Becoming A Westerner

My first crossing over the Mississippi River into the American West at twenty years old was a nearly hallucinogenic experience. I wasn’t under the influence of peyote, mescaline, LSD, or any other psychotropic drug. It simply seemed to me that the sky abruptly expanded, opened up in a way that I hadn’t previously considered possible.

The places I grew into and knew intimately during my first two decades were nearly all in the northeastern United States, where the visual horizons were limited by the rolling hills of the northern edges of the Appalachian Mountains and the long dome-shaped drumlins left behind during the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the last ice age.

I had traveled out of that corner of the U.S. on fishing expeditions with my grandparents into Canada’s Ontario and Quebec provinces. During college I hopped onto a bus along with fifty other students for the trek down to Washington to join with a half-million other people in the protest against the war in Viet Nam. But on all of my travels on the east coast I encountered the same limited physical horizons. The one exception that I remember, though there may well have been others, was the view from the top of Bare Mountain in New York State’s Adirondacks. It was a very rare thing to see a wide open landscape.

With family and friends “back east”, I had several occasions to travel back to my early stomping grounds, the Finger Lakes region of New York. For over three decades when I got back in the county where I grew up, I always had an unbidden thought rise up in my consciousness, “I’m home.” It was a simple thing. It told me that deep down, I thought of myself as a Yankee-in-exile. I imagined my roots tapping deep into the shale underpinning the farmland, lakes, and long hills. There was always a certain comfort in the idea of being “home”, though there were often many years between my visits to that land.

In 2006, I arranged a 20-day vacation and rode my motorcycle from Southern California to Long Island, NY, then up to the Finger Lakes for a week. My wife Lisa flew into Rochester to spend the week with me before I made the ride back to Riverside. During that week we stayed at the Colonial Inn on Keuka lake, and traveled around the area, visiting friends and family. During that stay in the old country I knew something had changed for me, though I couldn’t quite pin down what that was at the time. The thought that I was home never rose up from my subconscious mind. I didn’t feel rooted there like I always had before.

I didn’t realize what had happened to me, what had changed, until I rode over the Kansas-Colorado border when I suddenly thought, “I’m home. I’m back in the West”. At some point in time between the last trip to the northeast and my 7,000 mile motorcycle ride I had mentally become a Westerner.

Perhaps it is because of my advancing age, but it has been many years since I missed the old country. I have now spent a full two thirds of this lifetime in the West. Though I’ve done a certain amount of rambling west of the Mississippi during vacations and on weekends, I haven’t seen everything by any means. There are plenty of places west of the big river that I want to visit before my contract is cancelled. I have the idea that I’ll be able to travel the west for the remainder of this life. And I’ll be quite content to spend it under the big sky.

This article was prompted by a comment that Steve Vaughn made on Rubidoux Views, so don’t be hesitant when you think about commenting on this Web site, because it may just be fuel for the fire I’m tending…