Impressions of The American West, Part 1

I grew up in the Near West Suburbs of Chicago. Wide yards and narrow minds, as Hemingway once said. But that’s not entirely true. Or even remotely true. Or even a real quote. Unlike this one by that gorilla, Al Capone: “Today I got a letter from a woman in England. Even over there I’m known as a gorilla. She offered to pay my passage to London if I would kill some neighbors she’s having a quarrel with.” He made his fame in Cicero, another Near Western suburban town. I have no idea why I bring that up, except to say it made me laugh. Gorilla. Anyway, there’s not much out there to write about…home…about. Oh, there’s a ton of sprawl and crap, and strip malls, and fast food restaurants, and regular restaurants, and car dealerships, and big-chain retail stores, and no-chain retail stores, and rib joints and chicken shacks and ball courts and check-cashing centers and laundromats and bars and convenient stores and apartment complexes and strip clubs and libraries and hardware stores. What am I forgetting?

So, basically, it’s just like anywhere else moderately urban in America, only the homes have their own character and so do the streets, and, based on the city’s rich socioeconomic/sociopolitical/socioartistic history, which undeniably has spilled out into the near-suburban areas, there’s an undefinable uniqueness to it you won’t find anywhere else in the world. For better or for worse, love it or hate it–or both–it is its own thing.

There wasn’t really much to take pictures of, though. You could drive or walk or take the bus or the L around and occasionally get photos like this, in Oak Park:



Or this, in Maywood:



Or this, in Berkeley:



Or these, at a cemetery in Hillside:




Or this, at one in Elmhurst:



Or see the occasional, memorable sunset or two:



But that was it. More or less. Something was obviously missing.

I never studied photography, but I knew what I liked. If it looked good, it was good, to paraphrase Duke Ellington. Photography to me seemed no more difficult than that. Find it, see it, set it, snap it. Fortunately for my strained relationship to the yielded paucity of interesting things (in my opinion) to shoot in and around Chicago–and sort of completely unrelated–I felt the urge to get the hell out of where I lived and to travel. And fortunately for me, I met two guys at a hostel in Amsterdam who were from Eugene, Oregon, which gave me the perfect reason to actually go and do it. Not long after I returned home from Europe, Canon AE-1 in hand, I headed out to see them. That was the early spring of 2000. I didn’t know what I would find along the roughly 2,000 miles between there and there, but I didn’t care. I knew what the American West could be. I’d seen the pictures. And I loved it. It was magical. And, though highly textured and original in its own ways, Chicago was flat, noisy, extensively networked for no real reason, fast-paced and filthy.

Coming west out of Chicago, there’s really not much to see (again, in my opinion), depending on what highway or interstate you take. You could get a sunset:



Or some limestone defacement:



Or a horse:



But mostly, it was stuff that just looked like this:



Over and over again, for hundreds and hundreds of miles.  I don’t know exactly how many, but I guess it could be pretty easily documented, because something begins to happen at that latitude not too long after you get past the 100th meridian, somewhere in the Great Plains.  The topography begins to change.  Dramatically.  Even a place like Nebraska–known for its corn, three middle-of-nowhere radio stations and cities so close to the border with Iowa that, if Iowa were to let them, they would defect, precisely because it was somewhere else–changes.  South Dakota and North Dakota, too–for miles and miles, a veritable display of boring American Heartland until they reach that meridian, and the Badlands begin to unfold and open from out of the slowly rising elevations.  Kansas and Oklahoma, unfortunately, miss most of the geographic metamorphosis, but Texas doesn’t, it’s so frigging big.  Turns out this unnamed area I’m talking about is a real thing on a geologist’s map; it’s scientifically considered the farthest-eastern result of the same subduction which occurred far to the west millions and millions of years ago, ultimately forming what we know call the Rockies, when two plates (the Kula and Farallon) collided with the North American Plate and slowly slid underneath it at an uncharacteristically shallow angle.

But all this was still east.  I was headed west.  I’d been on the level for too much of my life.  I wanted things to start getting a little uneven.

This first trip out, I’d decided to take I-90 through South Dakota.  The Badlands and Black Hills behind me, I crossed over into Wyoming, into what’s called the Thunder Basin National Grasslands.  It reminded me of the prairies of Illinois, only slightly more broken, scarred and colorful the further west I came.



I’d been to Wyoming before as a kid. Yellowstone National Park and then Cheyenne, for some reason (another city to monitor closely for defection). But, Yellowstone aside, my time there had been mostly forgettable. Feeling the freshness of the air and sense of weirdness and rebirth I always feel in temperate climates around the springtime solstice, I woke up on a day in late March in Casper and headed west out on American Highway 26. Something profound was moving within me that morning, as I moved up into the greater elevations. And it was somewhere outside the Wind River Indian Reservation, west of Riverton, that I suddenly got the urge to metaphorically move my bowels, to get that large, metaphorical profoundness out of me. If not for the pictures, I might not remember a lot of what I actually saw that day, but I do, distinctly, remember the prolonged, uncontrollable sensation of my jaw slackening and eyes popping (I kid you not), and, well, moving my bowels, leaning over the steering wheel, looking out through the windshield. Some of the things I saw that day were these:



I’d seen plenty of pictures by Ansel Adams and those other famous photographers whose names I could never remember, but nothing I’d ever seen or imagined had ever looked anything even remotely close to this. The colors, the design–it all seemed like another planet. And I could run around and breathe the air? Are you kidding me? How frigging awesome is that? I drove, I parked, I ran around. I drove, I parked. I ran around some more. I drove. People who saw me must’ve thought I was nuts. I spent only four hours there, but the sense of excitement I felt that day I still haven’t forgotten, not in almost 17 years. I drove out, finally, around 6:00 pm, and from that point on, I want to say it only got better. But it didn’t. It stayed just as unbelievably awesome, all the way until I descended from the east into the Willamette Valley of Oregon, and all the springtime mountain snow turned to a heavy, welcoming, tepid rain. Which didn’t stop until about July.

But that’s for another time.


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