The West – the phrase invokes associations of vast space, deserts, freedom, perhaps violence, and wilderness. The concept of the American West was just a hodgepodge of TV cliches to a kid like me, raised on the east coast. As I grew older, my fantasies of the western mythos were embellished with San Francisco hippies, surfers, intrepid explorers, and maverick pioneers. That may sound exciting but I wasn’t particularly drawn to the west; tropical places like the Caribbean interested me much more back then. By the time I finally got on a plane heading across the country I was in my thirties and on the way to San Francisco, which is nothing like the capital “W” west of cowboys and red sunsets. In fact, the sophisticated, wealthy, liberal, coastal city of San Francisco wasn’t all that different from New York, where I lived.
If, as some claim, the American West is everything west of the 100th meridian, then it encompasses big cities, deserts, plains, mountain ranges, and even rain forests. But for most of us, the capital “W” west means the desert part with some mountains in the background and perhaps a few Indians on horses in the foreground. For many years that just didn’t grab me.
It was 2004. My son was in a wilderness school program based in southern Utah. I won’t go into why he was there, I’ll just say that I was desperate and hoped the program would help him get back on the right track. The kids’ families were asked to join them at the end of the month so I booked a flight from New York to Salt Lake City and reserved a rental car. It seemed like a good idea to go early and get acclimated so I poked around Salt Lake City a bit, finding it an intriguing contrast to the eastern cities I knew. It was much smaller and cleaner than New York! But I was eager to head south toward Boulder Mountain, in the wild, high desert of southern Utah, where I would see my son and celebrate his accomplishment.
Soon after Salt Lake City dissolved like a mirage in the rearview mirror, I understood what all the fuss was about. Not knowing what to expect, my drive into the desert was a little like dropping into a void that morphed into pure space, expanding in all directions. The mountains were taller and more rugged, the view wider, the sky higher than any landscape I had experienced. There was room to really see the shapes and colors because they weren’t crammed together. By the time I reached my hotel in the quiet little town of Torrey, I was hooked. Even the view from my room was inspiring. The sheer spaciousness was a tonic for my soul.
The family program wasn’t easy. Each family had its own space up on that cold, tree-studded mountain. There were no amenities, not even a tent, so parents could experience how their kids had been living and kids could show their parents that they could survive without modern conveniences and distractions. Our shelter was two sleeping bags under a tarp propped up with sticks. In the early hours of the morning, it snowed and the tarp collapsed on us. Cold! The kids were supposed to make fires the next morning by rubbing sticks, the old way, but the wet weather made it a struggle. Fire was stolen by more than one camper. Later, there was an intense therapeutic program for everyone, held in a big heated tent, a luxury. In spite of a blazing migraine I got through that long day and in the end, living so close to the bone up there, so far from any human habitation, was tantalizing. The spare landscape, so different from anything I’d ever seen, tugged at my spirit. It felt good to be there.
As soon as I returned to New York, everyday life took over and my capital “W” western experience faded. I was busy – over the next five years, I went back to school for a Master’s degree, separated from my husband, moved twice, changed jobs, and began a new relationship. My son still struggled but he was older and I wasn’t trying to manage his life. My own life was happier than it had been in a decade.
Then a day came when, by a quirk of fate, my partner and I found ourselves both out of work. We began to question if we should look for jobs in New York City, where we lived, or somewhere else. It could be anywhere! After talking and researching, we zeroed in on the Pacific Northwest and planned a trip to scope it out. Landing in Seattle, we drove our rental car all over the region, visiting Mt. Ranier, the Pacific coast, and points in between. We liked what we saw so we took the leap: three months later we were in the west.
But we weren’t in the mythical American West, far from it.
The Pacific Northwest is wet, lush, and feels closed in because of the profusion of towering trees. It has its own beauty, which I’ve come to appreciate. In Utah, I had a taste of the classic West – a vast, arid, open landscape that reveals itself starkly. I hoped to experience that again and it turned out that the desert west was just a short plane ride from Seattle. I could access those sublimely difficult places that had been teasing my mind for years.
That’s what we did, making forays to locations like Joshua Tree National Park in California, Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona, and Death Valley in Nevada. I posted photos of every trip but a scroll through my Lightroom catalog revealed other photographs that haven’t appeared here and are worth a look. The common denominator is desert, whether it’s the Mohave or the Sonoran. The images come out of my experience of fierce, dry, captivating places. It’s one person’s view of a ravishing landscape.