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Tori Telfer

The Dying Days of the New West

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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. Read more…