What Is The West?
The West is Hells Canyon, Oregon.
From atop this ridge I behold a vast, unpeopled landscape that runs from the once free waters of the Snake River below me, all the way up the rugged peaks of the Seven Devils. Wilderness. Elk pause and watch me, snort, and then run. Their bodies no longer animal bodies but a hundred brown bodies running into a stand of old pine missed by the loggers' saws. Disappearing. On the way up to here, after passing the cache of a mountain lion kill, I stood before the opening of a cave. Steel bars covered the entrance. Painted on the wall, barely visible in the twilight, the last remaining salmon to exist above Hells Canyon Dam. The offering I leave will parole only the salmon in my dreams.
Below me is the dam itself. A result of human ingenuity and brilliant design. Progress. It covers thousands of years of history all the while transmuting once wild water into electricity that brings light to back porches and refrigerates milk as far away as Boise. I want to cover one eye and imagine the pre-colonial West, a land before the gas-powered engine, before cores bored from the skin of the canyon. Minerals wrested. Or to close the other eye and ignore the pain of the past, focusing only on the dam, harboring hope for its future removal. But I must always keep both eyes open.
The West is Moab, Utah.
It is New Year’s Eve. My partner and I have hiked up Amasa Back to watch the sunset. These rims are lined with 4wd trails, mountain bike trails, foot trails. An ancient owl painted high on the canyon wall looks over the narrow valley and to the East. Sees the lights of the city. All the new hotels. We perch ourselves high atop a boulder. Lean into one another. Beneath us, a pair of young mountain bikers pass. They are talking loud about their ride. They are full of words like, "conquered,” “slayed." Phrases like "killed it." The sun begins its drop. Bright orange bleeds into the cerulean sky. The mountains are a pyre or a beacon. The riders have stopped at the west edge of the rims. There is silence. And when nothing else of the sun remains, we hear a whispered, "Oh my God," and "That was amazing." Then laughter, cheering. Applause.
We walk out in the dark, the eyes of the owl adapted. The moon with just enough light to make the snowy tops of the La Salles illume.
The West is Idaho County, Idaho.
It is an unseasonably warm day in January. I climb up the steep slopes that hold the undammed Salmon River. I look to the water and my heart skips like a stone, landing somewhere upstream. I can see where the road ends. I have walked beyond there. Hiked these hills a hundred times. Swam this water. Shared in a traditional salmon ceremony. On top, I spook a small herd of cow elk. Hold the bones of winter kill. Across a narrow drainage, three Big Horn Sheep make their way over impossible crevices, up steep granite. I lie in the warm buckskin grass and watch them. I cannot feel where I end and the soil begins. I pull this scene over me and drift into sleep.
On my way home I stop at the C Store for gas. The sheriff is there in his leather coat. Cowboy hat. For no apparent reason, he starts questioning me. Wants to know where I am from, where I am going, what I was doing in his county. Why hasn't he seen me before, he wonders. I know all the Indians in my county, he purports. He wants to know what I do for work. I tell him. He has allies in the store, I feel their eyes tossing stones at my back. They laugh when he says, "You have fucking Indians in college?" And,"I'll know to look for you now." I am outnumbered. I back out. As I walk away, he taps on the window, says, "I hope I don’t have to fish you out of the river."
All the way home I am checking my rearview mirror. I am watching the horizon. Reestablishing my borders. At the University the next day I warn my Native students. Tell them the story. Of course, they already knew. This is their story as well. This is the West.