Over the last few days, I have been contemplating some upcoming trips, and after a friend gave me some advice on a location, I pulled out a map to get my bearings; my memory of this particular area just wasn’t cutting it. I have always liked maps: they tell a story, whether in a particular place name, in my memory of driving through a small town, or of a place I dream to visit. When I was in college, before graduating to more sophisticated wall decor, it was not uncommon for me to put a map on my wall.
As I looked through my map file the other day, a flood of memories came back to me as I recalled roads I have driven, places I have seen, adventures I have had. There’s something more tangible than paper here: these maps of the American West are the landscape of who I am.
The West has shown me what a windchill of -60°F feels like, and that those are perfect days to stay indoors. I know that the radiating heat of 120°F in the Mojave Desert might seem uninviting, but that you can still find active wildlife. My daydreams often drift to lonesome highways, and I find myself craving the feeling (and aroma) of being chest-deep in sagebrush at least every few months. Dusty dirt roads were a staple of my childhood; I’ve had friends who give directions to their houses using landmarks and the words, “bear left at the Y then turn left after the cattle guard.” This isn’t uncommon in the West.
Issues here, whether environmental or social, are hardly ever simple. My approach to many of them is somewhat moderate. I believe in wisely managing some of our public lands for more than one use. The livelihood of many residents here relies on that principle–they count on our natural resources to put food on the table for their families. That said, I watch news stories about things like coal mining, grazing, and dammed rivers closely. As insignificant as some of them might seem, these issues ultimately affect every resident of the West.
I admire the people here who are extraordinarily hard-working; many of them know nothing else. My grandmother is 81 years old and still works hard at least 4 days a week.
At the end of the day, politics do not matter as much as basic respect for your neighbor. I lived in Laramie, Wyoming through many of the events surrounding Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was killed as a result of what is essentially a hate crime. His murder showed that the rot of hatred and ignorance is indeed alive in the West, but it also brought out the best in people. A few months after things settled down, I was loading my groceries into my car, and I looked at the bumper of a beat up old ranch truck parked next to me. On the bumper was a blue sticker with a yellow, “=”; the sign of equality. Everyone in Wyoming, from farmers and ranchers to liberal progressives, came together in support of common, simple ideals. Stereotypes do not hold much water here; what matters most is your character.
My website will tell you I am a photographer. Indeed, I am. However, I am more than that. I am a citizen of the West. I was born here, have lived here my entire life, and likely will die here. I’m proud of the people who surround me, for their hard work, their vision, their character; all of these ideals are born from the landscape we live in. They are as much a part of the West as the iconic landscapes we all chase with our cameras.