American Diversity and the Wild West
On a visit to the country, a city dweller reflects on the nation.
By Peggy Noonan – WSJ
Tenderfoot is in big sky country. On the drive from the airport to the ranch, the Tetons, a range of great splendor and dignity that Tenderfoot had thought were two mountains called Grand, are spread before her. It is dusk. To the left the Snake River curls softly against the road. To the right, open fields, working ranches, herds of buffalo. In the air the scent of sage. The sky is huge, a dome of softening blue. All this is expected—this is how the West looks—yet the real thing startles and overwhelms. You stare dumbly at the wonder of it.
“God’s country,” her host says, not as a brag but with awe still in his voice after more than 20 years here.
Tenderfoot’s host, a friend of many years, a substantial and numeric man, tells her Wyoming facts. There are fewer people in this state than any other. (“They must be lonely,” she thinks.)
Tenderfoot doesn’t really like to be in a place where there aren’t a lot of . . . witnesses. She’s from the city and knows the canyons of downtown, the watering holes of the theater district. She knows her Brooklyn, her Long Island, her Jersey, is a walker in the city and a lost rube in the country. She is here because she loves her friends and will go far to see them. She does have a relationship with the American West and does in fact love it, but it is the West as mediated by John Ford, Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry. She doesn’t really know the real one.
“I’ll fill you in on the bears,” her host says. They’ve been coming in closer, charging hikers down hills and sauntering across property. Tenderfoot nods in a way she hopes looks offhanded, like someone who knows the facts on the ground, the lay of the land, the curve of the bend. In that tone, she asks which are worse, the black bears or the brown ones, and, um, which have the claws. “The grizzlies can kill you,” she is told. She receives this with equanimity. “I will never leave my room,” she thinks.
The next day the conversation again turns to bears, and her host reminds everyone: “You go for a hike, just bring your bear spray.”
“Um,” says Tenderfoot, “do you spray it on yourself like bug spray? Or do you spray it on the bear?”
Another guest, sympathetically: “You spray it toward the bear. Like Mace.”
“That’s what I thought,” Tenderfoot says.
She is game for riding and asks for a horse that is short, lame and stupid. They give her an Appaloosa named Grumpy. He is huge and gray and looks like something the conquistadors rode. Tenderfoot is ready to love him. She pats his thick neck and says sweet things like, “You and me, Grump.” They go forward and it is beautiful—the stately lope, the soft, intelligent snorting—and she is barely offended when he tries to wipe her off on the side of a barn.
Later, loping slowly up a trail by a creek, past aspen and cottonwood, sage and pine trees, past spruce and willows and Indian paintbrush, she sees something on the ground.
She is now already speaking economically, like a Westerner.
“Big twig.” she says.
“Actually that’s a rattlesnake,” says her guide. This happens in Tenderfoot’s imagination but might as well be real.
Grumpy is in charge and knows his trails, barely stumbles. She likes the easy sway. It is mesmeric. “This is how the cowboys did it,” she thinks, “this is how they put up with the boredom and peace.”
She looks down at Grumpy’s massive neck and thinks of . . . Cole Porter. “If Grumpy falls down here I’ll shoot from the stirrups with a flock of the foot and tumble in the opposite direction.” Being a writer, she knows she will write of the fall and need the names of things. “Is that a ravine or a valley?” she calls out to her friends. Silence. “It’s a stream bed,” somebody says.
In the coming days she would hike, mostly because she doesn’t want her friends to call her Tenderfoot Lazybones. She will announce one night that she went on a 7.2-mile hike up a mountain and saw a blurry furry thing 10 feet tall and scared it away with a sound and a stick. It is perhaps closer to the truth that it was a half-mile amble on a hill and she saw a squirrel, but nobody presses her. And anyway that squirrel was big.
In between walking, staring at the stream and the sunflowers, walking through the tack room and staring at horses, Tenderfoot reads a wonderful book called “Wyoming Folklore,” a collection of oral histories from old-timers who, in the 1930s, were asked for their memories of the wild Wyoming where they’d grown up. Their stories were gathered by young writers working for the Federal Writers Project. It was a brilliant use of tax dollars because it was an act of real conservation: If these histories hadn’t been written down they’d have been lost to us all forever.
The stories, told by non-garrulous people in old age, tell of a lost, brute, beautiful world, and the tough, hardy, crazy people who lived in it: cowboys, miners, French peddlers, Irish railway men, German surveyors, desperadoes, drunken soldiers. Parents fleeing disappointment who couldn’t settle down and dragged their hungry children through the wilderness looking for the perfect spot. Indian medicine men, mad prospectors, loggers, serial killers. The storms that bore down from nowhere and left 15 feet of snow. The Cheyenne on the warpath, the U.S. Army on the warpath, towns that rose up against soldiers and their rough ways. Cattle everywhere. Flash floods turning creeks into raging rivers. “It really rained in those days,” said an old cowboy. Lightning made cattle panic and stampede over cliffs.
The legends of buried treasures, of lost mines, of gold nuggets large as wheat kernels. The sudden, raging wildfires. “Just as far as we could see east and west, just one inferno of flames,” said one pioneer. A change in the wind was death to all. No firefighters; only a stream or a river could check a blaze.
The cold and privation, the sheer endurance it took to live in old Wyoming, in the wild, wild West.
At meals Tenderfoot tells stories of what she’s read, but her friends already know them. Still, they are beautiful and powerful to her, and give rise to a thought she’d had before.
People say Americans are by nature isolationists, an odd thing to say of a people who came from everywhere on earth and stay in touch with everywhere. Maybe the truth is that America is so vast, so varied, contains so many different cultures and histories, which in turn give rise to different assumptions and even ways of being, that it has been the work of more than two centuries for America just to know itself. Europe is all bunched together, of course they know each other. We are spread out on a vast continent. it takes a while to take it all in. We’re not uninterested in other countries, we just have so many nations right here.