Old West versus New West in Taos, N.M.

 

I am essentially rootless. That aspect of my life began the moment I was born in suburban Los Angeles -- already in motion, in an ambulance rushing my mother to a hospital. (That might be why I'm unusually sensitive to loud noises like sirens, and why I feel at home driving anywhere.)

My family moved to an outermost Chicago suburb, where I grew up with a backyard that bordered a great swamp. My interest in the wild developed while I spent countless hours playing in the swamp, sloshing through mysterious stinky black water, amid red-winged blackbirds and monarch butterfly cocoons clinging to cattails, forked-tongue-flicking snakes, dangerous snapping turtles and an abundance of insects. High in towering swamp white oaks, I built rickety tree-houses that were satisfyingly risky.

I wanted adventures and thought Illinois, outside the swamp, was boring, so as a young man I hitchhiked and drove coast to coast searching for anything interesting. I lived in two different places in Pennsylvania over two years, then five different places in Colorado for nine years, then six different places around Tucson for 15 years, then in another Colorado place for another year. Occasionally I lived in an old van outfitted with a bed and a stove, so my home was wherever I parked.

The West attracts people like me -- those of us who imagine there's something better over the horizon. I've lived in Montana for the last 16 years, but not because I've finally grown roots. Rather, I wanted to give my kids stability and the sense of a Montana childhood home, so they'll have a touchstone I'll never have. (When I went back to Illinois after an absence of nearly 40 years, I was sorry to see that the swamp had been declared a nuisance -- drained and covered with an expanse of boring lawn grass.) In the future, I imagine moving to the Oregon coast or maybe to southern Utah, where my backyard would be red rocks, or to British Columbia or the tip of Baja. Or even Las Vegas, for the metaphoric absurdity.

Of course, there are negatives. I'm an invasive subspecies -- a two-legged weed. I'm missing out on the long-term connections to place and community that many people have as a source of great strength in their lives. That's the other kind of Westerner -- people who stick where they were born, and families who stay for generations, despite hardships and distractions.

Our cover story explores how the two kinds of Westerners are chafing against each other in Taos, N.M., a place with Hispano families that date back centuries and in-your-face Anglo newcomers. They're carrying on a long, complicated dispute over who has the best right to the land and what the community's future should be. Speaking as a weed, I'm hoping my kind acts respectfully toward those already rooted in their various home places around the West, so we can grow side-by-side.

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