Tony Vagneur: The Western vision
August 25, 2017
Maybe Lyle Lovett had it right in his song "Cowboy Man."
"Now I ain't never been no cowboy / But heaven knows I try,
'Cause I'll be riding tall in my saddle / With that Cinderella by my side."
Christmas week, back when there was a cowboy apparel shop in the Brand Building, we spotted a guy stroll out in the finest and latest Aspen accoutrement that money could buy. Square-toed Lucchese boots, fine tan leather pants and a leather designer cowboy coat with fur fringes, all topped off with a wild rag and a silver belly Western felt hat. He looked mannequin good and was impossible to miss.
He walked to the corner in those slick-soled cowboy boots and, as he stopped to check the traffic, promptly slipped and fell on his ass. The hat went a-skitter and since we were right there, we promptly decamped from my pickup truck and helped him to his feet. With sympathy, we advised him that maybe he should dress for a ski town, not a costume party.
Where has the vision of the West gone? It's a point of personal conjecture, having caught what I consider the tail end of the myth of the West in this valley. Being the fourth generation of my ranching family, I don't think we had dreams of the West or wondered about our place in it — we were the West, for Christ's sake.
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It's a personal vision, based on wherever we came from, where and how we were raised and what our priorities are. The vision of the West is, in sum total, a phantasmagoria of dreams, hallucinations and imaginations, all combined and somehow related but when taken individually, indecipherable.
It can be found in downtown office cubicles, the cabs of trucks or behind the counters in retail stores. Do these folks pull their cowboy boots and Wranglers out of the closet on Saturday nights and head to a Western swing emporium where they can line dance or two-step around the hardwood floor, hopefully hooking up with like-minded "dreamers" for the weekend? Or maybe it's found in the imaginations of a young couple lying together beside a slow-moving river, watching the cloud formations roll by? Maybe there's a future for them together, out West.
Guys like Ian Tyson and Buck Deane keep the myth of the cowboy lifestyle alive through their songs and music. Brad Day and his wife Niki of Mill Iron Beef still run cattle with a giant nod to many of the true old West ways. Our mountain streams still hold a lot of rainbowed, wild fish.
Where did romanticized thoughts about the West originate? Early 19th-century writers such as George Catlin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau had a lot to do with it. And like today, their visions of the West weren't entirely accurate, but they were enticing.
Catlin, in his 1841 book, "Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians," makes it clear that he thought of the West as "a spiritual refuge, an Eden of innocence and splendid beauty." There's no doubt that many still look at the West in this light, figuring if they can get somewhere "out West" life will be better.
Rousseau believed that the purity of wilderness would help us recapture beauty and innocence. Are we still that naïve? I think for some of us, we are.
We haven't killed the West with our visions of it, but we may be getting close. The man in the first paragraph, all duded up, no doubt pictured himself a cattle baron, single-handedly saving the herd during a winter blizzard and then riding into town to claim his adoring Cinderella. It usually doesn't work that way, but imagination keeps us in the game.
Over 130 years of mining, ranching, farming and skiing couldn't come up with the means to kill this valley, but the one thing that can do it is us. Being human, we have the very real potential to make a permanent mockery of the words of Catlin and Rousseau. Our designated wilderness lands can still provide refuge, but they are not safe from the ever-growing onslaught.
I long for Maroon Lake and its iconic Bells in the autumn, where my great-uncle Tom Stapleton and I once hunted deer; feel sad for Conundrum Hot Springs and the degradation around it, where the one and only time I camped there we were the single group in the valley. We are "peopling" the West to death.
In the words of my deceased friend Dr. William Wesson, "We need to get the understanding before we get the getting." Living or visiting here does not buy us an unlimited Disneyland-type pass to all that's available. We first need to understand our relationship to, and our impact on, the land, then act accordingly. That's Western vision.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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