Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West by Timothy Egan is a wonderful book and I highly recommend it to anyone who lives in the West or is generally intrigued by the ideas behind places. Egan, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the New York Times, deftly combines original reporting with personal reflection. He conveys his awe at the natural beauty of the West without resorting to clichéd superlatives. He also expertly discusses some of the inherent tensions of the land — like how America came to own it or how desert earth stays so green and wet (ie, water rights).
I’ve lived in the West my whole life. Growing up in California, my school outdoor ed excursions included camping stays in Yosemite National Park, Pinnacles National Monument, Sequoia National Park, and the Marin Headlands. Friends and I fished near the American river in Sacramento. Family vacations growing up tended to involve getting in a car and driving to big sky country. We camped and visited Rocky Mountain National Park, Zion National Parks, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Death Valley National Park, Lava Beds National Monument, and others. We stayed with my aunt in Albuquerque, and I remember being pleasantly startled at the brown and red New Mexico heat. To grow up in a Western city is to have access to good urban living — and the hustle bustle and pulse that cities imply — but also to be in close proximity to nature. A two-for-one that, if properly utilized, will turn every young bud into a conservationist.
My interest in the outdoors continued into my late teens. Last year, while living in Colorado, I befriended the Rockies and the wide plains which greet you immediately after leaving Denver airport. And during my 5,000 mile road trip in April, I stayed at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona which literally took my breath away. I spent many days driving across vast expanses of open space in Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and elsewhere. I remember one road trip day in particular where I was on a conference call and got so wrapped up in the call that I missed my turn and ended up deep within a tall enclave of Utah canyons. I lost cell reception and no other cars were near me. I pulled off to the side of the road ostensibly to find a map, but more to just pause and gape at the power of the red clay that surrounded me left, right, up, and down.
It’s not just the physical features which have a hold on my imagination — but the psychological aspects, too. The idea of the West. The idea that it’s out here where you can unbutton the top button and explore a bit. Find your own square of land. Reinvent yourself. Find forward-thinking, open-minded people. Create your own fortune. Cut ties. Be happy. Fail. Move.
Egan explores these emotions and the places responsible for them. It’s a great read. Below are some sentences from the book which caught my attention, either for their point or for the writing. (Photo credit for above photo)
- Snow muffled the Teton Range, forcing elk down into the valley and a sudden intimacy on all of us.
- Wilderness can cleanse the toxins from a tarred soul, but it takes several days, at least, for the antidote to work.
- A person puts on a cowboy hat anywhere in the world, even if alone in a room, and starts acting differently — sometimes stupidly, sometimes nobly, but it is a new personality.
- In Jackson Hole, $5-million residences were being built on spec, and anything under a million was considered a starter castle. The terraces above the valley were stuffed with log mansions, some with a dozen fieldstone fireplaces. A home with twelve hearths is a home without a heart, deeply confused.
- Statues are scarce in the West, for good reason: sometimes, it takes longer for concrete to dry than it does for today’s consensus to become tomorrow’s historical heresy. It may be easier to lasso the wind than to find a sustaining story for the American West. Still, as storytellers it is our obligation to keep trying.
- We both come from a part of the West where green is the dominant color and chlorophyll is an uncontrolled substance. In the Wet West, that strip from the Pacific shore to the Cascade Mountain crest, no square inch of soot in a sidewalk crack or roof is safe from invasion of some fast-growing transplant. After settling down in New Mexico, Frank needed several years to get over "brownshock," as he called it. I walk around as if in a planetarium, head spinning. The rusted tablelands, the baldness of the land, the mesas of potato-skin color. The wind announces itself in advance. My skin, used to the daily facial of Northwest drizzle, feels as if it’s been next to a radiator.
- Ted Turner owns more than a thousand square miles of New Mexico — 1.5% of the state.
- The way to counter the Western malaise of drift and rootlessness, says the poet Gary Snyder, is to find your place, dig in, and defend it.
- The West has the lowest rate of church participation of any region in the country.
- New Mexico has most of the strands of the modern West, with a heavy Spanish and Pueblo texture. Its cities are full of urban exiles looking to the glow of nearby mountains to put an extra dimension in their lives. People run up and down mesas, trying to squeeze meaning from the land. New Agers come and go, sampling the rarified air but never letting it get into their bones.
- [The Colorado river] flows one way, to the west, in a canal that pumps excessive expectations into Southern California.
- The axiom that water flows uphill to money became the guiding principle of the West.
- Tucson has learned to live in the desert without the massive water diversions. Cacti, brittlebush, aloe, and other native plants were used for landscaping, and the city slowed down, looked at what it was doing to the desert and mountains on which its glow of life depended.
- "If you want to make money in a casino, own one." – Steve Wynn
- Patricia Mulroy is head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. She can move rivers, keep cities alive, make other states tremble, destroy farms, eliminate entire species.
- Sitting around a campfire at night, naked to the outdoors, was for Twain, "the very summit and culmination of earthly luxury."
- Utah is American life lite, without cynicism or corruption, producing more babies per capita and healthier adults than any other state. Smoke-free and nonalcoholic were part of the Mormon canon long before they became the stuff of presidential initiatives.
- The more you stir a manure pile, the more it stinks.
- There is no institutional memory in the West, only dawn.
- Cowboys of the open range knew full well what I learned that summer: the job sucks….How it became one of the most romantic, glorified, and iconic roles in America will have to remain a mystery, and a prime debating point at those fractious conferences between New West and Old West historians.
- "In my book a pioneer is a man who turned all the grass upside down, strung bob-wire over the dust that was left, poisoned the water, cut down the trees, killed the Indian who owned the land, and called it progress." – Charley Russell, cowboy artist
- I feel about Montana now the way you feel about good friends at the end of a lengthy dinner.
- Kelly cooks like he fishes: eyes on the prize, always aware of his next move, the picture of self-confidence.
- Salsa is the number one condiment in America. Salsa is bigger than ketchup.
- Not two days ago the water around me was in a north-facing cranny of the High Sierra, snowbound. And several days from now, the water will be spit out of a sprinkler in a desert cul-de-sac in Moreno Valley, in homes protected by lasers and armed response, a covenant-bound conclave where neighbors sue each other over oddly-placed basketball hoops.
- There are more Koreans in California than any place outside of Seoul and more people of Mexican ancestry in Los Angeles than in any community other than Mexico City. The Golden State is seen by some as a tremulous new world where everyone is a minority. At Hollywood High School, eighty languages are spoken.