The West of America isn’t as wild as it used to be. But Americans still talk about going “out West” and “back East.” Going West is an outbound journey, while East, even if you’ve never been there before, is called a return. East is the center, West the edge. East is the norm, West the place of extremes: volcanoes, earthquakes, deserts, giant trees.
A hundred years ago the West was where you were free to reinvent yourself, put together (or embellish) a story about who you were. I was born in Seattle and grew up with stories about the West: where were you during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906? My grandfather was proud of having entered the world in Arizona Territory, before it was admitted to statehood. His father, a contractor, had come from California to construct a sewer system. Even a small-town public sanitation project makes a good story on the frontier.
The West breeds storytellers—and con men, too, like my grandfather’s grandfather, who is said to have traveled California and Oregon cheating mining operations by selling them faulty equipment. He also turned out to have two families, a blow from which my great-great-grandmother never quite recovered. She must have been tough—she had crossed the prairies as a child in an ox-drawn covered wagon—but has come down in family history only as a bad-tempered grandma. Once, when “Dram-dram” was living with her son, she left his house in a huff and went next door to her daughter’s, sleeping in a pair of her son-in-law’s pajamas. Afterward Uncle Dick had the pajamas burned.
On another side of the family, my grandmother’s father, born in San Francisco in 1863, wanted to be a writer like his hero, Jack London. His experiences—living in Nome during the Alaskan Gold Rush, working as a ranch hand in Yakima—must have made him feel like he was living in a novel; I think a lot of Westerners felt that way. But he didn’t have the talent to shape reality into fiction. Undaunted, he turned his gaze even further west, becoming an admirer of the occultist James Churchward, who claimed to have discovered a sunken land mass in the Pacific Ocean called the Lost Continent of Mu.
The edges are full of stories, but as my great-grandfather discovered, it’s hard to get the center to listen. By the time I came along, the West had lost its original glow of adventure. It felt dull, provincial, nothing happening. Grunge or no grunge, at 4,000 kilometers from New York City, Seattle is the Vladivostok of North America. When I was young and ambitious, I left the West and moved back East. I wanted to see what it was like to be at the heart of things, not always at a distance.
But living at the center has a price: the edges fade from sight. If you have any regional loyalty at all, it’s hard to subscribe to the famous New York view of the world, in which everything beyond the Hudson River is merely a spot in the distance. It’s an ancient dilemma: at the edge, you long for the center. At the center, you discover just how provincial you are.
How to choose? Find another West. Try another definition: not Wild West, but Western Civilization.
The Netherlands is in the Eastern Hemisphere (look it up) and yet clearly in the West, contributing to and sharing in Western European culture. In comparison to Greece or Rome it’s a young branch of that culture: not a place for Wild West stories, but then again, not much weighed down by history either. Central yet provincial, old yet new: I thought I’d found the ideal combination of West and East, out and back, journey and return.
People often speak of “the West” now with a touch of irony, in the awareness that we can no longer be too insular. Clichés about the Occident and the Orient are no longer tenable; Western Europe is not the center of the universe.
Yet one geographic prejudice can be found anywhere: the patronizing indifference of the center to the edge. When I moved from New York to Amsterdam I found myself in another West: the Randstad, the Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Utrecht urban corridor. “Randstad” means “edge city,” and it appears on the map as the country’s Western boundary. But when you say “Randstad” you mean center, where everything that happens is more real because it is witnessed by a crowd.
The longer I live in the Netherlands, the more aware of its own edges I become. I love Amsterdam, but this West, this self-centered urban sprawl that calls itself civilization, is not the only reality. I despise newspaper writers who don’t care which province a village is in and efficiency experts in The Hague who redraw municipal boundaries without a thought for history or tradition. I don’t want to move to Elahuizen or Balkbrug, but I can’t stand to see their existence denied by a horde of planners who have never known what it was like to be “from” somewhere.
So what if you went, not closer to the center, but farther West into the unknown? The Karuk Indians were, and are, a tribe settled on the Klamath River in the redwood forests of Northern California, about as far west in North America as you can go. But according to Karuk legend, there was another West. Far out in the Pacific Ocean, but not farther than a canoe can paddle, the rim of the sky makes waves by beating on the surface of the water. On every twelfth upswing, the sky moves a little slower, so that a skillful paddler has just enough time to slip beneath its rim and go beyond it into the outer ocean. Ordinary people go just for an evening, for the dancing, but the legend tells of two daring lovers who decided to make their home outside the world.
Long before the settlers came to California, when the Counts of Holland ruled a stretch of coastal swamp with a church tower or two sticking bravely up out of the mud, there was no end to the West of the mind.
Trouw, July 6, 2013. The Karuk legend comes from “The Inland Whale” by Theodora Kroeber.