One of my favorite poet/songwriters, Utah Phillips, once wrote:
“I’ll sing about an emptiness the East has never known,
Where coyotes don’t pay taxes and a man can live alone.
And you’ve got to walk forever just to find a telephone.
It’s sad, but the tellin’ takes me home.”
The West was and is and should always be about silence and space. Lots of it. About endless landscapes that stretch to infinity, and skies so vast and unbroken that they defy description, and moments of such incredible beauty and clarity that you think you’ll burst if you don’t share this extraordinary moment with someone right now.
And what makes the West so special is that you can’t.
The West has always been about remoteness and unimagined quiet and sometimes it made us crazy trying to decide if we loved it for its solitude or loathed it for its isolation. We really did have to walk forever to find a telephone. No one can truly know the West and love the West without also hating it. But it was the West’s unforgiving nature that also made us feel stronger. We chose to live here with all its emptiness and hardship and unforgiving space. Somehow being able to survive the West, on its terms, gave us a leg up on the world.
Still the West overwhelmed us and filled us with unbridled joy and crushing loneliness, all at once. Like a bear hug from the Universe, we’d stand on the summit of a favorite peak or stretch out on our backs in the middle of a desert valley and for a moment we’d almost be giddy. This, we said, is pure unadulterated joy!
And then the silence would sweep over us and we’d search for some sign that we aren’t as insignificant as we feel, and we couldn’t. We’d look around and think— it’s so…big. And suddenly our laughter would sound like the hollow giggles of a mad man let loose in a coliseum and we’d start to cry. Because this is as good and as bad as it gets.
And we feel so alone and we want to tell someone. We want to hear a voice. But we can’t. Because this is The West—the big, hard, breathtaking, heartbreaking, unrelenting, unforgiving American West. Or at least, it was…
It can be fairly argued that the demise of the “Old West” has been a century-long lament. Ever since Fremont re-discovered South Pass and Marshall found gold at Sutter’s mill, the Pristine West has been chopped and whittled and re-shaped by its conquerors and, for those of us who still suggest there is something more to be lost, our laments increasingly fall upon deaf ears. The truth is, most of us like the New West. Or to be more precise, we “LIKE” it….
This is fast becoming the “Facebook West,” where a man never looks for a telephone and where no one ever needs (or wants) to be alone. Where you can bring the world to your favorite “lonely spot.” Or at least your “friends.” And maybe even your “friends of friends.” Facebook is just a click away from the most remote places on Earth.
I’ve always wished I talked less and listened more, but the world today has little use for the archetypal Westerner—that laconic, taciturn Individual, who only spoke when he had something worth hearing, and maybe not even then. Nobody measures their words now. It goes from brain to keyboard to…everyone. The Facebook West is strikingly similar to the rest of the world.
Facebook has grown to a billion members in just a few years and its homogeneity—its same-ness—is stunning. Nobody is ever out of touch. No personal thought is ever too intimate.
A century and more ago, early travelers to the West disappeared for months or years. Friends and family waited for news and when it came, the letters were like cherished relics. Sometimes no news came at all. And legends began.
As a 19 year old wandering the West for the first time, so many years ago, I was gone for three months. It felt like longer. I’d never felt so far away. Before I left home, my grandpa gave me a stack of pre-addressed post cards.
“Send me one a week,” he advised me and when I came back safe and sound, my cards sat in a stack on the kitchen table, where he read and re-read them each morning.
Today, a traveler to the West posts hourly updates…
Tonight’s sunset? It’s just too lovely not to “SHARE.” Post it on the News Feed.
You just got a sense of your own immortality? Please tell the world.
We “LIKE” this.
You’re in Durango…or Sedona…or Flagstaff…or Taos…and you have a taste for Thai tonight? Post your culinary desires and someone out there will help you satisfy that hunger.
The West’s icons—its landscapes and its heroes—are celebrated in the Facebook West. It makes the perfect gallery for photographs because, after all, the medium is more visual than thought-provoking. And many of the images are stunning. What often gives pause is the way its viewers embrace those images. As lovely as a photograph might be, it cannot be a substitute for the real thing and sometimes it’s not clear if Facebookers know the difference.
Environmental heroes are honored by Facebook in its own inimitable way. The poet/conservationist John Muir can claim that 4190 Facebook users “LIKE” him. Henry David Thoreau is embraced by 18,037 fans. Not bad for men who have been dead for decades or centuries.
Wendell Berry (who is still quite alive and kicking) has 4,616 fans, despite the fact that he doesn’t own a computer and has, by choice and design, never logged onto the internet.
On a page “to promote and discuss the writings and life of Edward Abbey,” his role as a naturalist (one he loathed) usually trumps any serious discussion of Abbey’s more controversial positions like immigration and his membership in the NRA.
Occasionally a contributor to the Abbey page asks the question no one wants to consider: “What would Abbey think of Facebook?” The consensus is always that he would have hated it and then a swarm of Facebookers click the “LIKE” button. Even Cactus Ed’s assumed revulsion for the medium gets a “thumbs up” from its most ardent users and his most enthusiastic admirers.
Nobody seems to notice the contradiction.
In the end, the Facebook West is coming for us all. There is an inevitability about it now that I refused to consider even a few years ago. The banality that we’ve hoped to avoid is now perched on our shoulders and lulling us into submission. It’s comforting to many. We get to be participants, even stars, in what passes for a public discussion in the 21st Century.
And everything is public. A Facebooker recently chastised one of her “friends” for posting “inappropriate comments” on her Wall. “Even if it doesn’t offend me,” she explained, “You never know who is in your audience.”
This is what facebook is really about—we’ve become willing performers, playing to an “audience” full of “friends” who “LIKE” us. Andy Warhol and his “15 minutes” were spot on.
That explains, I suppose, our willingness to abandon the privacy we claim is so precious. We’re asked to list our favorite books and we eagerly comply. Which great actor do we most resemble? We answer without hesitation. What car would we be? Why…the car that suits our personality, whether it’s Mucho Macho or New Age Sensitive.
We unwittingly give the world every detail of our private lives, manufacturing a persona for ourselves in the process. And while we voluntarily spew all the details, somebody out there is taking notes, compiling our profile and we keep making their job easier.
“Yup” and “Nope” just wouldn’t work in the Facebook West. This is no place to be reticent or understated…Gary Cooper wouldn’t stand a chance.
Then it occurs to me. I lament the loss of the empty West and its remote and lonely vistas. I think of the cowboy from “Lonely are the Brave.” All alone…just Jack and his horse. And then I think of millions upon millions of solitary little figures, all around the West and the World, hunched over their various electronic devices in window-less rooms, wishing they were anywhere but where they are, furiously typing their most private thoughts to whoever will listen, and hoping that somebody will reply—that somebody will “LIKE” them.
And I think, Damn, what could be lonelier than that?
POSTSCRIPT: Though I have begun to lose my appetite for reporting “the news,” the last two months have been tumultuous, and it’s clear they will have a direct bearing on life in southeast Utah. Consequently, I had reluctantly planned to offer my own analysis and unsolicited opinion of recent events in Washington, and how I think they will affect the future of our beloved canyon country. After 32 years of this, I feel like I can already see the writing on the wall, before I even touch the keyboard. Still, I’d planned to give it a shot.
But just days after the last issue of The Zephyr posted, on December 3, my brother, Jeff Stiles died suddenly at his home near Stanton, in Powell County, Kentucky. He was only 67 years old. The next morning, Tonya and I drove east, a thousand miles, to be with my mother who is 93 and living in a nursing home.
It has been a terrible shock and a blow to us, and it is a story that for now at least, is just too painful to talk about. My brother and I were very different, but we were still brothers. Grief knows no boundaries.
But as if his death alone wasn’t tragedy enough, when we arrived in Kentucky, events continued to unfold that I can only describe as bewildering. It has affected us in ways that are life-changing (I don’t mean to be cryptic here, but it is a story for another time, that does need to be told. And will be.)
I also mention Jeff’s passing here because we had many mutual friends over the years and decades, and most of them still live in the East. His immediate family never published the obituary for my brother in any of the local or regional newspapers in Kentucky and Ohio where Jeff had grown up, worked, and lived. So if you knew my brother, and you want to talk, please contact me at: email@example.com
In any case, I failed to be able to put together anything remotely coherent as it applies to political and environmental events unfolding in America and in the West. This piece was an updated essay that I wrote a while back, but which is even more relevant today than when it was first published…Thanks for your patience and understanding…JS
Jim Stiles is Founding Publisher and Senior Editor of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
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