It would be like a journey up a steep mountain, I dreamed—the trek would be long and arduous but there would be rewards for me at the summit and an unobstructed view of everything.
Instead, I’ve realized that such clarity is only the optimistic dream of youth itself. If I can take credit for anything, it’s being able to admit that even then, I was just as confused as everyone else (though I may not have been willing to make such concessions at the time.)
Though my roots are in Kentucky, I came West as a teenager and since then, have always claimed the Colorado Plateau as my home. My first view of the Great Southwest was from the back seat of a Chevy Impala. We drove all day and through the night and when the sun rose, I awoke to the vast empty high desert of New Mexico along Route 66.
Through the glass, I noticed black patches dotting the barren landscape. “What are those?” I wondered. I thought perhaps they were burned sections of desert, charred by a brush fire.
But the dark splotches were moving! They were shadows cast by the clouds. I’d never imagined such a sight could exist, that land could be so wide and open that it might allow us to see the shadows of many clouds, as they floated above, scudding across these brilliant southwest skies. And I knew, once I’d seen this, I could never live without it.
And I haven’t. As soon as I was able to break free from family and friends and the humidity of the Ohio River Valley, I moved Out West, to the southeast corner of Utah.
I’ve never really left. For years I worked as a seasonal ranger at Arches National Park. I met and was befriended by the only hero I’ve ever found, Ed Abbey.
I discovered hundreds of lovely “secret places,” secured in the shadows of the canyons, watched countless sunsets, became an advocate for wilderness in its truest form, and made many good friends and a few adversaries as well.
And while I have many good Mormon friends, after three decades in the Beehive State, I’m still a heathen.
So... after three decades of almost continuous occupation, does that make me an “Old Westerner” or a “New Westerner?” When I arrived, the New West was not even a part of the lexicon.
In the 21st Century, the landscape of the rural west is being contested by Old and New Westerners who have so savagely misrepresented the other, so excessively caricatured their opponents, that they have, in the process, turned themselves into cartoon characters as well.
There is nothing like bloated self-righteousness to make anyone seem ridiculous. But it is the contradictions in these misguided positions, from both ends of the political and ideological spectrum, that always give me something to write about.
For your entertainment, consider.
Most Old Westerners oppose wilderness, since they believe it will limit their access to public lands. Sometimes their physical abuse of the land itself is dramatic and the damage is long-term.
On the other hand, Old Westerners understand one key component of wilderness far better than their adversaries. They understand solitude. Quiet. Serenity. The emptiness of the rural West. They like the emptiness.
New Westerners are individually more sensitive to the resource, but are terrified of solitude.
They’ll walk around cryptobiotic crust but leave most of them alone in the canyons without a cell phone and a group of companions and they’d be lost, both physically and metaphysically. And since they need to travel in packs, the collective resource damage is far more than they might realize.
Old Westerners like their jeeps and their ATVs. Among these thousands of motorized recreationists are a minority of reckless and thoughtless idiots who cause a disproportionate share of the resource damage.
Many of their peers know this and don’t like it, but don’t apply peer pressure because the one thing they’d rather NOT do is be seen agreeing with an environmentalist.
New Westerners drive hundreds or thousands of miles in gas-consuming vehicles so they can pedal their bicycles for ten and say they’re non-motorized recreationists.
Bicyclists gather for rallies and races just like their motorized cousins and cause extraordinary damage when the numbers are high enough; yet environmentalists refuse to acknowledge that many, many bicycles can sometimes cause as much damage as ATVs.
Old Westerners like cows. Millions of cattle still graze on public lands and some ranchers who hold federal grazing allotments are terrible stewards of that land. They allow overgrazing, destroy valuable and rare riparian habitat and turn some public lands into barren wastelands.
New Westerners hate cows. They think all ranchers are bad stewards. They want to eliminate public lands grazing.
But when they buy a condo in a New West town, they love the view of the adjacent alfalfa field from their picture window and complain bitterly when yet another development wipes out the pastoral scene.
Cows eat alfalfa.
Most New Westerners long for the simple life and want to move to a small town. But they hold the Old Westerners in low esteem and abhor their politics. And when they move to a small town, they build an oversized home, complain about the lack of amenities and try to change everything.
Most Old Westerners actually live the more modest and simple lifestyle that their New West adversaries claim to admire.
Their homes are smaller and their cars are older. They recycle their junk (or at least don’t throw it away) and generally do without a lot of luxuries that a New Westerner could never endure.
They despise the smug arrogance and urban ways of their new New West neighbors. But if they had more money they would probably live just as extravagantly.
New Westerners claim that the uncontrolled growth of the “amenities economy” is out of their hands, that market forces and the whims of American Culture are driving the New West, not them.
As one Utah environmentalist said defensively, “It would have happened anyway.”
Old Westerners long for the “good old days” of ranching and mining, detest the tourists and the New West image of their towns, but never hesitate to make a buck from the “amenities economy” themselves when the opportunity presents itself.
Many Old Westerners are millionaires today because land they bought for next to nothing in the 1960s or 70s is now worth a fortune.
Most Old Westerners hate Ed Abbey, who once said, “If America could be, once again, a nation of self-reliant farmers, craftsmen, hunters, ranchers and artists, then the rich would have little power to dominate others. Neither to serve nor to rule. That was the American Dream.” Despite such sentiments, they still despise him, and they stubbornly refuse to read his books.
Most New Westerners love Ed Abbey, even though they despise half of the people Ed honored in the preceding quote. They’ve read all his books and possess cherished signed copies, but understand far less than they realize.
Old Westerners don’t like President Obama, and while his administration differs dramatically from his predecessor’s, in some ways, nothing has changed. The war in Iraq continues. In Afghanistan it grows more deadly. American military casualties are on the increase; civilian deaths are still called “collateral damage.” Gitmno is still holds prisoners never charged with a crime.
New Westerners love Obama, but what happened to all those high-profile, liberal war protestors that followed George W for five years? Is this what they call “peace?”
Old Westerners are “global warming” skeptics. But if the scientists turn out to be right, they might well be the only survivors because they know how to start a fire, skin a rabbit, and take a crap in the woods.
New Westerners claim to believe in climate change, but given their lack of any real connection to the land, would last about three days, if they were faced to deal with the realities of a dramatically changed planet.
(Jim Stiles is publisher of the “Canyon Country Zephyr -- Planet Earth Edition.” It ran for 20 years as a print publication and is now exclusively online. He is also the author of “Brave New West — Morphing Moab at the Speed of Greed.” Both can be found at www.canyoncountryzephyr.com. Stiles lives in San Juan County and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)