What Is The West?

Allen Morris Jones

"There must be as many different Wests as there are people to experience it. For my part? I know it when I see it. It’s in Clyde Park, Montana, more than Moab, Utah. More in Moab than Jackson Hole. More in Jackson than Salt Lake or Boise or Denver, where air travel, the Internet, and mass entertainment have melted regional differences (like all the Crayons in the box) into a featureless, turd-brown blob. Elsewhere, the West is largely defined by elbow room and, as has often been said, by aridity. We’ve always found a measure of our identity by reacting to the crowded, soggy East. And don’t forget that reassuring chestnut about riding off into the sunset toward a fresh start—white hats, black hats, and a good horse between your knees. When you’ve run out of other options, you can still head West. I don’t believe it but I don’t dismiss it, either. I’ve known too many cowboys who read Louis L’Amour. If the fiction is big enough, it starts trailing its own soiled kind of truth. The modern version of this narrative necessarily includes the aftermath, the stories of Native displacement and decimation. The West, for my money, is thus absence and aridity married to a narrative of possibility, and all of it resting on a queasy firmament of genocide. Given enough room and water, maybe the West is where we can still live out our best possible lives. I’m not sure I believe but I don’t dismiss it, either."

Allen Morris Jones is the author, most recently, of the novel A Bloom of Bones. He’s publisher of Bangtail Press and editor of the magazine Big Sky Journal. He lives in Bozeman with his wife and young son.