“For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.” –Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men
West. It is in my blood. My family’s house faced West. Decades later, I live in a place where I can see the setting sun from my front porch. It is where I have always gone. When I think of a trip, I think West, particularly when I contemplate a car trip. I almost never think of East, the direction of gentle winds and rising sun. West is where I’ve gone in times of trouble and anxiety. West.
For years, I pulled onto westward-leading interstates and two-lanes when a job got to be too much for me, or when life became so stultified I needed out. With a backpack in the back seat, I drove toward the setting sun.
I can’t tell you what I was looking for, except out. I took a bottle of whiskey and planned on camping out under the stars. Kansas and eastern Colorado intrigued me. The mountains lay beyond but the wide prairies held a kind of magic. It is easy to feel alone and under nature’s thrall in the mountains. On the prairies, I felt a loneliness and isolation. Being a depressive, I loved the sensation. Nothing makes me feel smaller than the wide breeches of the prairie horizon.
Ultimately, I was driving to myself when I took off west. I thought I was escaping the drudgery of work and a dead-end existence, of routine and numbness. These were but illusions. You can’t ever drive away from your life. You can only try to begin again. And in going West, I was remaking my life.
And I drove into the mountains. There was gold in the hills, I only needed to look hard enough. Sure, men and machines had pulled the gold from the mountains decades before I went there. But when I was a kid, my family always drove to the mountains for summer vacations. We camped where my dad had camped as a young man. We lived his good old days. We pulled on our hikers and walked with him to the top of Colorado’s mountains. We mined a different kind of gold. A family in a tent next to a rushing mountain river. Too bad my dad didn’t know the wonders of trout fishing. I may have been a different man for it.
Past the mountains lie the desert. I first went into the great desert regions of the Southwest when I was in my 20s. I pulled off the side of the road near Tucumcari. I walked out as far as I could stand and sat down. The amount of water in the desert surprised me. It had obviously just rained and the soil and plants were sodden. Everything smelled of sagebrush and wet ground. I took a pull from my bottle and felt the warmth gather in the pit of my stomach. I was never so satisfied in my life.
I went farther, deeper into the desert, penetrating the empty spaces beyond people. At Hovenweep, that lonely, isolated spot, I stepped away from the campground into the sagebrush. I hiked the four miles of rock and bluff and sand to the ancient village that once stood at the head of a long, rocky canyon. The people who lived there had carved all sorts of fantastical pictures into the rock—alien men with energy lines emanating from them, long-antlered elk, spirals, and medicine wheels.
Sitting at the edge of a cliff dwelling and looking at the petroglyphs, I had an epiphany. No matter what happened to me, I would be all right. Pest and disease, broken bones, cancers. These afflictions presented just new obstacles, each to be overcome one step at a time. I went West to see spectacles and be alone, and sometimes to feel lonely. But I was made anew.
Later, I sobered up and found I didn’t need intoxication to feel the truths of the West. The place—that great expanse outside my regular life—produced an inebriation special to itself. I hiked away from school and town and people. I disappeared for weekend and weeks among the crags and ravines. I fished lonely streams, sometimes nothing more than pinecone-strewn gutters, that had trout in them. I coaxed them from beneath the willows and out of pools in great rivers. I lost myself for long periods of time, and nothing is better for me than to be loosed from myself. I thought I was after trout and the trout showed me I was seeking redemption.
And I was redeemed. My original sin—of being me—was never really absolved. Instead, I understood it. Whatever marked me as a sinner was outside of me, and not of me. I would always carry the burden of my birth, but I need not let it interfere with what I needed and wanted.
Then, I planned on the ultimate immersion in West. I walked away from my house in the center of Kansas City all the way to Helena, Montana. I tried to hang on to my self-importance, but about the time I hit Manhattan, Kansas, I became, daily, just a mote in the universe of time and space. West and the prairies and, finally, the mountains relieved me of the responsibility of significance. I was nothing and everything. I found myself and I was no more important than an ant on the side of the road.
There is something special about insignificance. It breeds a humility toward self and others. I experienced behavioral changes. I no longer needed to be at the front of the line. I became comfortable in crowds, needing to say nothing but willing to engage anyone in conversation. What others had to say became important. I learned to contribute rather than to be recognized. I began to ask myself what I could bring to a relationship, rather than to seek what relationships could do for me.
While West was always my compass orientation, I have been East and South. I probably have not explored these regions enough, and they are interesting. There’s a history that weighs on my state and the states east of the Mississippi and states south of mine. But they aren’t nearly as good at remaking me as the West.
But the West is not devoid of history. Scratch under the surface and you find the worst we can be—dirt, blood, killing, raw human exploitation, rape of the land. It’s all there. All you have to do is look, to be just the slightest bit aware.
I count everything west of the state line on which I live West. I am going West again in a few days, this time to the Flint Hills, which I so loved as a youth and walked through on my way to Helena, Montana. I look forward to visiting the seemingly limitless prairie, standing in it for a while, savoring its culture.
I will be a visitor, though I consider all the West mine.