Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Going West, Going East

I've discussed the tension between going east and going west on this blog before, and the fact that I went east has been on my mind again this week. Call it an intense case of "synchronicity", to borrow Jung's phrase by way of Tom Wolfe; first, the New York Times published Wolfe's op-ed on Mark Twain; second, my hometown paper reported on a current debate taking place in the Tahoe area regarding Twain's alleged lakeside campsite; and third, I spent the last few days reading Wallace Stegner's The Sound of Mountain Water: The Changing American West. Suffice it to say, I've been knee-deep in myths, histories, and ideas of "The West", and the ways in which this narrative affects both "western" writing and "westerners'" self-perceptions.
One conspicuous outcome of this synchronicity, so to speak, is that I've wondered how "western" I am. True, unlike Twain I actually did grow up in "The West", and while I've never worked a farm, cleared a plot of land, or depended on manual labor for sustenance (and no, corralling three year-olds does not constitute manual labor), I've spent years living in and exploring the hills, mountains, and watersheds of Northern California. My predilection for hot showers and a bed means that I've never spent months camping--as NCT can attest, after days of backpacking I cartwheeled with excitement down the flanks of Mt. Blanc to Courmayeur, solely at the prospect of getting to use a hairdryer--but I've slept under the stars in Western Marin, on the shores of Upper Angora, Fallen Leaf, and Aloha lakes, in the redwood groves of Sonoma County, and in Yosemite's broad valley. Perhaps most significantly, I've never started a wildfire while cooking dinner at a campsite.
I suppose "The West" will always be a kaleidoscopic concept, and from a mix of personal, literary, and historical standpoints. I like Stegner's twist on the "idea" of "The West", which I think he crystallizes particularly well in The Sound of Mountain Water in a fictitious vignette that features both Route 66 and Walt Whitman. He write as follows:

"I can imagine the good gray poet, not afoot but definitely lighthearted, taking to the open road down Highway 66, and I can see his eagle eye and his wind-split beard, and hear his words as he squints westward along the vista walled by the work of these latter-day pioneers.
'Oh road,' I can hear him shouting,
'You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you
are not all that is here,
I believe that much unseen is also here.'

It is hard to fool a poet."

But not, according to Wolfe, a wannabe Westerner.

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