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Fall 2008, Volume 25.1

Essay

 

Andrea Clark MasonPhoto of Andrea Clark Mason.

The Real West


Andrea Clark Mason has a BA from Colgate University and an MFA from the University of Idaho. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, High Desert Journal, Permafrost, and other publications. She lives and teaches in Pullman, Washington.

 

Vail, Colorado: floor-length furs behind glass. A pile of diamonds. Just behind you, the sound of heavily-accented English. A tanned, seventy-year-old man in primary-colored stretch ski gear says, "I like to ski all over the world. New Zealand is my favorite."

I am here with my father and his friend, and it is only after I have spent nearly all my twenties in the Rocky Mountain West that I am confronted with the West I grew up knowing: oversized and overstuffed leather furniture, strong bourbon, the granite countertops of the condo we often stayed in, the gigantic antler chandeliers in the lodge, the authentic Navajo pottery, the gas fireplace, the rustic deck, the wrought iron wind chime from which a bronze feather dangles.

In the culture in which I was raised, it was normal for a person straight out of college to move to a Colorado ski resort for a year and work at Christy sports, or, as a fellow college alum said, "take a sabbatical in Sun Valley," but no one is expected to stay. The alum said, "when [she] was in Sun Valley, [she] thought about what [she] really wanted to do with [her] life." It turned out, she felt called to work for Microsoft. Another East Coast refugee tells a similar story: In a frozen tent in Alaska, her fellow Harvard alum conceived of Capital One Bank. We are expected to return to Manhattan, Boston, or Philadelphia, or for those more free spirits, perhaps San Francisco or Seattle, but not to stay in the mountains. Those, I was taught, were only for vacation.

I never felt comfortable with the doling out of my life into parcels. I wondered if one year for the wild might not be long enough. I was a little over halfway through college and had just finished reading Gretel Erlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces, a collection of essays about a woman film maker from California who moved to Wyoming to make a documentary about illiterate sheepherders, when I told my father on a chairlift somewhere in Colorado that I thought I would move to Wyoming and write books after graduation. At that point, I don’t think I had ever been to Wyoming, but I was intrigued by Erlich’s sensual description of the landscape that overpowered everything. I am amazed now that my father just nodded, appearing to agree that my plan was a reasonable one. Where I was from, no one moved to Wyoming, unless it was to Jackson Hole, and no one stayed.

This West I’ve been describing is not what I would now consider the West. My descriptions reveal only one reality. There is of course a much poorer, less educated, less mobile West I have come to know. Its residents hunt deer, elk, bear, and leave the bullet casings where they fall. They drink cheap whiskey and discard the bottles along the side of logging roads. They ride snowmobiles. They are, in many cases, first-generation college students. They live near Indian Reservations. The cities familiar to them are Denver, Boise, and Spokane. They all know someone who has been a victim to methamphetamines.

Of course, these too are stereotypes. The West is complicated. The West is vast. How can one characterize easily half of the land in the United States? My accounts of how and why I came West are almost as jumbled as the letters and journal entries Western historians use to try to recreate the paths of settlers. These are the tales I remember.

 

Recently, in a condo tucked up against Colorado’s Keystone mountain, I recalled how, in my pink, high school, Laura Ashley-decorated bedroom, I dreamed about living by a clear mountain stream. I wanted a life that was real, where the weather, the wildlife, the mountains would get into my blood, where I could walk or ski—not drive—to places free of new housing developments and strip-malls. Of course, the West I longed for is becoming a haven for just that: new buildings and stores to provide necessities people increasingly want to be convenient. Everywhere, land is for sale. As more people realize the value of open spaces, the open spaces continue to elude us, to move farther away from town and become more difficult to access.

In our newly-constructed condo’s clubhouse, my parents played pool against my brother and his girlfriend. Up until that night, I hadn’t ever seen my parents play pool. A tall, skinny man with a shoulder-length fringe of hair under a dirty baseball cap and crooked buck teeth appeared, seemingly out of place against the colossal leather furniture that inexplicably reminded me of Ernest Hemingway. "I’m sorry folks, but it’s ten o’clock, and I’m going to have to close up."

"Already?" my mother said incredulously. "I had no idea it was that late!" There is something about the West that allows everyone in my East Coast family to let go. On all trips out West, my father wants to catch the first chairlift up the mountain at 8 a.m. and the last one at 4 p.m. even though he’s sixty-four. I wonder what makes the West so much fun for my family? That for all of us it is blank? Our history here is not one of struggle—only skiing and rafting vacations. We are free to reinvent ourselves, to become whomever we want.

 

The first time my family went West, we flew to Denver, drove around Colorado for a while, trying to make sense of the landscape that was so different from the one we knew. We stayed at an old-fashioned lodge in Fairplay, Colorado, sat in sagging leather furniture, and drank hot chocolate piled high with whipped cream. In Vail, we met my uncle and cousins and lounged in the hot tub while my brother convinced me to tie dental floss to my loose front tooth and also the doorknob. I didn’t let him close the door. Then we boarded a train and watched through the viewing car as the Rockies slid by. We stepped off to admire the space needle in Seattle, a futuristic point in a cloud of gray. Then we kept going, all the way to Chilliwack, British Columbia, to see relatives I’d never met. My father’s great uncle had left Maine in search of gold and fortune. Two of his brothers joined him, only to return to Maine after lack of success. The remaining brother, though he never found gold in the rivers of British Columbia, stayed in western Canada.

We boarded a bus that drove east to Glacier National Park, where we visited my aunt and uncle and 1-year-old cousin, Marshall. My aunt and uncle, high school sweethearts, had moved to Northwestern Montana in their red VW Beetle. They liked to backpack and canoe. They loved mountains and were in the process of building a house themselves. When we arrived, the house was a square cabin with two rooms upstairs and two rooms downstairs, the timber sometimes shedding bark inside, the smell aromatic and more alive than any indoor space I had ever known. An opening in the floor of the kitchen led to a root cellar where they kept milk and other perishables. The deck was not yet built, so they placed three odd-sized stumps as stairs outside the front door.

My brother and I slept in a blue and orange tent in the yard, and we were told to wake each other and bring a flashlight if we had to use the outhouse in the middle of the night. There were bears and skunks and mountain lions, and the best protection was not to go alone. I remember waking him in the middle of the night and holding his hand as I followed my braver, older brother down the narrow path.

We ate huckleberry pancakes, the flour from wheatberries ground with a hand mill in the shop. Together, we canoed down the north fork of the Flathead River. Marshall rode along wearing an orange life preserver even though he could barely walk. We swam in both of the nearby twin lakes where through the water we could see the gravel floor. A picture survives of our young family standing in the shallows of one of the lakes, my parents not yet gray, both my brother’s and my spindly legs descending from our dark green swim club suits.

 

I was twelve the first time my family traveled West to go skiing. We went to Utah. My mother warned me not to bring the miniskirts I then wore. "Nothing above the knee," she told me, afraid of offending the Mormons.

Then, as we drove up the road to the resort, my brother pointed to the sheer, rocky cliffs and said, "That’s where we’re going to be skiing." I was only a beginner, having skiied a few times on the Pocanos, small mountains outside Philadelphia. Still, the Pocanos paled in comparison to these huge rock and earth structures that rose steeply all around the car. "Then I don’t want to go skiing," I said.

"You have to. You’ll have to jump off twenty-foot-high cliffs," my older brother said, taunting me.

I began to cry.

My parents, when they heard me crying, corrected what my brother had said and told me there would be a ski slope just like the ones I’d learned on outside Philadelphia, but it was clear then, as our car climbed the twisting road to Alta resort, that the West was something mysterious to all of us.

We had heard about the "powder" that fell from the sky out West, but it was the fog and lack of clear signs that day that frightened my mother some place deep inside. Without meaning to, all four of us had ended up on a ledge outside of bounds, a fifteen-foot drop beneath us. My brother, always the adventurer, threw his skis over and jumped. My mother and I skittered across the ledge onto a marked trail. She still talks about "that scary day at Alta."

 

After I graduated college in upstate New York, I moved to Denver. Perhaps an excuse to go West, I attended the Denver Publishing Institute where I was taught the art of schmoozing at the many wine socials. With five other girls, I swam in a clear mountain lake. Broke and unemployed when the program ended, I secured a job at the famous Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, one of the largest independent bookstores in the West. Shortly before my twenty-second birthday, I moved into the guest room of my parents’ friends’ house. Sure, they were my parents’ friends, but they were nothing like their friends I knew back East. They were vegetarian. They asked me how I liked my $5.25/hour job, but not in a condescending way. Not in the way I was used to being asked, like what did I really plan to do with my life? They woke me up for work by knocking softly on my door and saying, "coffee’s ready."

Several months later, I moved an hour away to Boulder to the bottom half of a duplex with two male elementary teachers ten years my senior. Our coffee table was an old beer keg with a plywood topper. My roommates went scuba diving in Thailand and played flamenco guitar. One of my roommates contemplated changing his entire savings account into marijuana. "Maybe green paper won’t mean anything after Y2K," he mused. "At least then, I’d have something to barter."

In the front yard was a hot tub, and Four Mile Creek ran between our house and the road. I found a job temping at an academic publishing house, where they were impressed that I’d attended the Denver Publishing Institute.

In Boulder, the Flatirons climbed sharp and straight out of the Colorado foothills. We collected our drinking water from El Dorado Springs. The scenery just out of town was cliffs and snow-capped mountains, and I finally felt, as I walked along our canyon road next to the creek lined with wildflowers, that my life was becoming what I’d imagined. Sure, I worked from nine to five in a gray cubicle, and I spent most of that time photocopying manuscripts, but at least I lived in a dramatic canyon outside a Western town. At the top of the mountain that backed up against our house was a nature preserve. It was rumored that a cougar had attacked a small boy who ran ahead of his parents. I was no longer in safe suburbia.

The therapist I met in the New Age section of the Boulder Bookstore used mahjong tiles and hula hoops to help me disconnect from my mother and find my true purpose in life. She introduced me to tarot cards and let me dog sit her Malamute.

I mostly spent time with my housemates and one friend from college who’d also moved to Boulder. My housemates’ friends were mountain bikers, kayakers, and a couple who aspired to own a llama farm. The women I met were either social butterflies intent on impressing my roommates with their lipstick, heels, and flirty skirts, or girls who thought nothing of riding the twenty miles up a nearby dirt road to the isolated town of Gold Mountain. I was neither. I formed a writing group with the people at the bookstore. I went to see bluegrass and jam bands when I could afford to with my music-loving friend from college, Mim.

One weekend afternoon, with my housemates, I rode my bike around Baldy Mountain. On a particularly tight curve, I toppled over, landing on the pointy end of a stick. I was more than willing to show off my puncture wound, proof of just how gnarly I could be. However, when the puncture wound healed, I wasn’t willing to continue riding with my roommates in the hopes of securing more wounds, proof of my "womanhood." More often, I rode my bike to meet my housemates at the Oasis bar and grill at the bottom of the canyon, where we shot pool, drank pitchers of microbrew, and I wondered if this was the real Boulder.

I snowshoed with a housemate, Mim, and the cook at the local breakfast joint to an abandoned mining town in the more remote hills around nearby Nederland. I peeked in the window of one of the houses and saw an ancient bottle of Coke, unopened, on a kitchen table covered with a calico cloth.

Still, I didn’t think Boulder was where I would settle. Most of the people I met were from the East. My housemates were from New York and Ohio. Mim was from New Jersey. A photographer friend I met was from northern Virginia. And everywhere I went—even the remote bike trail that wound around Baldy mountain—I could see houses. It seemed to me, the more money one had, the more impressive view that money could buy. I decided to apply to graduate schools in creative writing, and only those in the Rocky Mountains. I wasn’t ready to return to the East.

Right before I left Boulder, I traded in my worn-out Volvo wagon with rear-wheel drive for a Subaru with a manual transmission. "You don’t want that," my mother told me over the phone. She had just driven back to Philadelphia from Washington, D.C., and she complained about shifting her Subaru in the stop-and-go, bumper-to-bumper traffic.

"But mom," I protested, "There’s no such thing as bumper-to-bumper traffic out here. I want to be able to downshift on mountain passes. For safety." I’d just nearly missed an accident when my brakes overheated on the way down Bear Mountain, and I’d pulled the emergency brake before plunging into Boulder Creek. My mother had been out West plenty, but she still couldn’t believe in overheating brakes and two-lane, curvy roads as more problematic than stop-and-go traffic.

 

When I arrived in Moscow, Idaho, and told people I’d just moved from Boulder, they would say, "This is what Boulder was like twenty years ago," intimating I’d come to a place that was more authentic and less developed than Boulder could ever hope to be.

It is true that every time I visit Boulder, there are new traffic lights and more cars. Walking abandoned logging roads in the backwoods of Idaho where I might glimpse a moose, and all I can see in every direction are cedars and ponderosa pine, is not anything like when I used to run the Mt. Senitas trail outside Boulder and see people talking on their cell phones, walking dogs on brightly–colored leashes, and wearing the latest trail-running shoes. Although I knew when I ran the path at Mt. Senitas that it was something like what I was looking for—fields of wildflowers, sienna and ochre-colored rocks rising out of the earth—there were houses in the distance that wealthy Boulderites had built, and even though it was Rocky Mountain scenery instead of the deciduous trees plentiful in the East, in many ways it wasn’t so different from the park where my mom used to walk our dog in suburban Philadelphia. I was trying to escape developed surroundings where nature felt cute and tamed. I wanted to feel wild. The only way I knew how to do that was to live in a place that felt wild as well.

Still, Moscow looks nothing like Boulder. Moscow is on the Palouse, rolling hills of silt blown in during the last ice age. Now, farmers plant lentils and dried peas in the rich soil. Before agriculture made its way to the panhandle of Idaho, the prairie was covered with native grasses and camas, a pastel-colored flower attached to an edible root on which the Nez Perce subsisted. Instead of nearby mountain ranges or peaks, in Moscow we talk about Kamiak Butte, Moscow Mountain, and the Palouse Divide, none of which exceeds 6,000 feet. One has to drive to find anything above treeline. One and a half or two hours will take you to mythic Western wilderness: the Clearwater River, the Lochsa River, the Bitteroot Mountains, white sand river beaches, snow-capped peaks, and natural hot springs.

When I first moved to Moscow, I was disappointed. I had thought all of Idaho looked like the Sawtooth mountains and the Salmon River, the more arid, more dramatic scenery I’d witnessed during my family’s river trip through Southern Idaho seven years before. I was used to jaw-dropping scenery. I wanted steep mountains, snow-capped peaks, and instead, in Moscow, I was surrounded by rolling fields of dried peas and lentils. Still, I knew the scenery I ached for was nearby, as on the way to visit my aunt and uncle I often drove over I-90’s Lookout Pass that straddles the Idaho/Montana border.

Over time, I grew to appreciate that on the Palouse I could actually have a relationship with each mountain, each butte. I could recognize every trail, watch for snowdrops and Rocky Mountain Asters in the spring, the appearance of huckleberries in the summer, and the sound of Elk bugles in the fall. The scenery in Colorado is radical and overwhelming; that is its point. It dwarfs a person. In Moscow, I could drive to places that made me feel that way—open, raw, connected, awed—but during my time there, I began to understand the value of a less dramatic landscape.

Nearly every Friday of the entire seven years I lived in Idaho, I went with one or two girlfriends to Moscow Mountain or a nearby butte or cedar grove to hike or ski, sit, talk, look, and listen. I have seen parts of Moscow Mountain that were once thickly forested be logged beyond recognition. More times than I can count, I’ve become lost following one trail that I took to be another. I’ve sat quietly in a cedar grove on a snowy February afternoon, and in that same place on a hot, August day. This is a relationship I know many people will never have to their mountains. Every time I ski or hike Moscow Mountain, I know I will greet the welcome tree. And I know ravens will follow.

 

One summer, on a sailboat in Flathead Lake, Montana, the largest freshwater lake in the West, my aunt and uncle and I had just gone swimming, and we were drinking soda and eating potato chips as we admired a blue sky and the high mountain peaks of Glacier Park and the Continental Divide. Perhaps we had been talking about how there are more people than ever before moving into their scenic valley, or about how Cedar Island in Flathead Lake that sold ten years ago for a hundred thousand is now listed at ten million. I remember this: my aunt, wearing a ball cap, aviator sunglasses, a man’s button down shirt knotted around her waist, shrugged her shoulders, and said, taking a potato chip out of the bag, "It’s the West." To her, and to my uncle and me, it’s obvious why anyone would want to move here, but perhaps not to the rest of my family. My aunt and uncle came West for the same reason I did: to climb mountains and canoe rivers, perhaps to escape the nine to five jobs and sprawl-bound existence they imagine they might have had if they’d stayed in northern Virginia.

 

One winter, I’d just arrived in Utah to go alpine skiing with my dad, my brother, and some of my dad’s friends. We’d driven from Salt Lake to Park City, where one of my dad’s friends had a friend of a friend who had agreed to let us stay at his house. My dad had written on the sheet of paper where he’d jotted directions, "pumpkin drive." "Who ever heard of that?" my dad said, as we drove down the main street of Park City, "telling someone they have a pumpkin drive?" Sure enough, when we pulled up to the house, it did have a light-orange driveway. The house—more like a complex—was enormous, and the owner of the house, I’ll call him George, said it took him forever to finally obtain the building code exemption from the city. He was obviously proud of that fact, and I wondered what would compel someone to build a house like that. We stayed in one of the guest apartments. There were two, each with its own bathroom, kitchen, espresso machine, fireplace, and a third apartment was as yet unfinished. The owner of the house told the non-English-speaking workers as they were leaving (even though it was seven p.m.) to pick up some closet rods for our one friend who would be sleeping in the unfinished third guest apartment. Surely, the friend brought something that will need to be hung up, George said to no one in particular.

While we were waiting for the others to arrive, I accompanied George to the supermarket. On the way there, while he shifted the gears of the Isuzu Trooper, he asked me if I had ever been to the Sundance Film Festival.

I said no, but I’d like to.

"What about Cannes?" he asked, but he had a foreign accent, and I was not thinking about France, and so I stared blankly at him.

"Cannes," he kept saying. Finally, he spelled what he was trying to say, and I nodded. "You do know about Cannes, don’t you?" he asked as if I was someone he could not associate with if I didn’t. I remember being surprised, loving the fact that in the West no one asked me what prep school or college I’d attended or judged me according to my (or my parents’) tax returns.

I remember wondering if he was the new West: the people who came for long weekends from their elsewhere urban lives. At one time, my visits to the West hadn’t been so different. Then, I felt like I could reinvent myself at every turn. Still, on that particular trip, I had flown from farther West, from Spokane, Washington, and I knew that even though George owned the house, I was the local.

 

I had to study the laws when I went to trade in my Pennsylvania driver’s license for my Idaho one. There were rules about open range and other things I knew nothing about. I had trouble taking seriously that if I hit a cow on an open range, I would have to pay the farmer the value of the cow. That summer, I was living in Driggs with my boyfriend and his family. His sister quizzed me on Idaho’s driving laws. The same summer was the first time I rode in the bed of a pickup truck. As we piled into the truck for the short trip down the road to go swimming, I asked, "Is this really safe?" They laughed and told me to hold on. I would learn, while studying Idaho’s DMV book, that riding in the bed of a pickup is illegal, but everyone did it. In the West, laws were still made to be broken. I wondered, if I memorized these rules, when I turned in my Pennsylvania license for an Idaho one, was it finally proof that I was a Westerner?

 

Another winter vacation, on a chairlift with my father and brother at Big Mountain Ski resort in Montana, we rode up with a guy in his 20’s who said he lived in Manhattan. At first, I felt a kinship with him because of our East Coast connection and closeness in age, but when he said he had just "discovered" Big Mountain last year, I thought about all the Native Americans who lived here before the whites came and built their forts, intent on taming and taking everything of value in the West. The whites didn’t see the American Indians as real people, just obstacles in their way of the Black Hills and all of what is now Montana.

"It’s amazing," our chairlift friend said. We nodded, not replying. "Now, my girlfriend’s parents are building a place right on the slope," he said. To my dad, perhaps, this man on the chairlift was harmless. My dad lives in the next major city down the Eastern seaboard, but to me, our chairlift friend was one more person who thinks he can make the West his part-time home. Is he dangerous? Will he tame or take what I love? What makes me so protective of the West I am still learning to know? Why did I, in the eight-minute ride to the summit, revile him when he was a person I might have become if I’d stayed back East?

 

I have been in the West nearly ten years. Is it my home? I don’t know it in the way I know what it’s like to grow up somewhere. To me, it still contains mysteries. Will I always be a tourist here? Will I stay?

The past year, for my resume and my bank account, I took a job on the West coast, but it is not the mythic West I dreamed about back in my high school bedroom. I could look out my window and see sailboats on Commencement bay, part of Puget Sound. When I moved there from Idaho last August, a colleague originally from New York City said, "I heard you have three pairs of skis." I nodded, thinking news must travel fast. "It sounds like you’re a Westerner to me," she said, knowing about my Philadelphia roots.

The Puget Sound was haunting and beautiful, flat and blue-gray, but still, too often, I felt a pull back to the mountains where I could ski up old logging roads, where I could feel remnants of the frontier beneath me. And I did come back: to the ravens, to the mountain, to the place I call home.

 

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