Nonfiction — print. Vintage Departures, 1999. Originally published 1998. 266 pgs. ISBN: 067978182X. Source: Borrowed from my mom.
I blatantly stole Egan’s book off my parents’ bookshelf and then, like most books I borrow without asking, let it languish on my bookshelves for about three years. Subtitled “Away to the New West” Egan’s book contains a fairly damning portrayal of those who move into the western states of Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Montana (like me) and build McMansions in the mountains without concerns for the locals (not like me).
Specifically, the books focuses on these cities: Jackson Hole, WY; Catron County, NM; Acoma, NM; Lake Havasu City, AZ; Supai, AZ; Escalante, UT; Las Vegas, NV; St.George, UT; Highlands Ranch, CO; Butte, MT; Paradise Valley, MT; Bitterroot Mountains, ID; Joseph, OR; Sunnyside, WA; and American River, CA.
Particularly, the book looks at the question of possession and ownership of the West’s natural resources such as water and land. Egan interviews Kit Laney, the self-described “Last Cowboy in America” who refuses to pay the US government for grazing rights on public lands; Patricia Mulroy, the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, who works to bring more water to Las Vegas’ casinos, golf courses, and subdivisions, even if it means damming the Virgin River running through Zion National Park in Utah; and Robert P. McCulloch, a zealous developer who reassembled each stone of the London Bridge in the Arizona desert in an attempt to draw people to his contrived dream town: Lake Havasu City, Arizona.
“Over the past century and a half, it has been the same crew, whether shod in snakeskin boots or tasseled loafers, chipping away at the West. They have tried to tame it, shave it, fence it, cut it, dam it, drain it, nuke it, poison it, pave it, and subdivide it. They use a false history to disguise most of what they are up to. They seem to be afraid of the native West — the big, cloud-crushing, prickly place. They cannot stand it that green-eyed wolves are once again staring out from behind Aspen groves in Yellowstone National Park. They cannot live with the idea that at least one of the seventeen rivers that dance out of the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada remains undimmed.” (pg. 6)
As the quote above shows, this has had devastating effects for the natural environment of these western states. The bison are driven out of Paradise Valley, Montana to make room for cattle, a species not native to the area and completely dependent upon humans to help them, and to prevent the (undocumented) spread of brucellosis from bison to cattle. Cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles are dependent upon water from upstream and continue to drain these waterways, which leads to the destruction of wildlife in these waterways. Egan also addresses urbanization and suburbanization of the West as well as the hot button topic of public land usage by ranchers, miners, and loggers. I found his essay on the preservation of the so-called Western culture, which has been manufactured over time to reflect the dominance of cattle (and cowboys) on the landscape.
I found Egan’s essays to be completely involving with entertaining writing and an impressive entwinement of historical and personal perspectives. The empathy, humor, and consternation Egan expresses in his book are not clouded by sentiments — something I would struggle with. Egan manages to capture the spirit of such a large chunk of land in only 266 pages. I highly recommend this eye opening and often disturbing history of the exploration, colonization, and exploitation of the West.