William Eastlake once gave William Kittredge a piece of advice about writing as a Westerner. Never allow a publisher to put a picture of a horse on the cover of your novel: “The people who buy it will think it’s some goddamned shoot-up. And they’ll hate it when it isn’t.”
For more than a century, picking up a “western” meant caressing a myth. The plot rarely varied. Decent folk who’d left behind the corrupt world–always somewhere to the east–came to a land of primeval beauty and promise and set about turning a little chunk of it into a nice, prosperous garden. But there were a few corrupt souls lurking in the vicinity, and before long they showed themselves: heedless savages, horse thieves, men with pistols on their hips. The good folks had no choice but to confront the bad guys on their terms–often with the aid of a mysterious and taciturn stranger on horseback. Violence, regrettable but necessary, ensued. The good guys were wounded. The bad guys were killed. Our happy homesteaders returned to taming the wilderness, cultivating their corner of paradise, a little less innocent but having earned in blood their claim to the land. The taciturn stranger was saddled and gone by morning, having left neither a card nor a silver bullet.
Louis L’Amour wrote more than a hundred works of fiction along those lines, 260 million copies of which are moldering on cheap pulp paper all over the world. In the second half of the nineteenth century alone, 1,700 novels about Buffalo Bill were published. Our appetite for the myths of law-bringing and wilderness-taming is as old as America itself. The pulp western simply spruced it up with big hats, six-guns and blue roan appaloosas. Hollywood seized on the concept and tinkered with its variations for more than thirty years; John Wayne had one of the longest runs of any male movie icon of the past century.
This is the seductive mythology serious writers in the West have to grapple with as they set out to write the much messier, much less uplifting story of the true Western experience. They also face an Eastern literary establishment that is often indifferent or unsympathetic to their aims. Norman Maclean couldn’t find a major publisher to bite on his masterpiece, A River Runs Through It. “These stories have trees in them,” he was told. And in a snotty review in these very pages, Edward Abbey was called “puerile” and “dopey” and was accused of arrogance and xenophobia.
Not that every literary effort to come out of the West deserved canonization. Kittredge published a collection of stories, We Are Not in This Together, that borrowed much from the old myth–except the happy ending, which leaves a rather curdled vision. Despite a laudatory foreword from Kittredge’s friend Raymond Carver, the stories contain a predictable mix of unfaithful women, barroom hijinks, cold-blooded killings, guns and knives and whisky and tight-lipped men who, when they deign to speak, do so not with or even at but past one another. “My stories were mostly imitations about old men and wounded boys, reeking of sorrow and sad romance about the ways love is bound to fail, and could never have been enough anyway,” Kittredge eventually admitted.
Thankfully, in 1978, Terry McDonell of Rocky Mountain Magazine asked Kittredge to write an essay on the theme of “redneck secrets.” Kittredge said he had no idea how to write an essay. A friend who sat in one of Kittredge’s writing workshops at the University of Montana told me that Kittredge recounted McDonell’s advice this way: Give me five scenes or anecdotes strung together with your own bullshit philosophy. Five hundred words of anecdote, 200 of your own bullshit, scene, bullshit, leading to a summation or revelation. It’s that easy.
And for Kittredge, it was; turned out he could bullshit better than most, and in a rugged, poetic and wholly Western prose style. He’s since written mostly nonfiction, looking at the West as a set of true stories that deserve telling in all their complexity. Like this, from his very first essay: “A Redneck pounding a hippie in a dark barroom is embarrassing because we see the cowardice. What he wants to hit is a banker in broad daylight.”
Yee-haw! Now we’re getting someplace.
Kittredge’s first essay collection, Owning It All, published in 1987 and just reissued by Graywolf, is one of the quintessential books to read if you want to understand the ferment of the modern West. He followed that with Hole in the Sky, a memoir that recounted his youth and early manhood on his grandfather’s ranch in southeastern Oregon, a backlands enclave in a “huge drift of country…pretty much nonexistent in the American imagination,” where “we knew a history filled with omissions, which can be thought of as lies.” Kittredge took it as his duty to fill in the omissions, most involving violence done to Native Americans, and he told his own story with astonishing candor: boy buckaroo, teenage dandy, self-pitying young man, a ranch kid in a swampland version of Eden that he and his family ultimately ruined through a combination of greed, pesticides, overly ambitious irrigation schemes and an overweening lust for property.
Over something like three decades my family played out the entire melodrama of the nineteenth-century European novel. It was another real-life run of that masterplot which drives so many histories, domination of loved ones through a mix of power and affection; it is the story of ruling-class decadence that we fondle and love, that we reenact over and over, our worst bad habit and the prime source of our sadness about our society. We want to own everything, and we demand love. We are like children; we are spoiled and throw tantrums. Our wreckage is everywhere.
All of this from a book with a horse on its cover.
Hole in the Sky placed Kittredge in a blossoming tradition of Western writers who can be thought of as anti-mythological. They begin, not surprisingly, with women–Willa Cather (read Death Comes for the Archbishop) and Mari Sandoz (Old Jules)–and continue with writers such as A.B. Guthrie, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Marilynne Robinson and Denis Johnson, whose novel Angels is among the bleakest visions of the urban West ever committed to paper. And that’s merely a few of the white folk from the mountains and plains, a list that leaves off the interlopers, Texans, Californians, poets, Hispanics (Rudolfo Anaya, Jimmy Santiago Baca) and Native Americans (N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich) who have enriched the region’s literature.
Stegner dreamt of a West that had “a civilization to match its scenery,” and no other writer did more to bring that transformation about. His influence can be felt all over a fine anthology edited by Kittredge, The Portable Western Reader, which Stegner didn’t live to see but would have appreciated as a marker of how far the storytelling culture of the region had come. “The Westerner is less a person than a continuing adaptation,” he wrote. “The West is less a place than a process.” On the evidence of his new book, Kittredge is in total agreement.
In Southwestern Homelands, he tells stories from thirty years of tooling the freeways and back roads of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, mostly with his longtime love Annick Smith (another fine writer) and often with a set of golf clubs in the trunk. He goes in search of history and the earthy flux of the present, and he’s as fine a travel companion as a reader could hope for. I’m with him for all but the golf.
It helps to have friends to show you around an unfamiliar land, and Kittredge had some good ones, including Eastlake, Abbey and Doug Peacock, the renowned grizzly-bear expert and model for George Hayduke in Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. Eastlake once told Kittredge a perhaps apocryphal tale in which he and Abbey drove the Southwest’s Interstate highways, felling billboards with a chainsaw. Whether or not the tale is true–don’t you like to think so?–it symbolizes the tension at the heart of the region’s history. What is progress? What are its costs? And, to paraphrase Charles Bowden, can we not imagine a future in which we have less but are more?
Everywhere Kittredge goes, these questions haunt the air. At Chaco Canyon the Anasazi built immaculate pueblos across four square miles between 1025 and 1100 AD. “The houses were fitted together from tons of red stone cut in quarries and mortared into tapered load-bearing walls, five stories high on the curving back side of Pueblo Bonito. Tens of thousands of pine timbers were cut and trimmed with stone axes in mountains sixty miles away and brought to Chaco by people without horses or wheels.” They built irrigation systems to channel rainwater toward domesticated crops. Abruptly, around 1150, they abandoned all of it. To this day, no one knows for certain why. Drought? Enemy siege? Whatever the cause, their attempt at constructing a secure homeland failed. The Anasazi drifted to the north and west. In Canyon de Chelly, they built cliff houses accessible only by ladders, which they pulled up when they feared attack.
One millennium later, dreams of an impenetrable fortress persist. Phoenix, another human settlement fed by diverted water, spreads on the landscape like a malignant tumor; its gated communities might be compared to ancient fortified pueblos. One severe or prolonged drought would also send that city’s inhabitants scurrying to more hospitable climes to the north and west. Aridity, as Stegner incessantly pointed out, is the defining characteristic of the West. In some distant future, tourists may gawk at the splendid, dune-covered ruins of Phoenix or Albuquerque the way we seek out the spooky grandeur of abandoned cliff dwellings.
The Glen Canyon Dam, on the Colorado River, is among man’s most ambitious efforts to compensate for a lack of rainfall. It flooded what Kittredge calls “one of the most exquisite runs of landform on earth,” a labyrinth of canyons formed by 10-million-year-old sand dunes compacted by wind and carved by running water. Abbey once wrote, “To grasp the nature of the crime that was committed imagine the Taj Mahal or Chartres Cathedral buried in mud until only the spires remain visible.” Kittredge consoles himself with the thought that canyons and species don’t last forever. I’m surprised it doesn’t make him happier to think that dams are even more ephemeral.
Gated communities, seething barrios, cross-border maquiladoras, crimes against humans and nature–that’s one side of the coin. On the other: spicy food, entrancing native ceremonies, breathtaking landscapes, hummingbirds flitting among the saguaro and art that soars into timelessness, from the overcommodified Georgia O’Keeffe to Mogollon Mimbres pottery. The exquisite care taken in crafting the Mimbres bowls, decorated with imagery that made use of communal symbols and stories, might even be a valuable example for careless book editors. In the middle of a very moving passage, we find Kittredge viewing “my mother’s powered face that last time before she was interned.” You might be forgiven for momentarily thinking she was a robot on her way to prison camp.
But if you hang with him, you discover him working through one of the keystone moments of the book. “On Second Mesa, in the village of Walpi, a man came up while I was walking the balustrade around the edge of the mesa, and offered to explain the Hopi beliefs. I imagined he was hitting on me, running some scam, and I turned away.” His failure to connect gnaws at him; he keeps brooding over Walpi until he settles on a “message” from the ancients: “Be communal, join up, share your goods, and once in a while give your sweet time away, no charge, pro bono, and you’ll be as close to home as you’re likely to be.” He could have merely bought a trinket or a piece of Native art and moved on. Instead, and despite his failure to connect at first, he was driven to seek some cross-cultural pollination to take with him as he returns to his own homeland in Montana. Which ought to be one of the points of travel for anyone who does it seriously. “Intimacy with otherness is close to impossible without taking some time to stop playing the game of anthropologist,” he writes. In other words, open up, drop your guard, talk to strangers. The world awaits: desert and mountain, laughter and tears, bedrock and paradox.
From the chair where I write this, in a fire lookout tower in the Gila National Forest of southwestern New Mexico, I can see nearly 100 miles in all directions. The landscape is multifarious: austere desert to the east, rising into pinyon and juniper on the foothills and up to peaks covered in aspen and ponderosa pine, before falling away to mesas and grassland river valleys to the west. Hard to recall that just a month ago I was a cog in the corporate journalism machine, a rearranger of commas, scourge of the split infinitive. “Flight involves a spot of reinventing the sweet old psychic self,” Kittredge writes. Amen.
Everything out my window sings to my soul the way Beethoven’s Archduke Trio speaks to Kittredge’s when he’s on the road. Yet the feature I find most intriguing from my perch is a man-made one on the edge of Silver City: a giant open-pit copper mine that looks like a gaping wound in the earth. Just above it, at the end of a shelf of exposed rock, a solitary spire looms. The locals called it the Kneeling Nun, and through my binoculars I can see why: It resembles the shape of a woman wearing a habit, bowed in supplication to an ancient altar of stone.
I like to think whoever named it also saw our need for forgiveness. All across the West, man-made monstrosities punctuate the landscape–dams, clearcuts, open-pit mines, oil refineries. Some of us silently seethe, some of us protest, others work quietly toward a new definition of progress. As we dream and argue our way toward the homeland of the future, we could do worse than to take our cues from an old boy from a ranch in the backlands of Oregon, a man who himself learned to take a few cues from the ancients: “Everything evolves. Nothing lasts. Don’t destroy that which your people depend on. Take care, and plan for the seventh generation, the long future.”