“The West invites possibilities but ignores rules.”
So writes Barbara Tyner, first-place winner in our annual writing contest’s non-fiction category of “The West.” Tyner’s words, in a funny way, echo Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace’s (also a writer) famous quote: “Every calculation based on experience elsewhere fails in New Mexico.”
Indeed, New Mexico and the West inspired all our non-fiction entrants to consider—in very different ways—the unruly nature of the West’s open spaces and rebel spirits.
Tom Ireland encounters the West from his motorcycle, seeing mostly a lot of road while pondering the nature of freedom.
Mario Gonzales evokes the unknowable mysteries of the desert, its inescapable power as home and inspiration.
This week finishes up the publication of our ’08 writing contest winners. Congratulations, again, to all nine of them, and thanks to the hundreds who entered.
Look for next year’s categories and contest dates in fall ’09. Until then, keep writing. —Julia Goldberg
The Wild West Comes of Age
Barbara Tyner is a Canadian-American writer, painter and art historian who is currently wearing a lot of hats. Her return to the sunny Southwest from Vancouver’s misty shores is proof of something someone told her many years ago in a small rez town: “Once you get that red New Mexico mud on your boots, it’s hard to scrape it off.” She rides her bike everywhere.
I grew up in the West, but didn’t know it. You can’t get more west than West Los Angeles without getting your toes wet. West as an idea never occurred to me; it was just a better address: Westwood; West Hollywood versus the screaming expanses of nameless suburbia East of Downtown. I didn’t know what West was until I hopped the Amtrak East and unpacked my red foot locker in Gallup, New Mexico back in the late 1980s. It was a kind of Joad trail in reverse. LA was boom-boom-booming, but I traded in my club card for the quiet of vast, piñon-studded horizons and endless blue skies.
LA really was the outrageous place of legend back then, but in the Southwest, freedom seemed to whip me the way the bittersweet wind whipped the plains, making me giddy, whispering promise, passion, everything. These were the carefree, irresponsible days. HIV was new but distant; Global Warming unknown. A roadtrip to Canyon de Chelly didn’t have to be a guilt-trip, and more than a kiss didn’t require latex or fear.
My new home didn’t boast a Little Tokyo, but the small reservation border town offered a rich cultural stew, blending Zuni Pueblo, the Great Navajo Nation, nearby Acoma, Laguna, sometimes even Hopi, and an Hispanic population with roots in medieval Spain. Add to this a scattering of outsiders, taking their turns in the US Public Health Service or at the newspaper or the college branch. It was a heady mix of unsettled but harmonious flavors, a microcosm of the Southwest. Folded in was the one ingredient I have come to understand as the real magic of the West: a sense of the haywire. The unpredictable. In moving East to the Southwest, I discovered the Wild West.
This West is a place of confluence upon which powers that be try to exert a little restraint or impose order. But forget it. The West invites possibilities but ignores rules. People here don’t always bother to repair a broken taillight; red cellophane and tape will do. I learned in Navajoland that baling wire is a car’s best friend. And when my old, sunburned Audi finally died I learned that entropy, like forgetting to check the oil, has its price. But I found you can make a great table out of an old car windshield. The first rule of the Wild West is that there are no rules, especially when it comes to re-invention.
The Southwest’s legacy of re-invention is endemic, tracing back to the day an Anasazi ancestor made a clay pot, not a basket, defining herself a homebody, not a wanderer. Navajos bid their Canadian cousins adieu some 1,200 years ago, and have been re-inventing themselves ever since. Spaniards became conquerors or re-builders, depending upon the story. And the rest—from Georgia O’Keeffe to Julia Roberts—are still hopping off trains and setting up shop and new identities. We learn from the snakes to shed our skins, to become new and more interesting. Possibility and promise roll in on the tenacious wind.
But it’s not all personal growth and pluckiness. Everyone knows that skinny, knock-kneed neighbor with bad teeth and meth zits whose friend rigs emissions tests for a few extra bucks. Try to get a stoplight installed on a dangerous corner, or enforce the 20 mph speed limit in Las Vegas’ tree-lined historic district. Just try. As a journalist, I hung out with the city reporter of an un-named town who recounted a chilling story years ago: during an emergency meeting following the murder of a cop’s wife by her husband, a police chief asked any of the assembled civil servants to raise his hand if the cops hadn’t visited his house for a ‘domestic.’ Not a hand lifted, not even the chief’s.
I moved back to this Wild West with my husband in September, after a few years’ foray to another part of the West—Vancouver, Canada’s westernmost city. Vancouver has a mythic quality for Canadians, its exquisite beauty, warmish weather and stylish sense of cool lures Canucks from their frozen farms, and out from under their plaid shirts and tuques. Vancouver is that really hip kid we longed to be in high school. But it is also strangely tame, lacking that sense of ‘what the hell’ we in the Wild West know so well. In a region bursting with over two million people from around the globe, it manages never to be haywire. The orderliness and lack of rule-bending shocked us, but it helped us identify what we missed about our West: its maverick style. In its defense, Vancouver is a big, teeming city and anarchy is a valid concern. Maybe growing population demands a certain social responsibility.
Our return to the Southwest has been surprisingly jarring. It’s getting crowded. We all who moved here for breathing room are bumping each others’ elbows. Maybe haywire is best in small doses, with smaller populations. While it’s still the Wild West, at least at intersections, today’s wildness feels more like selfishness. It probably always has, but the global stakes were unknown until now. As an archeologist in the 90s I drove 160 miles across the Big Rez daily, because gas was cheap and Al Gore was just a vice president. Sorry. I didn’t know. But the party is over. We can’t pretend our actions don’t have consequences. In the 80s we learned condoms. Now we can learn sustainability.
Albuquerque and Santa Fe are embracing urban style—look at all the new condos—but urban responsibility? Hello public transportation. If the West is about re-invention, we can re-invent ourselves as responsible people. We’re creative and free, remember? Being responsible is the new cool; green really is the new black. It’s not exactly haywire, but it’s alternative. It’s almost sexy. The new maverick can roll in on a bicycle, a hybrid, the Rail Runner, leaving plenty of resources for the next wave of rebels. The West is expanding from within; it’s time it grew up.