When I was a very little girl, my family moved from a very large city on the eastern seaboard to a very small town in a western mountain range.
This is not an unusual move. Americans have long headed west until no more west remains. Then, having taken what we can from paradise, we move eastward again to complain of the cold.
As a child, the distinctions between east and west were not yet clear to me. Nor was I familiar with the great and varied stretch of land that appears to hold these two distant ends away from each other but in reality is what ties them so inextricably together. “You’re so different,” coos one coast to the other, like two tall, popular seniors gazing admiringly at each other over the heads of lower classmen they remember to acknowledge mostly around school election time.
The American West is both a large agglomeration of very real places and a towering mythical ideal. Historically, it begins just west of the Mississippi River, although to look at a census map, The West starts at Colorado, with New Mexico, Wyoming, and Montana close behind. These states, along with Utah, Nevada, Idaho, and Arizona, comprise what is sometimes known as the Mountain West. Beyond that is the West Coast, or the Pacific States.
Colorado is a remarkable intersection, a wild example of both the physical and fabled wests. It is a rectangle, and while not a perfect one it comes closer in shape than any other state in the union. Its eastern half is Great Plains. Neatly dividing it, perhaps not entirely down the middle but close enough to suit our purposes, are the Rocky Mountains. In the western half of the state, beyond the highest passes, things flatten out again, but by then the Continental Divide is behind us, the plains but a memory. Colorado is partly Southwestern, partly Northwestern, a mix of mountains and plains and desert, a combination of conquering cowboys and Native Americans, of ancient tribes who disappeared and pioneers who never left and ski bums who stayed for only a season.
I hated growing up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
For many years, despite how beautiful it was and how safe, I hated it. As far as I could see, which on a clear day from the top of a mountain was so far into the distance I couldn’t have counted the number of peaks if I tried, I was stuck. In a valley, on a mountain, in the middle of nowhere, a million miles from anywhere or anyone interesting. I wasn’t entirely wrong, but I wasn’t right either.
But I was a teenager, so I told myself this story of Steamboat. And even though I knew I loved Colorado — the mountains of the northwest, the high desert of the southwest where I had gone to learn about the Ancient Pueblo peoples and their descendants — I told myself that it was the story of Colorado, too.
In Steamboat, there’s a place called The Tread of Pioneers Museum. My memories of this little museum are dim at best. The history of my adopted hometown was of little interest to me growing up. We had cowboys in town, real cowboys who worked on real cattle ranches. I went to a rodeo in town exactly once, after I had already gone away to college. I lived my entire childhood near the house where the man who was the founder of our town had lived for 40 years with his wife. Not until more than 20 years after I moved away did I bother to look up anything about either of them, or the house itself.
A teenager’s intransigence is an adult’s loss. I am grateful for what I learned while growing up, but I regret everything I ignored. The history of the pioneers in our little corner of Colorado would not have told me anything vital or given me a different understanding of U.S. history. But for better or worse that history became a part of my own story, a way of being that shaped a town, a town that helped shaped my childhood. This America was mine too, as much as I wanted to disavow it.
But like all history, there was no escaping it. And so I headed west to reinvent myself and find my destiny.