles.
The West began for me in 1966 when I was 18, driving Route 66 in a very loud jeep across Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle into New Mexico. The flat expanses looked naked and glary to my East Coast eyes, but the land was wide open and so was my spirit. I passed the miles bellowing the lyrics of "Mr. Tambourine Man," trying to out-shout the Jeep. My brother, at George Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, had taken a shine to that country of Joshua trees and creosote bush, but to me, then, it looked only parched and desolate. I was happier with the California coast -- Big Sur, San Francisco, the misty redwoods, and finally western Oregon, where I would conduct my brief career as a college student. It rained all winter and stayed green. The trees were enormous and so were the mountains, the seaside rocky and stormy and fine. Even the wet earth smelled sweet. I began to suspect I'd been born on the wrong coast.
Forty-four years later I'm still here, about as far west as I could settle, but not in the West. Theodore Roosevelt once remarked that California, seaward of the Sierra Nevada, is actually west of the West, and I agree. This sundown fringe of the continent, from southeast Alaska down through the oak-strewn hills of the California coast, is its own region -- a country of earthquakes and volcanoes, dramatic coastline, badly abridged versions of once-profuse rainforests and salmon-thronged rivers, and a half-dozen of North America's great cities with their proliferating suburbs. It is geographically, geologically, climatically, biotically, and culturally distinct from the broad, drier interior region it borders.
In the 1970s I moved to Klamath Falls, Ore., for a railroad job, pursuing my dropout curriculum of drink, self-doubt and confusion, and was shocked to discover that the eastern two-thirds of Oregon was not verdant with Douglas firs and mossy-rock streams. It was Nevada north -- semiarid plateau country of sagebrush and juniper expanses, buttes and cinder cones, clumps of conifered mountains. But the landscape grew on me. I found that I liked the breathing room, the drama of visible distance, and I liked it that the land presented itself in particulars. Not the enveloping hardwood forest of the East, not western Oregon's thick stands of conifers, but this twisted juniper with a packrat nest at its base. This angling ponderosa pine, its orange bark scored with a lightning scar. This huddle of aspens around a spring, and in the distance a few small buttes alive with the slow-moving shadows of clouds.
I stayed 10 years in that broad and lonesome country. I would have become a writer anywhere, I suppose, but I became the writer I am in a certain northwestern edge of the American West where a calming clarity seemed inherent in the land itself, where space and stillness helped me shed my quandaries over what I had and had not done, where the singularity of stone and tree and distant height awakened inklings of a singularity within, some secret that was mine to puzzle out and give voice to if I cared enough to try.
Since then, I have lived in the Bay Area, in Portland, and now in the central Oregon Coast Range, but my wife and I often light out for the territories. We leave our house amid tall Douglas firs, blackberry brambles, and wild hazelnuts, and we leave the gray weather that produces such botanic exuberance. We drive over the mountains, swapping the wealth of green on our little piece of land for a wealth of sky and sun, and snow in winter, on the ranch where I first tried to write half a lifetime ago. We settle our eyes on green in its subtler shades, on an earth not swarmed with plant life but wearing it lightly. The West, for us, is four hours east. I love going there and I love coming back. I love the talkative patter of rain on my roof, I love the dry windy spaces, and I love each more for knowing the other.
I appreciate literature of many kinds, but I am drawn most to work that depicts human lives still involved -- like it or not, for better or worse -- with the given natural world our culture seems intent on divorcing. I don't mean "nature writing" alone, but also works of fiction, memoir, poetry, history, and journalism -- writing that incorporates land, weather, and living creatures not merely as background or pleasant scenery but as part of the imaginative matrix of the work itself, inseparable from the lives and longings of men and women in their various places.
The Northwest and the greater West it overlaps have many such writers, but we are not unique to a region. We sprout up anywhere. Some of us were born to our places; some, like me, have transplanted ourselves. We have in common a wish to belong to the land we live in and to welcome its influence into our work, to become, as writers, the fullest shrub or tree that our particular place, region, climate, luck, and hard work will produce. We may be the writers Henry Thoreau imagined in his essay, "Walking," after he read that antelope skin gives off a delicious odor of grass and leaves: "I would have every man so much like a wild antelope, so much a part and parcel of Nature, that his very person should thus sweetly advertise our senses of his presence, and remind us of those parts of Nature which he most haunts."
Thoreau never journeyed west of Minnesota, and regretted traveling that far, but in his essay he imagined a West that I recognize. On days when he had no specific destination for a walk, he tended to take a westward or southwestward course, following an inclination of spirit more than a compass bearing. "I must walk toward Oregon," he wrote, "and not toward Europe." The West to him meant freedom, discovery, and a transcendent sense of relation to all of Nature through the particular landscape he lived in. "The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild," he wrote, "and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World."
Henry Thoreau lived and lives on in that West, the writers and readers of his ilk live there, and the hope that sustains us lives there too. Wilderness survives in tattered remnants, but wildness abides throughout our land -- under the subdivisions and commercial misdevelopment, within the hard webwork of highways, in those endless crop fields doused with chemicals and the bedrock beneath them, and in the roots of old trees silently buckling city sidewalks. Wildness can be stifled but never destroyed. It lives in the scalped hills and dammed rivers and cow-burnt rangeland of the West and Northwest as surely as it lives in the stands of ancient trees, the meadows of native grasses, and the stretches of free-running waters that remain.
Despite the damage done, by all of us, how can we live here and not be hopeful? If an old-growth Douglas fir or ponderosa pine can rise through time to become the entire battered wholeness that it is, if it can so eloquently bespeak its rightful place and being, then surely we can do our best to bespeak ours. And if a dying chinook salmon, after three or four years in the North Pacific, can return to the Columbia River and swim 800 miles over eight tall dams to the small stream of its birth in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, then surely we can demand of ourselves -- we must demand -- at least some measure of that tenacity, that heart, that ferocity for home.
John Daniel's most recent books are Rogue River Journal and The Far Corner. This essay will appear in The Manner of the Country: Living and Writing the American West, to be published in 2011 by the University of Texas Press.