What Is The West?

Steve Coughlin

For a sixth-grader living in Massachusetts in 1991, the West was a map of the United Sates spread between pages five and six in a social science textbook. It was each minute before lunch-- before grilled cheese sandwiches and cups of lime Jell-O--as I stared at the thin black lines separating each American state. The West was the exact opposite of Mrs. Brown leaning against the chalkboard, her right hand covered in chalk dust, making even ancient Mesopotamia sound boring. It was the mystery of northern Idaho pressed against the Canadian border, the ragged edge of Washington's coastline, and the pointing panhandle of Oklahoma. I became lost in the small gold stars designating Pierre and Carson City as capitals, in the blue streak of the Missouri River drifting past Bismarck. My finger traced the compact drabness of each Northeastern state, the terrible smallness of Massachusetts, my hometown of Rockland in the cramped southeastern corner. The West was more than another field trip to Plimoth Plantation, 45 minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was not the indifference of factory smoke or me riding my bike through grey streets to deliver newspapers. It was my father sleeping on the living room couch between jobs and me switching channels to watch High Plains Drifter. It was the idea, however cliché, of empty prairie. I stared at the sprawling possibilities of Montana and Wyoming, the allure of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, mountain ranges with names like Sawtooth and Bitterroot. The West was a world in my mind, safe and adventurous as any map, shaped by the perfect angles of Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. It was the truth of my own imaginings that still offer more than the West I now live in. I wondered for entire minutes at Hawaii and Alaska hovering in their own little squares at the bottom of page five. I did not count the seconds before the bell rang; I did not pass a crudely drawn picture to Tom Carter; I did not stare at the girl whose red hair I noticed in September. I was lost, again, in the long, bending arm of California.

Steve Coughlin teaches writing and literature at Chadron State College in northwest Nebraska. He is the author of Another City (FurtureCycle Press), a collection of poetry.