The Dying Days of the New West

Recent books about the American West turn the old frontier myth into a mirage.

Tori Telfer | Longreads | May 2018 | 15 minutes (3,912 words)

The American West brings out a hunger in people. I’ve felt it myself — an urge to disconnect from society, buy a horse, live next to a giant saguaro. My husband and I have talked for hours about moving to the town of Truth or Consequences in New Mexico, where we were invited to live by an elderly gay couple we met beside a Tucson, Arizona pool. They told us that houses were cheap and everyone was friends and they’d be our uncles; we took their business card home and spent nights looking at houses on Zillow, cooing over cacti. The destiny was almost made manifest, then real life intruded. Guess where we’re moving instead? New York City.

The urbane, European-inflected East Coast has looked at the West with a strange blend of envy and hope for most of United States history. While the United States was built partially on the idea that the West was our manifest destiny, an East/West rivalry has also been baked into our identity from the beginning; even the famous “Go west, young man!” dictum contained within it some eastward scorn. That cry came from an 1865 New York Times editorial, in which Horace Greeley, the newspaper’s editor, exclaimed that “Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”

In 1836, the writer Francis Grund speculated that westward expansion would only stop when some “physical barrier must finally obstruct its progress”; by the late 1800s, the ocean proved to be no such barrier, as America’s westward colonization encroached on the islands of the Pacific, reaching as far as the Philippines; in 2018, there is so little West left to discover that when we want to dream about the idea of the “frontier,” we look to Mars. Today’s West is a place of deep irony: lands that look wide-open to the naked eye but are actually choked by bureaucratic red tape. In fact, “the West” is more of a mirage than a reality, these days. But the hunger is still there.

***

Despite whatever whiff of desolation and vacancy the West still manages to conjure up for tourists, it was parceled up long ago. The government owns most of the land — 47 percent of the entire West, in fact, and far more than that in states like Oregon, Utah, and Nevada. Take a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles and you’ll look down on land that looks totally un-owned and even un-ownable, what with its arid expanses and weird red alien-looking rock formations, but chances are you’re looking at the property of the federal government.

It’s a familiar story: life was good, but now the Americans are coming.

The tension between public and private land simmers quietly in the background of The Last Cowboys, a deep dive into a good-natured clan of Mormon cowboys by Pulitzer-winning journalist John Branch. When the book opens, we meet their patriarch, Bill Wright, who is worried (in a stoic, cowboy way) about the future of his ranch. Bob knows that land like his looks uninhabitable to city folk like me, but he also knows that it’s good land, great land for cattle.

The Wrights have been ranchers on the same piece of land in Southern Utah for 150 years, “decades before Utah was an official state…before the invention of the light bulb, the telephone, the car, the airplane, radio, and television…before Coca-Cola, the player piano, even barbed wire.” Bill needs more land for grazing, but the available acreage is drying up, both literally and figuratively. Droughts are affecting his cattle’s ovulation cycles, so the herd isn’t expanding as rapidly and steadily as Bill would like. To add to Bill’s list of worries, his thirteen kids are growing up, he’s got about a million grandchildren on the way, and he doesn’t know if his sons will be interested in working on the family ranch for much longer.

Plus, there’s the issue of the government.

Ranchers like Bill rent acres of grazing land from the Bureau of Land Management by purchasing complicated parcels of governmental permits. The permits take into account how many animals can graze on a given piece of land before it becomes an ecological issue; if the government decides that it wants to use the land for tourists, or to protect endangered species, then it can ask ranchers to sell their permits back. The ranchers, understandably, resent this; to them, it feels like the government is playing fast and loose with their livelihood. “No one had more to lose than the rancher when it came to abusing the land,” Bill thinks — but the Bureau of Land Management doesn’t really see it that way.

There is one solution, though, and it’s a strange one. See, the Wright boys are freakishly good at rodeo. And rodeo, it turns out, just might be a way to save the ranch. Though to an Easterner, the aesthetics of rodeo seem to signify a dying way of life — the cowboy hats, the fringed chaps, the slang like “hooey” and “hooky” and “honker” — the sport is actually booming. At the 2015 National Finals in Las Vegas, the saddle bronc rider with the highest marks in a given round could walk home with $19,000; the following year, he’d snag $26,000. The Wright sons and grandsons are saddle bronc celebrities, a newly-minted dynasty: in the finals, fathers compete against sons, twins against twins, younger brothers against older ones. They walk away with hundreds of thousands of dollars in winnings; they sign autographs and negotiate sponsorship deals with Wrangler. It’s enough money to buy more cattle, more governmental permits, and maybe even more acreage from private sellers.

Rodeo is brutally hard on the body, and these boys and men lead lives of quiet violence. Their bones snap regularly. Shoulders are wrenched out of (and back into) sockets. One Wright son shatters both cheeks “like eggshells”; another lands balls-first onto the neck of a bucking horse. They ride horses with names like Lunatic from Hell — one of the “nastiest and most intimidating broncs in the game” — who will smash their riders’ legs and crush their vertebrae in an attempt to get rid of them. Cody, the oldest and most famous Wright bronc-rider, has legs full of steel plates, rods, and screws; both of his hands have been broken, not to mention a broken vertebrae, a splintered collarbone, and a surgically-repaired shoulder. His son, Rusty, has an x-shaped scar on his nose from landing face-first on a rock, and gets bucked so badly at one point that a bone pops out of his foot. At a family reunion, three-year-old Kruz is thrown off a pony, and has to be airlifted to a hospital in Salt Lake City, where he’s put into a medically induced coma. (A week after getting out of the hospital, he’s back on his pony.) All of this, and no one in the book ever screams. The only way the siblings know that one of their brothers is in pain is because he’s acting quieter than normal.

Given all this blood and dust and manly stoicism, it’s easy to get lulled into a sense that you’re reading about cowboys of the past, but inevitably something intrudes on the fantasy: someone whips out a smartphone to text his girlfriend, say, or cracks open an energy drink, or stops at McDonald’s. Someone posts on Facebook. Someone gets in an argument on Facebook. In some ways, this is their undoing, or at least adjacent to their undoing, because part of the problem with the family ranch is that modern life is intruding fast. Tourists are swarming into the area, desperate to catch the tail-end of the so-called frontier, and the chain restaurants and coffee shops are popping up like yarrow flowers. Mountain bikers flock into the region to compete in the “Red Bull Rampage,” and Holiday Inns threaten to ruin the panorama. It’s a familiar story: life was good, but now the Americans are coming.

***

In Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous Frontier Thesis, the historian notes that “a system of administration was not what the West demanded; it wanted land.” This rapacious desire for space has characterized humans for millennia — we are a roaming, hungry, migrant species. In fact, the controversial philosopher John Gray has argued that we are a cancer, hell-bent on consuming our planetary host. In 1817, the politician John C. Calhoun tried to be chipper about Westward expansion, but ended up talking about American settlers as though they were some sort of parasitic vine: “We are great, and rapidly — I was about to say fearfully — growing!”

The word “fear” contains echoes of both terror and reverence, a brief history of humankind in two syllables. It is a word used to describe danger or trickery (“far,” in Old Saxon, means ambush; in Old Norse, it means deception), worship (“the fear of God”), human exceptionalism (“fearfully and wonderfully made”), and bloody colonialism (“Thus then we seek to put ‘the fear of God’ into the natives at the point of the bayonet”). “Fearfully” is a perfect way to describe something that is growing fast, as this movement can be both beautiful (a body getting tall, a wrecking ball taken to decrepit old systems, a means of invention and revolution) and monstrous (a thing that tramples indigenous peoples, wrecks delicate ecological systems, devours its poor).

The “fearful growth” of the American people required a frontier, and a frontier is what we found. What the West demanded, says Jackson — not bothering, in that sentence, to distinguish between the people of the West and the land of the West — is space without administration. To be free and to be left alone.

The West is where you go to escape and vanish and then pop up like a gopher and shake your fist at the East.

The West has long been a repository for this sort of attitude. Even the last of the dinosaurs roamed there, perhaps hoping — in those ancient, reptilian brains — that they had finally found peace. Fast-forward a few millennia and you’ll find the same desires in the town of Snowflake, Arizona, where people who suffer from multiple chemical sensitivities (or “environmental illness”) go to escape the modern excesses that we and our Wi-Fi and chemical-laced deodorants and toxic Benjamin Moore Regal® Select Interior Paint in shades like Polo Blue and Old Glory have wrought on them. The West is where you go to escape and vanish and then pop up like a gopher and shake your fist at the East. It’s a land of migrants, nomads, survivalists, and artistic enclaves; it’s a land where someone you meet by a pool in Tucson, Arizona will invite you to come over and buy a house and stay there forever, perhaps trading in your smartphone for a flip phone, or a quill pen, lulled into a particular sort of sunburnt peace.

The West is also a place that people defend with guns.

The physical expansiveness of the land means that freedom feels a lot more palpable in the West than it does in New York City — what with those beautiful for spacious skies and all — and so it becomes something concrete to fight over. Land. Ranchers, who own a lot of land in the West, don’t want the East to come knocking, and they especially don’t want to hear from their massive federal landlord. (The irony of this frontier attitude is painful to contemplate when you think about the history of Native Americans in the West, who wanted pretty much the exact same thing, and were violently refused it.) For many of these ranchers and their friends, resentment toward Washington D.C. is not a stance but a way of life. Washington is not a place to live in…the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man!

In 1994, the federal government designated millions of acres in California, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona as protected habitat for an endangered, grizzled-looking cousin of the dinosaur: the desert tortoise. Ranchers who had been grazing livestock on those acres were expected to sell back their permits to the government, but a Nevadan named Cliven Bundy simply refused to do so. This was federal overreach, he said; the state of Nevada should be the one telling him what to do about the land. For the next two decades, Bundy let his cattle graze on these now-protected acres, openly defying the government and becoming something of a folk hero as he racked up $1 million in fines and fees.

In 2013, the Bureau of Land Management told Bundy they were going to round up his cattle and that he needed to pay his fees and get out of their way. Bundy reacted by turning his ranch into a stronghold and gathering a ragtag militia who came toting guns and copies of the Constitution. “I don’t think we need to ask Washington, D.C. for this land,” he told a reporter from the AP. “It’s our land.” The agents from the Bureau backed down.


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All of this happened not far from Bill Wright’s ranch. As a rancher, Bill understood Cliven’s concerns about the acreage — you can’t just yank grazing land away from a rancher, he thought. Unsurprisingly, though, the Bundy stance quickly devolved into a mess of vigilante fantasies, “patriot” rhetoric, and racism. By 2016, the situation grew more extreme when Cliven’s son Ammon occupied the headquarters of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. This kicked off forty-one days of a standoff in which one of the occupants was killed by state troopers. The standoff had whiffs of Waco and Ruby Ridge, though it was far less deadly — in fact, the “indulgent attitude” of the federal agents was “presumably intended to avoid” the bloodshed of those former confrontations, wrote Jedediah Purdy in the New Yorker.

It’s hard to imagine the Bundy standoff entering into myth like Waco or Ruby Ridge, either. Whereas the Branch Davidians in Waco and the Weavers in Ruby Ridge just wanted to be left alone — that old frontier attitude, again — the Bundys seemed to enjoy the spotlight, and quickly became too unsympathetic for myth-making, at least for the left and the mainstream right. “That the Bundys imagined that their gathering could speak for ‘the people’ of the Western states, let alone of the country,” Purdy noted, “revealed how anachronistic and narrow their vision of the country was.”

Still, the Bundys attempted a bit of myth-making on their own. The title of Cliven’s authorized biography is “American Terrorist Patriot.” On the cover, he sits on a horse, bowing his head, and holding an American flag high. The West looms in the background, offering no comment.

***

This spring, a fictionalized version of the Bundys will be appearing in short story form. Come West and See is the debut of Maxim Loskutoff, who grew up in Montana and got his MFA in New York City. His book, writes the Vice President of W. W. Norton in an insert of the advanced reader’s copy, finally sheds the light on “a region all too easily ridiculed and forgotten by the rest of the country.”

The book is centered around a fictionalized version of Ammon Bundy’s standoff, a version that grows bigger and more militarized than Ammon’s attempt ever did. By the final story, soldiers are raping and pillaging their way across a desecrated frontier, and the militia has taken to shooting people with arrows. Still, the protest has plenty of similarities to Ammon’s: it takes place at a federal wildlife refuge, people have guns, and it’s imbued with that take-our-country-back rhetoric.

But the standoff is never more than a backdrop, a scrim against which to remind the readers that these people are nothing like us. The only character who actually joins up mid-story does so because he “might get shot and not have to think about” his New Age-y wife, who has taken a lover and, with her cacti and crystals, driven across the West “as if America were made of glass.” There seems to be an implicit nod to the reader in moments like these: You relate more to the wife, don’t you?

I, like so many other deranged Americans, hunger for a version of the West that is nothing but a mirage: a beautiful, natural world, untouched by no one but me.

The protagonists of these short stories are often very relatable and of-the-moment, even when they’re doing things like trying to kill trees or, um, lusting over bears. They get lonely. They read about violence on the news and feel sad. They mourn friends and spouses who have become radicalized. One character is supposed to be looking for a job, but instead spends the day “G-chatting with [her] college friends, reading about the dead idiot protesters in Oregon, looking up how many sexual partners the average woman has…” Her internet activity feels callous but relatable: who among us hasn’t felt sociopathically removed from death when it happens to someone else?

But where are the Bundys? Where are the true believers? I wanted these stories to take me — borne along by the luscious, free-ranging privilege of fiction — into the heart of the standoff. I wanted to meet Loskutoff’s version of Ammon Bundy and to hear the arguments of self-styled “patriots” and “vigilantes” who want to be — to be what? Cowboys? Sovereign citizens? Rodeo stars? Left alone? Art has a long history of skirting around the figure of the “true believer” (the examples that immediately spring to mind are the icy St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre and the way-too-sympathetic David Koresh in Paramount’s recent miniseries, Waco). Sure, the fanatic’s zeal is almost untranslatable for those outside of his or her belief system; what is obvious and logical to the true believer sounds deranged or offensive or dangerous to the one on the outside. But still, can’t we talk about it? Can’t we poke at it, examine it, turn it inside out?

The stories in Come West and See reserve their empathy and sharp awareness for those near the standoff, but not in the standoff. At one point, the mother of a protester says, “We’re real people.” In another, an angry young man scoffs, “I got a degree…a degree in getting fucked by people with degrees.” (We find out a few pages later that this guy has a thorny vine tattooed around both of his arms, down his chest, and around his dick — the perfect detail.) An even angrier young man glares at a couple of young college basketball players, noting that they’ll go on to have a good life: “Becoming bosses, becoming the boss’s bosses.” These characters’ anger is characterized by a sort of compelling casualness — being “enraged” at the government, and/or at immigrants, and/or at the enemy du jour is, in a way, just part of their everyday life. Still, everyone seems ready to snap, and at the end of the collection, people are actually starting to die en masse. (During the First World War, to “go West” was a euphemism for dying.)

In real life, only LaVoy Finicum was killed during the Bundy standoff. There’s a book about him on Amazon called Only By Blood and Suffering, and the reviews are illuminating — both the positive and the negative ones. I recommend reading them. One person writes, “Easterners and City Folk should read as required reading to better understand the vast open west and its families.” I think that’s a valid point, though I have to be honest and say that I don’t plan on reading the book myself. I think every single person should try to understand every single other person. I do! It’s an impossible task, though, especially in today’s world of what, almost 8 billion people? We are great, and rapidly — I was about to say fearfully — growing!

***

I wasn’t sure The Last Cowboys was going to get its happy ending. There’s the ominous finality of the book’s title, after all. The Wrights seemed simultaneously too gentle and too outdated to survive — they weren’t waving guns around, like the Bundys, and so what would protect them from encroaching post-post-modernity? I worried that the coffee shops and the mountain bikes might destroy them, if the rodeo didn’t break their bones first. Even when they raked in over half a million dollars at the Las Vegas National Finals, it still felt that they were, in a way, stuck in a quiet standoff against the rest of the world. “More and more people were coming,” writes Branch, “including tourists from around the world in search of the last vestiges of the shrinking American West.”

But the tourists, it turns out, were Bill’s salvation.

In the book’s epilogue, we find out that Bill has been approached by a woman who wants to set up a couple of big, hippie-esque tents on his land and rent them out to the sorts of tourists who turn up their noses at Super 8 Motels and Holiday Inns. Bill starts dreaming of what else he could offer these tourists. Horseback rides, he thinks. Cattle drives. Maybe a rodeo arena, with a rodeo school taught by his champion bronc-rider sons. And what about a dude ranch with campfires and cookouts? All of it accompanied by the greatest attraction the “shrinking American West” could offer: “real rodeo cowboys.”

The tents are set up, and the tourists pour in. They come from overseas and let Bill lead them through “that movie-scape of a setting.” They leave him hundred-dollar tips and glowing online reviews; they adore this “authentic cowboy with the easy manner.” Even a pair of celebrities stay the night and fall in love with the place. Throughout the epilogue, the word “real” chimes like a funeral bell: “a real cattle drive, with real cowboys…they could ride alongside real rodeo cowboys…a real ranch.”

It is sort of ironic and sad that Bill has to turn himself from an authentic cowboy into an “authentic cowboy” in order to survive in the West. His real ranch is saved by a “real” ranch with “real” cowboys. It kind of makes me shudder to think of the celebrity couple who loved the experience. (I picture a pre-divorce Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, with dust on their boots but marred by an almost imperceptible aura of coastal smugness as they banter with Bill, the “authentic cowboy.”) This is because I, like so many other deranged Americans, hunger for a version of the West that is nothing but a mirage: a beautiful, natural world, untouched by no one but me. I want a little house there, with a cactus, and a coyote in the distance, and a couple of friends in their 70s who wear turquoise in their hair — no guns, no government, ecosystems all magically restored, duh, but also running water, and a way to get good coffee, but no chain restaurants, thanks. No fences, but keep the bears far away from me.

The West I want is the West that Bill can provide for me — for a fee, of course. In Bill’s West, I can stay in a tent whose vistas look out on nothing but unbroken land. I can ride a horse. I can smile at an authentic cowboy. I hear that in some places, the fencing between national parks and ranchland is broken down, so perhaps I can take my horse and ride right across, into protected land. I don’t think anyone will stop me.

* * *

Tori Telfer has written about crime, history, and strange people for the Atlantic (online), Smithsonian, Vice, and elsewhere. Her first book, Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History (Harper Perennial, 2017) is about all of those things, plus arsenic! She also hosts a true crime podcast called Criminal Broads.

Editor: Dana Snitzky