Welcome to the very conflicted New Old West
September 13, 2006
“Welcome to the New Old West” reads the sign outside Pahrump, Nev., as you drive from Death Valley Junction along the California border.Given the meaning of these two terms, it’s a funny juxtaposition. The Old West has always meant open spaces, riding the range, cowboys and gunfire, freedom in the early 20th century sense of the word – to do what you want, where and when you want – without pesky regulations. This is the West of an untapped world of promise.The New West means something different. Service and leisure have mostly replaced extraction and herds, cities dominate, and people wearing cowboy hats sit in traffic in SUVs, with glorious sunsets behind the nearby mountains that most never visit. This West builds four things: casinos, subdivisions, theme parks and prisons. It has glitter and glitz, leisure and at least a measure of security. Yet we pine for the Old West as we live in the new.This is the terrible paradox of the West today. Our collective desire has created a split between where people tend to settle and the land that surrounds them. The West is the most densely urban part of the country; it is also home to the most glorious and spectacular open spaces available in the Lower 48. The two abut each other, but they rarely intersect.Every state in the West has a spine along which most of its population lives. In Utah, it’s the Wasatch Front; in Colorado, the Front Range. In Arizona, the Tucson-Phoenix-Flagstaff corridor contains 75 percent of the state’s non-Indian population. In Nevada, Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, makes up more than 75 percent of the state. If you add the Washoe Front of Reno and Carson City, the two together top 90 percent. In Idaho, it’s the highway corridor that connects Boise, Twin Falls, Pocatello and, with a little jog to the north, Idaho Falls.All that density means that cities swing a lot of weight in the West. We make our money in cities, increasingly in tourism and services. The cities generate sales tax, property tax, cultural life, medical care and just about everything else that makes us modern. Cities even use water efficiently, yet in every Western state, 80 percent of the water goes to inefficient agricultural uses. It is the cities where economic action hums, and in almost every Western state, urban economic endeavor subsidizes rural counties. The dollars made and the taxes paid in urban areas build schools and roads in rural areas, staff essential services and shoulder the increasing public-assistance burden as most rural economies continue their decline.As amenity-based communities creep out into open space and wildland, they create what historian Lincoln Bramwell calls “wilderburbs.” There, residents want roads and police and fire protection, but they also want the vistas and advantages of open spaces. Many find that you can’t have both.We love the open spaces, or more correctly, the idea of open spaces. We dream of that geography, the American dreamscape, the landscape in which the nation was reinvented in the aftermath of the Civil War. It frees us from the historical burden of being Americans. It lets us see reinvention of the self in the Western landscape.In our minds, the real American nation was born out here, free of the taint of slavery and sectional conflict. The first American Republic, the one that lasted from 1776 until 1861, had a crack in its structure, just like the one in the Liberty Bell itself. Called slavery, this fissure severed that first republic, crushed it, and necessitated a rebirth of the American nation.The West became the location of that new conception of American nationhood. When we see cowboys and open spaces, we don’t think of federal subsidies for ranching and agriculture; we think of the ideals that make the nation great. In the United States, the geography of the West is at the heart of the nation, of the way we craft our identity for better and worse. The result of this paradox traps us. Demography, the study of populations, spells out the reality of who we are and how we live. Geography is what we aspire to in our dreams and what makes us psychically whole. The New Old West is a meaningful idea, because it’s somehow where we all live, trapped between demography and geography.Hal Rothman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a professor of history at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.