After spending a year out west, driving back east wasn’t just culture shock. It was a full-on sensory assault.
When I think about the road trip back to New York, I picture a gradual narrowing of space. We crossed the mountains in the dark; the next day, we careened down into the plains. Kansas went on so long and so flat that I taught myself how to use cruise control for the first time. My boyfriend Eamon tried to find exciting audio, anything, to keep us alert.
More and more trees appeared as we drove farther and farther east, slowly, as if the country were gently easing me back into the greener, denser world I came from. “Mountains!” Eamon announced as we turned to follow the weather-worn Appalachians north — a half-hearted attempt to elicit some enthusiasm. The Appalachians have their own magic, but that did little to soothe my longing for Mount Lamborn, the 11,400-foot peak that had loomed over me during my walks to work in my small Colorado town, a landmark that had anchored me from every angle on my travels around the West Elk Mountains.
I lived there for a year; Eamon joined me for the second half. When he moved out there, he’d been eager to catch a ride west with a friend rather than fly. He wanted to feel the distance, he said, and that made sense to me. Plane time is compressed time; it cheats geography. The road trip home — or from one home to another, really — provided a real-time transition. Driving let me fully feel the discomfort, the grief, the anticipation. It gave me a physical chance to process the change, to inhabit the in-between space along the way — to feel the distance between the mountain town I’d grown to love and the city where I’d lived before.
For years, I had equated wide-open spaces with possibility. This a notion deeply rooted in the troubled mythology of the American West. Think: pioneers, Manifest Destiny, “virgin” lands for the taking. But it resonated with me nonetheless. From my first visits as a teenager, I found myself drawn to the West, the Southwest in particular. I loved the dryness, the vastness, all the ways the landscape could shock my system. I believed I could think bigger thoughts in the sprawling spaces of the West, that such settings were fundamentally more generative than those of the treed-in Northeast, where I had grown up.
It’s an idea I’ve never fully managed to shake.
During my twenties, my trips to the West grew longer and more frequent. In graduate school, I built my MFA thesis around time spent in the red-rock country of Moab, Utah, gathering interviews and experiences for what I hoped would be a book about the boomtown turned recreation hub. Though New York was my home base, I disappeared into the desert for months at a time. When I ran into New York acquaintances I hadn’t seen in a while, they were often surprised to hear I still lived there. By moving to Colorado, finally, I put my money where my heart had long been.
When I tell people about my time in Colorado, it’s hard not to gush: I describe the beautiful mountains and deserts and canyons within a weekend’s reach; how my nine-to-five truly ended at five; how the life I built for myself in my small town was a good kind of simple (or maybe a simple kind of good). But what was less simple was my evolving relationship with the old western myths I’d been half-consciously hauling around.
From a distance, it’s easy to imagine the old stories turned to soft-edged sepia, to assume they lack the color and contour of current events. But so much of what the West faces today remains rooted in the hubris of choosing hostile and inhospitable lands to settle: fire-prone places, isolated places, places with scarce water. Our beliefs were irrational and insistent: Rain would follow the plow; good luck and hard work would unearth riches from beneath the soil. So many stories of the West return to the sense of the land being open and available to the rugged and free, ours to conquer and claim. Living in the real West, I could pull these old myths down off the shelf, turn them this way and that, seeing the ways they continued to inform how the region understood itself.
Living in Colorado forced me to interrogate my own set of myths: the ones about how I thought life in the West would be and the person I thought I could be if I lived there. I went west and found out how little I needed; I went west and the healing powers of the outdoors (and living in a tiny town without the possibility of takeout) improved my health and well-being. These things are true. But how much of that was the West’s doing, and how much was simply the result of living a stable and reasonable life far from the pressures and expectations of New York? And what happened to the rugged independence I’d imagined for myself before I hurtled into a relationship that rewrote all my pioneering plans?
Rain didn’t follow the plow. The ground revealed riches only to a very lucky few, and every boom eventually went bust. If the myths of the American West proved to be just that — myths, unmoored from any reality — it should come as no surprise that the ideas I brought west about myself would be no different. But myths don’t have to be real to have power — including the power to pull me west over and over. Now that I’ve boomeranged back east again, I want to understand why.