« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

The Old West went that-a-way


The East Coast editor wants me to tell her something new. Something nobody knows about the West. Something special. Something secret. I rack my brain. And my ethics. What we have left out here that's special needs to stay special. Our secrets need to be kept. Here's the piece I sent her. She turned it down. You be the judge.

You know the cowboy. The raw-boned guy from old western movies. He's staring off in the distance. Looking like a hawk. He's the portrait of the Real West, the place everybody wants to go.

I look at his picture in the Phoenix paper. The man gazes out toward the far horizon. But that horizon is not a bright, elegant line, where saguaro and desert meet big western sky. Instead, red tile roofs stretch for miles. The desert is scraped raw. No saguaro or cholla anywhere. And the big sky is tinged dirty yellow with car exhaust.

This cowboy doesn't move cows. He is a guide for an Arizona trail-ride company, which has just decided to move its operation a dozen or so miles farther out. Because within the last few years, their customers began to see, not blooming desert and clean blue sky, but highways and shopping malls and bulldozers. And there was the tourist who was nearly knocked out of her saddle by a ball from a nearby golf course.

When I was a kid, my dad would drive us on backcountry, upstate New York roads. Every weekend, he'd get lost and more often than not, when he finally gave in and asked for directions, a grinning local would tell him, "You can't get there from here."

The words haunt me when I think of the new Southwest, especially the state where I live, in which a mountain lion is killed because some mountain lion or other swiped back when an unleashed dog attacked it. This on a trail on which dogs are supposed to be on leads.

And, a Phoenix zillionaire bankrolls a research company $2.3 million to find a way to clone his dog, and the researchers tell us that's ethically OK, because their work might enable them - someday - to clone endangered wild cats.

In my home state, you can find a Scottsdale resort spa that sells $125 facials and ships 26 basalt rocks weekly to Sedona to soak up healing energy from the vortices - and, you can find tens of thousands of kids without health insurance. You can buy an 8,000-square-foot house squatting on what was wildlife habitat and ask a local artist to design you a soft sculpture of native animals for the family room, just to give the place that Southwest feel.

You can watch the downtown of my hometown begin to die, store window after store window going blank, while absentee landlords jack up the rents so high that the only tenants they find are clone-tiques you can find anywhere in America.

You can see little family ranches fight for their lives, while the New Westerners buy thousand-dollar pre-faded denim outfits for the week they spend in their second-home mansions. You can ride your bike down 25 miles of hard dirt road and be side-swiped by a Lexus SUV flying American flags. Survive that and find a fifth-wheel trailer as big as a two-bedroom bungalow squatted at the trailhead, generator roaring, satellite dish in place, the chill light of a television glowing behind the computerized blinds.

You can eat tasteless Mexican food in a thousand Taco Clones, or chipotle chili sushi and javelina menudo for a hundred bucks a plate. Buy a $6 hand-crafted blackberry beer in a former mining town whose lowest rentals now start at eight hundred bucks for a studio.

And, you can drop your Social Security check in casinos that call gambling gaming, and compulsion fun. Welcome to the New Southwest.

The Real West? The cowboy gazing out over a landscape that is an endless web of real life and real death? The little downtown alive with local business? The tribe living connected with the earth? The lion with more habitat than it needs? The desert clear as the big sky above? Sorry, folks, you can't get there from here anymore. From anywhere. The nearest is that old western on your TV.

Mary Sojourner writes in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Mary Sojourner

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].