What is the West?

Barbara Michelmen

 "Something happens when you cross the Mississippi driving west. The clean lines of corn and sunflowers out of Kansas dissolve into Nebraska badlands, morphing again into sagebrush, red clay buttes and mesas. Carved rivers cut hard through the deserts and plains of Colorado and Wyoming, rolling west, until the wall of mountain from New Mexico to the northern border rises up.  And rocky peaks, still scattered with shells from a time when the ocean floor heaved up, etch the starry heavens in midnight blue.


What is the West? It’s the endless open space in the mind where all hope and possibility still live. Or the long ribbon of highway with nothing to stop the wind for a thousand miles. It’s the boneyard of failed lives, mines and mills that played out, boarded up motels on the edge of a town built before the interstate cut around it, passing it by. It’s the residue of bitterness when the market closes because the megastore in some town 40 miles down the road undersells you and you just can’t make it anymore, or the rich Angelino or New Yorker buying up ranches, who flies in and flies out, never touching down on the poverty in the nearby town where you live. Still, you cling to the place because it’s yours and it’s the last bit of hope in a vanquished life and “Dammit my family’s been here for six generations. And nobody’s gonna tell me what to do.” The angry certainty of your rightful place. No matter that the land was taken from the Indians in the call to “manifest destiny”. No matter the brutishness in staking that claim, planting that flag.

What is the West? The kitsch romanticism of Indians, teepees, and the iconic Bison once 30-million strong that we’ve managed to slaughter nearly out of existence, or the town in Eastern Oregon where the broken sawmill languishes while the preacher on the radio bellows out fire against homo-sexu-als, the modern scourge, as if the advancing hordes of Gay Visigoths are about to invade this broke-dick town in the middle of nowhere. Still, the preacher goes on smearing his shit-stained lies all over the poverty, the abandoned buildings, because Georgia–Pacific or Boise Cascade paid good money to cut down the trees and then moved on to cut down the rest of the West.


So, there you are, a snag holding onto the earth because it’s all you know and you’ve got no place to go, clinging in the middle of nowhere watching your life slip through your fingers, carrying your anger and defeat into the bar, drinking your life into oblivion.


What is the West?  The remains of a past where Elk and Bear exist only as names on the streets of some Roundup sprayed suburb killing everything wild.  The place where forests are wood products, wildlife is game waiting to be harvested, and the good rich earth underfoot is mineral resources ready to be upturned. The place where copper once bought a state and the rush to gold a century and a half ago condemned rivers and creeks to an eternity of arsenic and mercury. It’s the place where acquisition is the password, unlocking the secret to the Golden Calf. It’s Google and Apple, Microsoft and Uber, Hollywood and Biotech. It’s sustainable, pastured, and artisanal, all for a price­ — a price you can’t afford if you’re living in a tent under the freeway in the most expensive town in the richest nation in the world.


What is the West? It’s the Yin and the Yang, the Dark and the Light. It’s the vortex of new ideas and the graveyard of a failed myth unwilling to be buried because here in the Bootstrap West that myth must be protected, no matter the price."

Photographer Barbara Michelman began her career working in Hollywood in film lighting. One of the first women in the field she worked in all the major studios. Her work ranges from traditional photography, to the more experimental  fine art digital  imaging and  alternative process printing. She has exhibited in the United States and Europe and is in corporate and private collections on both continents.