« Return to this article

Know the West

When you carry your home with you, when are you home?


At High Country News, we think a lot about that overused but still relevant term, "a sense of place." I don't know exactly what it means, either. But I think it involves knowing that we're here, rather than, well, over there. And that we understand at least some of the characteristics that make this place -- the West -- different from other places.

John Daniel's well-wrought essay in this issue cuts right to the heart of the sense-of-place matter. Daniel talks of the almost primordial pull of the West --  a pull that comes from particular elements of the region, its plants, its soil, its rocks and rivers and overarching skies. Whatever it is, we've all felt it.

Then there's Nate Berg's cover story. He, too, writes about place -- Quartzsite, Ariz. -- a barren spot in the Southwestern desert that has become a mecca for RVers. An estimated 1 million or more RVs stop in Quartzsite each winter, with 10,000 or more staying a few months or longer. Many park in the desert, on a vast expanse of federal ground that was long ago trampled flat. There, they form a sort of community. Actually, it's more like a small city, albeit one without infrastructure or an elected local government.

The force that draws people to Quartzsite is as strong as the one that drew John Daniel out West. The RVers return, year after year, with the intense loyalty of homeward-bound geese, driving hundreds, even thousands, of miles and spending bundles on gas. But rather than being drawn to Arizona by the ocotillos or the lizards or the way the light falls on a particular rocky crag, this giant, temporary city appears to be pulled together by the prospect of swap meets and a cheap place to camp, dump sewage and get water. That, and the impromptu community the RVers create.

In other words, they are not drawn by anything particular about this place, except for its sunny winters and the flatness that makes it perfect for parking RVs. Sure, there's an illusion of place -- the chance to live in a desert diorama, with jagged mountains in the distance, yes, but also with TVs conveniently on hand to transport you away, if you get bored. Really, this is the opposite of a sense of place -- a sort of blank slate on which all these folks can create something new.

There's something inspiring about all these strangers coming together peacefully, year after year. At Quartzsite, you don't need to dig roots to enjoy them; if the "community" doesn't suit you, just gas up and go. But it's also a bit creepy, this idea that place really doesn't matter.

Berg talks about an academic who flies over Quartzsite's "boondocks" and sees the mirror image of a real city. More and more, we mirror the RVers societally, as well. We specialize in living without commitment: "Hooking up" has many connotations.  We live in cities and towns that may have been settled in a particular place for a reason -- good water, good soil, a coal or mineral seam nearby. But in many cases, those original reasons were long ago paved over or sucked dry or just forgotten. Our chain stores and strip malls could be anywhere. We revel in our placelessness, working on Wall Street from a home office on the outskirts of Aspen. We are at home everywhere now. Everywhere, that is, except for where we are -- where the trees take root, the rivers flow, the sun hits the earth in that certain way.