Cowboys and Realtors

The mythical West lives on - even as the wealthy, the leisured and the retired buy into Big Sky Country. An essay.

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In his second, successful race, Schweitzer did most of his TV campaign ads sitting on a horse or holding a gun or both. He did it, he said, so his "visuals" would show that he understands Montana. "Hell, I can be on a horse and talk about health care," he said. What a Western politician cannot do, if he or she wants to get elected, is scold voters about the gap that exists between their imagined West and the place where they actually live. "Look," Schweitzer told me, "if I stand in front of voters and tell them, 'Everything you thought you knew about Montana's economy is wrong,' then who in the hell is going to vote for someone like that?"

Historian Richard White has written that the West is the most powerfully imagined part of the United States. And the American imagination has a chronic history of getting things wrong when it comes to understanding the character of Western land.

An example of how wrong that understanding can be occurred in eastern Montana between 1910 and 1918. More than 100,000 sodbusters (including my great-grandfather Elvin Eldorado Harden) were lured to free federal land by railroad advertisements and their own romantic notions of Manifest Destiny. To these newly arriving farmers, the east side of Montana looked like a good place to settle—until plows stripped away the prairie grass to reveal gumbo and alkali soil. After a few years of freakishly adequate rains greened freshly cultivated acres, annual rainfall on the Northern Plains returned to normal, which proved chronically insufficient for row crops. Hunger quickly trumped imagination as crops failed and livestock starved. My great-grandfather died of a bowel obstruction on his struggling homestead, and his seven sons and two daughters scattered. Eastern Montana—like other parts of the Northern Plains—has been losing population ever since.

The land itself engenders wrongheadedness about the West. It looks endless and inviting. The West excites the eye with a "hard clarity" and stirs up notions of "unlimited opportunity," wrote Wallace Stegner, who spent much of his life examining the fool's gold of mythology that is to be found west of the 100th meridian, where, Stegner wrote, "aridity, and aridity alone, make the various Wests one."

Fertile open space without end is an optical and metaphysical illusion that resonates throughout popular culture. It famously infected Cole Porter, a Western romantic from Indiana who composed for Broadway. He was the one who wrote:

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above,
Don’t fence me in....
I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences
Gaze at the moon till I lose my senses
Can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences
Don’t fence me in.

Sadly, mountains, extensive federal ownership and—above all—a chronic lack of water make much of the land under starry skies uninhabitable. Census figures show that the West is the most rural part of the country, in terms of land use, but it is by far the most densely urban, in terms of where people live. Los Angeles is growing denser each year, as newly urbanized land is occupied by about nine people per acre, nearly four times the density of newly developed land in New York.

And so it goes across the entire West, with San Diego denser than Philadelphia, Las Vegas more tightly packed than Chicago, Denver more crowded than Detroit. Twelve of the country's 15 most densely populated urban areas are in the West. New residents move to land in these cities at triple the per-acre density of any other part of the country. In Charlotte or Atlanta or Nashville, high-end houses typically come with several acres; in San Francisco, Portland and Phoenix, expensive new houses tend to be built within feet of one another.

These facts have been widely studied, written about and discussed at conferences by federal and university demographers. But they have done little to rattle the mythology of the West. "There is no denying that these density patterns don't fit with common perception," says Marc Perry, chief of the population distribution branch at the Census.

The grand master of winning votes by milking the myth was Ronald Reagan. As a candidate for governor of California, he took Western images of rugged individualism and, as historian White has written, married them to "the resentment and feelings of victimization” that Western whites felt toward teeming cities full of blacks, Hispanics, gays, criminals and liberals. Reagan's mythmaking was so universally appealing (it is not just Westerners who are hoodwinked by myths) that it helped lift him to two terms as president.

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