« Return to this article

Know the West

Just where is that home on the range?

  It’s easy to write about coming to the West. Legendary figures, such as Jack Kerouac, Ed Abbey and even John Denver, still inspire young people to follow them to the land of Rocky Mountain highs and red rock deserts in search of enlightenment. What’s harder to do, however, is to write about leaving the West.

In his collection of essays, A View from the Inland Northwest, Stephen Lyons, a frequent contributor to High Country News, does both of these things. He remembers coming West from his home state of Illinois and tells a story familiar to those who have emigrated here from damper and denser climes. He introduces many of the unusual friends he’s made over the years, including a dryland farmer’s wife-turned-artist and a chaplain in rural Washington whose job it is to inform people that their loved ones have died, usually due to car accidents or some other tragedy.

Most striking, however, are the essays that Lyons wrote as he and his wife prepared to move back to Illinois "to repay the unspoken debts we as children owe." He writes of the expectations he brought with him to the West at age 17: to live in an old adobe town, to see a cougar. And he writes of the realities at age 44: "So many things have changed in the last quarter century. And what precisely did I expect would happen? That I wouldn’t get old? That my daughter wouldn’t grow up and leave home quicker than wet soap out of your hand? That I could keep hiding from my relatives forever?"

Some of the essays are almost painfully bittersweet, such as those about our changing notions of "home" — there’s the home we seek when we’re young, idealistic and adventurous, and there’s the one where responsibilities lie as we age — but each piece in this collection rings honest and true.