Guest Commentary

Despite the costs of 'progress,' the West remains wild to the young

The thing I remember most about winter in the mountains above a town in New Mexico called Las Vegas was the silence. At times, it was so quiet that, as a sheepherder from Montana pointed out, you could hear snowflakes slap against the pines.

The sheepherder and I were fellow pilgrims whose lives intersected along the interstate in the early 1970s. He was hitchhiking south to a rendezvous in southern New Mexico. When I gave him a ride, I was nearly out of gas, low on money and in desperate need of a job.

Work came, thanks to a dude ranch near the headwaters of the Gallinas River. From sunup to sundown, the days revolved around splitting firewood for tourist cabins, rolling big rocks into rivers to make pools for trout fishermen, caring for livestock and corralling runaway calves. Lodging consisted of a cabin with only a fireplace for heat. Still, it seemed like the Taj Mahal. I was young, and my sleeping bag was a fairly decent bit of Army surplus. At night, stars as big as truck headlights offered companionship just outside the window, illuminating a chattering stream.

Weekends in town provided the company of a mongrel collection of fellow drifters, ranging from the spiritually malnourished to the bizarre--shaman wannabes, cattle-mutilation investigators, a very white man from New Jersey who claimed to be the incarnation of various Indian chiefs and alien abductees bearing messages from interplanetary outposts.

Back on the job Monday morning, hard work in the woods provided a lifeline to the real world. The woodpile grew under sunny days interrupted by clouds draping themselves over white mountaintops, the stillness broken occasionally by horses, nickering for hay.

I remember that winter better than most, because I learned to love that landscape like no other. Yet in retrospect, I'm sure folks throughout the West were relieved when the nationwide pilgrimage of young people to the region during the late '60s and '70s began to wane. As the years passed, many of the country's disillusioned either settled in to become a part of their adopted place or returned to where they'd drifted away from, as one Haight-Ashbury veteran put it, "to become their parents."

Recently, my son, back from Arizona and New Mexico and his own coming-of-age meandering, regaled us with his adventures. It made me think that today's young seekers have strayed little from the tie-dyed blueprint that my generation followed West. We talked of the "coolness" of places where he'd paused for communion, and my mind drifted back to a time when I, too, was young, eager and mostly unafraid, watching in awe as a bear ran over a mountain and ravens gathered for a game of tag in a sky the color of blue stone.

Like so many of my generation who actually did become their parents, I complain nowadays about how former shrines are filling up with ranchettes, real estate agencies and expatriates from urban areas; it's all driving prices far beyond my retirement fantasies. Of course, what I see as travesties have become native to my son's concept of the West today, even though they make my blood boil.

But my son doesn't feel cheated in the least. For him, there's still a lot of cactus flats and pine forest tucked away amid the West's ample vertical rock; enough, anyway, for him to go there, absorb the experiences he sought--and many he didn't--and return home a better and perhaps more tolerant person.

As an aging expatriate pilgrim whose time in church currently gets filed under the term "vacation," I long to retain and eventually regain as much as possible of my old wild West. It seems sacrilegious to price out people from places where young people yearn to migrate and the old seek to die--landscapes of our hearts and minds that call us to play, to pray, to grow and ultimately seek some sort of wisdom.

After 40 years of giving the subject ample thought, it just seems right that a nation prone to bragging about a spiritual birthright ought to also keep its wild places holy--places where silence still lies deep, and snowflakes can still be heard when they slap against the pines.