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What it means to stand at the Crossroads of the West

In her latest book, "True West: Myth and Mending on the Far Side of America," Betsy Gaines Quammen takes a deep look into the myths of the West and how we our future lies in the balance

Old western films depict a version of the Wild West full of gun-slinging desperados, sheriffs brimming with bravado and a part of the country full of intrigue, action and standoffs in old corrals. It's altered our reality, and plays a key and disturbing role in our national psyche. Public domain image
Old western films depict a version of the Wild West full of gun-slinging desperados, sheriffs brimming with bravado and a part of the country full of intrigue, action and standoffs in old corrals. It's altered our reality, and plays a key and disturbing role in our national psyche. Public domain image

EDITOR'S NOTE: In a time of deep polarization in the American West, author Betsy Gaines Quammen took to the streets to talk with folks of all ilks, listen and convey in her latest book that we must look beyond the myths clouding our collective vision and dividing us along a terrifying fault line. What she's come up with in True West: Myth and Mending on the Far Side of America, is a clear examination of our history and a debunking of Western myths, "misperceptions," reads a statement by publisher Torrey House Press, "about land, politics, liberty, and self-determination [that] threaten the wellbeing of western communities overrun by newcomers seeking a dream—and the country unless America recognizes the dangers of building a national identity on illusion." This book may just allow us to see that we have much more in common than that which pits us against one another.

The following is an excerpt of True West: Myth and Mending on the Far Side of America by Betsy Gaines Quammen, and appears courtesy of Torrey House Press. True West releases October 24, 2023, and is available for preorder wherever books are sold.

by Betsy Gaines Quammen

The summer of 2021 was so dry that Patty and Tom Agnew, my rancher friends in Big Timber, Montana, had to send their cows to Nebraska. Couldn’t feed them on the dry range of Sweet Grass County. Everything was thirsty. Mornings carried a tang of campfire, smoke from catastrophic fires scorching hundreds of thousands of acres of forest. Things felt wrong—there was a smoldering and parched anxiety in the air. Around town, familiar mountains were held hostage by smog, only faint outlines hinting their existence. Rivers ran well below high-water marks and rocks jutted from ripples like ribcages. Hay was selling at a premium during this stingy season. Little water, little irrigation, little feed, and high prices. Fishing restrictions hamstrung anglers as the warming of streams stressed trout. On summer days that should have been sunny and mild, the hot air was heavy with burning. Extended drought throughout the West was squeezing agricultural and recreational industries, pressuring wildlife habitat, and creating an unshakable sense of foreboding for many of us who call this place home.

I remember an ice-cream truck that summer, winding slowly down the block. A tinny song blasted through a blown speaker as the cheerfully painted Chevrolet, or maybe a Ford, emerged from gauzy haze. No kids came running and the carnival tunes just hung over the empty street like the smoke. Montana summers, sun-dappled and sweet-smelling, the ones we dream of for eight months each year, had curdled. On that stifling afternoon, a creepy ice-cream truck announced the season. Not summer, but fire.

This book began with the drought. A year later things were underwater.

Montana saw a thousand-year historic flood come to the Yellowstone River, washing out bridges, roads, and homes. The Gardiner entrance to Yellowstone National Park and the Beartooth Highway were forced to close due to excessive rains, rapid snowmelt, and violent erosion. In the pre-Civil War spiritual “O Mary, Don’t You Weep,” God promised Noah a new version of apocalypse, not a repetition: No more water / The fire next time. But now we are facing both. From fire to flood, the West is wracked by natural phenomena made so much worse in this age of rapid climate change.

On a rare cool evening, my pal Kris Ellingsen remarked on the weird crossroads we stand before. She and her partner, Pete, have lived for years in what was once an old bawdy house, next to a longtime popular steak joint and dance hall, known as Stacey’s, a restaurant that at one time called to bronc riders on the rodeo circuit and maybe, on occasion, still might. Now it’s mostly filled with tourists coming to eat after a day spent bumper-to-bumper on giant rafts floating the Madison and
Betsy Gaines Quammen's new book, "True West" is slated for release on Oct. 24, 2023
Betsy Gaines Quammen's new book, "True West" is slated for release on Oct. 24, 2023
Gallatin Rivers or cruising ski slopes at the exorbitantly priced Big Sky Resort nearby. Ellingson grew up along the plains and mountains of Montana, and for a long time has seen folks come West with wild expectations—drawn by various booms, from oil to ore, that have pulled at those willing to work hard for good money, before operations inevitably go bust. Those incoming waves include not just the working class, but also monied folk who have come for hobby ranches and fortified retreats, to dabble at cowboying and nibble at nature. Climbers, skiers, kayakers, anglers, mountain bikers, and various other adventurers arrive determined to rip, shred, bag, and slay in various and sundry ways. It’s as if the land is prey, butchered and consumed through recreation, extraction, and acquisition. The glories of this landscape, its resources, its stories, and the assorted perceptions of it, have made the West a mythic place, decorated with fictions and burdened with untenable expectations.

The West has changed much in my years of living here, and lately it’s hard to keep up. The region has become ever hotter, drier, angrier, and more politically polarized. More people have moved here. COVID-19 refugees flooded western towns, some seeking medical freedoms, others wishing for some rumored palliative effects of desert and mountain air. Wealthy arrivistes grabbed up their corners of mountain paradises nestled next to federal lands, driving up prices and making it impossible for the working class, and even professionals, to buy homes. Christian nationalists bought up religious homeland and real estate agents reaped the spoils of a sudden, steep influx of newcomers lured by dreams of separatism and hyper-freedom. Politics, communities, and neighborly tenor have changed. In my town, trucks and cars now roar by, emblazoned with Gadsden flags—the “DON’T TREAD ON ME” emblem—like a middle finger raised to the community through which they pass. The flag’s design is also available on popular Montana license plates. I wonder how many drivers realize that the coiled rattler they paid for, then screwed to the bumper of their Subaru, raises funds for an organization actively supporting the Federalist Society, a group actively working to take away women’s rights.

The West is a place of diverse stories, symbols, and signals—and inescapable myths. There is the perception of profuse liberty, copious machismo, untrammeled wilderness, rugged individualism, discovered and “free” lands, cowboy heroics, blank slates, conquered spaces, reliable rain that “follows” tilling into arid lands, and enduring frontier. These myths continue to wind through ways of seeing this place and its peoples, creating hurdles in caring for the environment and communities. Further gumming the works, an onslaught of misinformation has attached itself to western myth in the last few years, leaving outright lies embedded in western legends. People have built their own versions of truth on altars tumbling to pieces, disregarding the limits of land, vulnerable people, unique cultures, and the essentiality of relationships. Right now, there is too much being asked of the West. It sits between history and expectation—a place saddled with hopes that it can’t fulfill.

This is a book that ponders the West as a museum of western myths. To explain what I mean by that, let’s first consider the meaning of “myth.” The word comes from ancient Greek, but traditional stories already existed before the Hellenic empire was established. Such stories are foundational to human communities and their cultures, building a common understanding of gods and divine endeavor, the creation of the world, the meaning of pivotal events, shared sacred values, and the iconography that expresses all those things. Those stories—perpetuated through time as cultural myths—influence ways of understanding and patterns of behavior. The word “museum” also comes from a Greek word, Mouseion. In Greek mythology, muses are goddesses that inspired museums—collections of art, literature, and music, enshrining ideas that onlookers come to regard as revelations of truth.

So, let’s look at how myths are both understood and entwined into culture. There are sacred stories or origin stories, such as Genesis, Hesiod’s Theogony, and the Southern Paiute belief that their god Tabuts scattered his people from his torn sack onto the very best western lands. There are supernatural tales and preternatural legends about skinwalkers, zombies, vampires, and ghosts, which can’t be verified but persist in popular telling and retelling. There are narratives recognized as historical or semi-historical, involving the Alamo, Christopher Columbus or Jesse James, and neo-scriptural accounts embraced by a corps of believers, such as the account of prophet Joseph Smith being visited by Moroni and later finding the golden plates that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints understand to contain what became the modern Book of Mormon. Some myths are built upon defining historical moments, like ideas of American exceptionalism, broadly held, that surrounded the signing of the U.S. Constitution. These proved foundational to other myths, such as Manifest Destiny and the ever-expanding frontier.

Although I will touch upon each of these kinds of myth, what I do in this book is examine what happens when broad and bogus beliefs are affixed to the American West. Myth thus understood as an accepted but deceptive belief, leads us to what I’ve come to consider a museum of toxic myths—a great cultural hall of follies
Betsy Gaines Quammen, author of "American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God, and Public Lands in the West," traveled across western states to interview people who make the West, and America, tick. Photo by Ronan Donovan
Betsy Gaines Quammen, author of "American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God, and Public Lands in the West," traveled across western states to interview people who make the West, and America, tick. Photo by Ronan Donovan
based on misconceptions. The mythmakers I’ve focused on, unlike Greek muses, have promoted reckless ideas, bringing the West to a lurching instability, like a Conestoga wagon on a mountain trail, wobbling in dangerous directions. There are tall tales piled atop fabrications, seeping into memory, falsifying history, and turning caricature into grievous miscalculation.

Through a series of conversations and stories, True West will take you through this myth museum. Along the way, it will show how such myths distort our relations with one another and with this place. Each chapter takes on a myth, or myths, and highlights how people are either inspired or aggrieved. We’ll see how ideas around Manifest Destiny, the frontier, a pursuit of homeland, terra nullius, and biblical literalism affect the culture and communities of the West, as they reel from pandemic, polarization, climate change, and distortions that come through AM radio, social media, and Sunday services.

“You have to know the past to understand the present,” Carl Sagan once pointed out. In that spirit, I turned to this idea that the West is a museum of myths. I understand, yes, that the idea of a museum is complicated. Some of the world’s most famous museums are storehouses for bloody plunder, stolen during slaving raids and other brutal acts of colonization. Human bones and sacred objects lie in basements, or even on display, awaiting repatriation. I cannot and will not defend this. But I do not fully repudiate museums; after all, they are shrines for muses, both good and bad ones. This concept is useful in telling this story of myths. And, to speak personally for a moment, I have a relationship with museums. They played a huge role in my own childhood and helped me better understand the world.
Right now, there is too much being asked of the West. It sits between history and expectation—a place saddled with hopes that it can’t fulfill.
I grew up obsessed with natural history and coveted nothing more than giant collections of pinned beetles, sparkling rows of polished gems, and skeletons of T. rex and stegosauruses. As a high school student in the 1980s, I even did taxidermy for my city’s natural history museum, cutting open feathered bodies of birds that had died crashing into windows. Carefully I’d work skin from flesh, rubbing cornmeal into the raw parts of blue jays, doves, sparrows, and cardinals to loosen the bonds, stuffing body cavities with cotton, then lacing them with thread. To a dyslexic kid like me, there was something revelatory about such tangible realities. Cabinets of curiosities didn’t blur into unreadable words, but instead stood immobile and easier for me to interpret. The lessons from the unmoving moved me.

In addition to stuffing the bodies of familiar animals, I spent many of my most formative moments in the presence of a certain long-dead bird, one individual of a species vanished from this planet. When summer rainstorms pounded the slick, black pavement of the Cincinnati Zoo where I volunteered from ages eight to eighteen, I’d race for a Japanese pagoda. Once an aviary, it is a museum for Martha, the last passenger pigeon. In that pagoda, with hair dripping and clothes sodden, I waited out weather amid memorabilia commemorating Martha’s life and death. During her twenty-nine years, she had suffered from a palsy that led to a slight shaking. She never laid a fertile egg. She died in Cincinnati on September 1, 1914, and, decades later, I spent my childhood with her ghost. So many hours I sheltered in this beautiful building, drenched, solitary, and lonely for a bird whose population was once so vast that its flocks, in flight, eclipsed the sun. It was—still is—hard to imagine that this species, once so prolific, has completely disappeared. This museum was a key to understanding something profound—the utter desolation of extinction.

Martha’s simple monument is a good one. However, things become troublesome when unjustified ideas are institutionalized: when myths beget reality. Some forty years after my time spent with Martha, I am preoccupied with the myth that killed her, that of inexhaustive abundance, justifying relentless plunder, that haunts the West—and the wider world. This myth denies a reality that shakes me to my core: extinction.

Myths have beckoned throughout western history. Newcomers have wandered Native lands for centuries to find riches, get healthy, chase adrenaline, and grab land—all inspired by myths. This is a place set in the sights of outsiders since Coronado reared his helmeted head in 1540, unsuccessfully searching for gold in the southern realms of the Rocky Mountains. He went back to Mexico emptyhanded, claiming land for God and king. Other Spaniards came after him, variously motivated, equipped, and armed, with horses, lances, and a Christian deity. The Spanish conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado y Luján sought the fabled Seven Golden Cities of Cibola, coming upon the Colorado River on his journey from Mexico. Fifty years later, Juan de Oñate grabbed what is today New Mexico, taxing, enslaving, and murdering Native people while granting their lands to settlers. Oñate also forced the religious conversion of Indigenous people, repeating the pattern of forced cultural assimilation throughout Mexico and Central and South America. Santa Fe was established in 1610. In 1776, while American founding fathers were busy with revolution and a final ratification of the Declaration of Independence, Spanish friars Escalante and Dominguez sought a route from Santa Fe to a mission in Monterrey. Though unsuccessful, with the help of Ute guides whom the priests named Silvestre and Joaquin, Escalante and Dominguez helped establish what would become known as the Old Spanish Trail, inviting further colonization of lands fiercely defended by Indigenous nations. As the Spanish sought to conquer territory, they brought with them, along with disease, the myth of discovery.
This is all to say that the idea of the West lacking racial diversity is still another myth. Yet people who didn’t look like a ten-gallon-hatted buckaroo were often left from the pages of history.
This idea of discovery is completely fraught. No, the West wasn’t discovered by white men because it was already inhabited by nations of Indigenous people. Nonetheless, the 1493 Doctrine of Discovery, as codified in a papal bull issued by Pope Alexander VI, declared that any land not occupied by Christians and thus “discovered” by Christians was their land, making conquest over non-Christians legit, at least according to colonizers. The Doctrine gave basis to Thomas Jefferson’s Corps of Discovery mission, around 300 years after Europeans arrived in the Americas. Lewis and Clark, like Christopher Columbus, discovered nothing that wasn’t already known and already inhabited during their traipse over the lands of the Louisiana Purchase. Still, they laid claim to it. This act was later legalized by the American Supreme Court in 1823 in Johnson v. M’Intosh, which held that “on the discovery of this immense continent, the great nations of Europe were eager to appropriate to themselves so much of it as they could respectively acquire. Its vast extent offered an ample field to the ambition and enterprise of all.” The justices further contended “the character and religion of its inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendency.” According to the Supreme Court, “ample compensation” was offered to the Native people “by bestowing on them civilization and Christianity, in exchange for unlimited independence.” This is the justification for the West’s myth of Manifest Destiny: unfettered expansion in exchange for civilizing, missioning, and assimilating. As Don Snow, my droll former professor at University of Montana and later a Senior Lecturer of Environmental Humanities at Whitman College, says of western myths, “I’m fond of pointing out to people on my Lewis and Clark history tours that Jefferson did not purchase land with the famous transaction over ‘Louisiana’; what he purchased from France, and knew it, were the discovery rights to that massive territory.” It wasn’t land that America bought. It was a privilege, a claim, sold from one white Christian dominion to another. Discovery was the idea that Christians were more entitled to resources than others.

Next came the myth of terra nullius, land free and yours for the taking. Wrong. In fact, the West has never been an empty place, with land free. It was occupied by peoples for thousands and thousands of years before Europeans began their conquering campaigns. Footprints found in New Mexico’s White Sands National Park indicate that Native people have walked out here for twenty-one thousand to twenty-three thousand years, though stories from Indigenous traditions refer to their presence on these lands since time immemorial. For millennia, peoples created various communities, governments, rituals, and patterns of daily life.

As decades wore on, America acquired more land from Mexico in 1857, and a young government funded further scouting missions to map the West and scour it for resources. Their motives stood in grave contrast to those of Native peoples, who typically experienced lands, wildlife, and humans as inextricably linked and most certainly not commodities. So-called mountain men had already swept in to trap and kill beaver to near extinction, carrying with them the same myth that killed Martha’s fellow passenger pigeons—the notion of infinite abundance. Gold rushes drew more folks westward, piqued by ideas of God’s bounty, vast riches, and easy lucre—also inaccurate. Miners moved into Colorado, Dakota, and Montana territories to claim their fortunes and often lived in misery, eking out an existence in dingy, overcrowded mining towns. Most never laid hands on any viable claims, let alone big money. As more and more people sought livelihoods on these mythic “frontiers,” miners in Utah and Nevada territories mixed, not always happily, with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), who arrived in the Great Basin after their arduous journey along trails west, chasing the dream of a land promised by their founding prophet, Joseph Smith. Seeking religious freedom to practice polygamy and theocracy, the Saints, as they styled themselves, under the leadership of Brigham Young, set their sights on establishing a western empire, Deseret. Though that idea was never fully realized, today’s LDS communities throughout the West still embrace Young’s myth of Zion, the Mormon homeland.

Beginning in the late 1860s, cattle drives from Texas imported southern ideologies and Confederate sympathies that annealed readily with western frontier individualism. Dust-covered men guided unpredictable and jittery herds across broad plains and introduced the ubiquitous western icon, the cowboy. This myth of a morally upright, range-riding hero, who at his core embodied American values, was a tale spun about men who in actuality were generally young drifters, often short on cash and thirsty for whiskey, serving as the paid hands of cattle barons, many of whom were European.

In the years after the Civil War, skilled veterans moved out to the frontier to fight in the Indian Wars. Black cavalry troops, known as buffalo soldiers, rode with other former Union and Confederate fighters, employing Civil War weaponry to battle Native warriors who fought to beat back an onslaught of buffalo hunters, prospectors, land surveyors, and settlers. As homesteads mushroomed and cattle moved onto bison range, European immigrants, emancipated Black people, and other war vets, plus thousands of Chinese laborers recruited for the purpose, laid track for the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads, building the first transcontinental line, until the operations joined at Promontory, Utah, in 1869. Some Chinese workers who had helped lay the last rails celebrated their role during a commemoration fifty years later. This is all to say that the idea of the West lacking racial diversity is still another myth. Yet people who didn’t look like a ten-gallon-hatted buckaroo were often left from the pages of history.

Each incursion—railroads, ranching, mining, and later the designations of national parks—further pushed Indigenous peoples from their homelands. Navajo, Comanche, Apache, Kiowa, Shoshone, Ute, and so many other nations fought to keep their territory from the onslaught of western expansion, spilling the blood of others and shedding their own. When Sioux leader Crazy Horse won the Battle of the Little Bighorn against Custer’s cavalry in 1876, it was a victory against the United States government’s campaigns of displacement and murder. But by 1890, in the wake of the barbarity of Wounded Knee, the massacre of nearly three hundred people by the US cavalry, the West was firmly in the control of the American government. Native people were required to live on reservations under fraught treaties, amid unscrupulous agents, broken promises, forced marches, and campaigns toward dehumanization and erasure. Yet despite all the effort taken to destroy American Indians economically, culturally, and bodily, Indigenous nations persevered and are a defining component of western culture today, living contradictions of the myth of terra nullius. Indeed, ongoing Indigenous resistance, such as the Standing Rock Sioux protest of the Dakota Access pipeline, remains a central hallmark of the true West. The conquered West is yet another myth.

Amid all the myths that color this place, this is one that has become particularly ironic given the aridity of these lands. In 1862, the Homestead Act was passed and the first governor of the Colorado Territory, William Gilpin, beckoned to agrarians, citing Nebraskan Charles Dana Wilber’s malarkey that “rain follows the plow.” We know that this isn’t true. John Wesley Powell, the indomitable geologist, himself a Civil War vet who lost an arm in battle, told us as much. Powell identified a longitudinal divide on a map of the United States, delineating east from west, defining American geography by rainfall. East of the line is wet, west is dry. He advised members of Congress that, beyond the hundredth meridian (today the ninety-eighth), development should remain constrained within water availability. This view was unpopular to bullish land surveyors and politicians—nothing, including the dearth of water, would stop them from building the West. The year before he resigned from the US Geological Service in 1893, Powell addressed an audience of farmers and ranchers: “I tell you gentlemen you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not enough water to supply the land.” And here we are, in a thousand-year drought as the Colorado River is squandered to grow alfalfa for China and to keep golf courses green in the desert. The myth of an agrarian West has led to a very scary water crisis.

In writing this book, and in examining the West as a myth museum, I aspire to serve as both interpreter and iconoclast. We can find versions of truth in museums, but we must continue to ask questions and puzzle together disparate pieces in order to get at answers. Truth is a constellation. I seek to understand how people think, how they see, and how they operate on their ideas. Ideas exist outside of politics, or they used to. No matter where you sit politically, this book is also my appeal to stop looking at this country and each other solely through a political lens.

My exploration takes place throughout collections in the western myth museum. I consider history, culture, and our human story at a time when external issues, from pandemic to land use, climate change to cultural upheaval, misinformation to inequity, bear down on us. In my quest to gauge our situation, I have tried to reconnect with people after months of isolation and to hear their truths while considering reconciliation. True West is a book not just on myths, but also on mending fences. I set out to interview myth makers, myth boosters, and myth busters and was reminded over and over again, in spite of the frustrations over misinformation and entrenched belief, how important it is to connect with and listen to people. This is where I found truth among my own misperceptions, strolling down the long halls of a museum of western myths.

Betsy Gaines Quammen
About Betsy Gaines Quammen

Betsy Gaines Quammen is a historian and conservationist. She received a doctorate in Environmental History from Montana State University in 2017, with her dissertation focusing on Mormon settlement and public land conflicts. It led to the publishing of her book American Zion. She has studied various religious traditions over the years, with particular attention to how cultures view landscape and wildlife. She lives in Bozeman, Montana with her husband, the writer David Quammen, their "three huge dogs, an overweight cat, and a pretty big python named Boots."
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