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Know the West

Just go away

  -So what's the American Dream for the people out here?" I asked.

"To be left alone," Baker replied.

"Just to be left alone?" I asked. "But that's not possible, is it?"

"Nope," Baker said.

"How do they react when they find it's not possible?" I asked.

"They get really mad," and (she) broke up laughing. "They get really, really mad."

* Craig Denton,

People of the West Desert

In the West Desert, few visitors venture beyond Highway 50 - -the loneliest highway in America' - and the relatively well-traveled trails of Great Basin National Park. But Highway 50 isn't lonely enough for most residents of western Utah and eastern Nevada, who feel lucky to be far from the casinos of Las Vegas and the sprawl of the Wasatch Front.

A new book, People of the West Desert, is a sympathetic documentary of the quirky, stubborn people who inhabit one of the West's emptiest places. Author and photographer Craig Denton profiles the region's diverse people and institutions, including fundamentalist religious communities, federal land managers and nomadic teams of sheep-shearers. His language can be over-formal, but Denton has uncovered some fascinating details of desert life: A tiny public school district where kids from a polygamist community struggle to coexist with the outside world; a justice of the peace who sometimes orders violators to write "I Will Not Speed Through Baker" on a chalkboard as penance; a tongue-in-cheek parade of worn-out cars on the Walker River Paiute Reservation; and a traditional Halloween party where anti-nuke activists, cowboys and motel owners all let down their guard. While these communities can be closed and suspicious at times, Denton shows that an odd sort of tolerance persists. When your nearest neighbor lives 25 miles downvalley, it doesn't much matter whether she's a survivalist, a polygamist or a member of the Sierra Club - as long as she's got a spare tire.

* Michelle Nijhuis