We've moved westward, often into frontier areas, lured by myriad variables: gold, silver, copper, free land under the Homestead Act, and more recently, the promise of work in factories spawned by World War II. Mormons found protection in the isolation of Deseret. Even as late as the last 50 years prior to the Great Depression, eastern and midwestern farmers saw promise in the last bits of unplowed prairie in the Texas Panhandle and "No-Man's-Land" of Oklahoma. John Steinbeck's Dust Bowl refugees looked to California as an agricultural promised land. Latter-day victims of gold fever ran away to Alaska and more recently flocked to that region for the promise of high wages during construction of the Alaska Pipeline. The West - or the frontier - has promised many things to many people.
(As an aside . . . many parts of the trans-Mississippi West are experiencing a significant depopulation, particularly the Plains states. Articles in the New York Times and National Geographic point out that some counties have populations lower than figures reported a century ago. In some cases, the population density in parts of Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas is low enough to fall under the old definition of "frontier." Parts of Alaska have higher population densities than much of Wyoming and Montana. Scores of towns sit isolated -bypassed by the interstates 50 years ago and bypassed by the digital age today - defined as communities only by the few remaining elderly residents. An equal number of communities already sit deserted, ghost towns without the romantic veneer of cowboys and saloons.
Although economic opportunity seems the constant in much of this attraction, the reasons people migrated are much more complex, varying according to individual circumstances. My own family, oddly enough, seems to have been largely immune to the pull of the West. My father's family has been rooted in Virginia since the 1630s, while my Mom's family has been planting tobacco in south-central Virginia since about 1700. Sure, there were the odd rogue characters in both families who fled the East for the promise of greener pastures or quick fortunes. But by and large the family has played it safe and held onto their little plots of exhausted soil, eschewing the speculative uncertainty of a westward migration. It's as if these people, having made the trans-Atlantic jump from England and France, exhausted their genetic stock of "let's take a chance on a new homeland."
For a long time I considered myself equally immune to the magnetic charm of the West. Why pull up roots when family was here, settled in an area in which they had a tangible history. Parents and grandparents could take me to see the homesteads and headstones of long-deceased generations. We had veterans of the Revolution. Officers and soldiers for the Confederacy. Even a member of the Confederate Congress. There were Methodist-Episcopal ministers, teachers, carpenters, watermen, tobacco farmers. There was always a palpable connection to the land.
Yet more recently I've started to hear the siren song of the West. However, it seems to be a slightly different tune, at least in the economic sense. As I mature as a painter and photographer, I look to that region, particularly New Mexico and Arizona, as a place to start over and realize my potential. (Already, I've been something of a family apostate, having moved north of the Mason-Dixon Line. To hear some relatives talk, one would think I had moved to Mars . . . or the outback. New York City seems that alien to them.) As I read this book about the Dust Bowl, I want to go see what attracted these farmers in the first place. I want to experience the West well beyond what one sees from I-40 and its rest areas.
During the era of the California Gold Rush and Oregon Trail, adventurers and settlers wrote of "seeing the elephant," a term borne of an age in which seeing an elephant as part of a traveling animal show or circus was indeed an exotic occurrence. (Some disappointed westward travelers returned, noting that they had "seen the elephant's trunk" or "seen the elephant's tail" and that view had proved sufficient.) Although I don't see it happening any time soon, I'm certainly ready to "see the elephant," even if it's just as a tourist and not as a permanent resident.