What Is The West?

Rachel Toor

The West stands at the end of the bar, hunched over a beer, cap pulled low, ignoring women with glittering ears. The West has dirt under his fingernails and wears jeans snagged from replacing barbed wire with flat, more friendly to critters; his feet are Xed with tan lines from river sandals. He worries about fire danger and erosion and river flow and pushes his body hard in the summer so he can go after elk in the fall, where he’ll read Wallace Stegner or Ed Abbey curled up under a tree. The mountains and the rivers sing to him, and he can resist only if he’s lashed to an office. Even so, he needs to get out, to go far, by himself. It’s still too new to take for granted, even if he’s lived here for five generations. He’s always got a lot to do, places to go.


The West wears jeans that hang from her tall, strong body. A hat protects her face from the sun, but her hands show age: big as a man’s, and rough. She can chop, saw, hammer, and nail wood to create buildings. Her shots leave the backstrap clean. She drinks whiskey neat and bakes cakes she’s seen on the cover of Gourmet. Her language is rife with allusions to poetry and images from the violence of winter ranching. She calls the women who seek her out for mentoring “Half Pint” and “Lil Bit.” She knows they’ll never quite get it, but that doesn’t stop her from trying to explain—to explicate—her place. She knows they’ll get what they think they need and will leave. She stays. It’s her place.

Rachel Toor teaches creative nonfiction at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. Her sixth book, Write Your Way In: Crafting an Unforgettable College Admissions Essay will be published by the University of Chicago Press in August.