People Say the West Was Won. I Say It's Still Winning
When people in Ohio ask me where I’m from, I’ll most likely rattle off a litany of states beyond the Mississippi. “Oh!” they say, “You’re from out West.” Out West. There’s something about those words that evokes the exotic, like “Far East." There’s a sense of suspended time. No matter how majestic our lakes, how awe-inspiring our plains, how brilliant our minds and the things they contribute to the world? It's a vast expanse -- something between a Disney lot and Clint Eastwood’s fever dreams. But the west has always been a winner. It took that trophy from the East a very long time ago.
I’ve never felt as if I were “out” of anything. I grew up where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. In fact, in the right spot, I could stand in four states at once. Try that back East. But on deeper consideration, the “out” of Out West makes sense. Outlaws and wild hearts like Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy were drawn there from the beginning and even today, the region attracts modern outlaws and misfits (more on those later). Nobody’s saying you can’t wear a suit and follow the rules, but let’s be honest about where you’ll feel most comfortable.
Which brings us to weather. Sure the East has “seasons” but who needs those when you can wish away at least two of them? The West, where animals and trees outnumber the population and the outlines of forests and mountains are never far away, seems to holler, “Get outside!” Every winter, westerners strap on skis; in summer they tackle boulder-strewn hillsides, climbing up to high-altitude meadows of wildflowers. What they don’t do -- well, there’s no accounting for Eastern transplants -- is wish the months away. Time goes more slowly in the West, and that’s… just… fine.
Today’s Western rebels roll in on steel rather than sinew, but its residents remain as persuasive as their predecessors. What boundaries they push, from decriminalization of various things to the avocado martini and interesting takes on denim, ripple east. The Pacific coastal communities are home to the outrageous and the outspoken. In Portland, Oregon, my home for a decade, tall-bikers, poets, political ne’er-do-wells and rock and rollers still outweigh the be-suited -- long after the ‘60s became a cultural memory in the East.
Perhaps that’s why America’s technological heart beats in the West. It feeds the future with venture capitalism, and the result is Google, Apple, and Microsoft, and whichever small device is currently running your life. The next great innovation will likely come from the West, maybe by way of a laser-shooting wristwatch, and it will be freakin’ cool, and you will say that you don’t need it at first, but you will find yourself in line years later waiting for the latest iteration -- possibly with a sleeping bag in tow.
A flair for the dramatic feeds innovation, of course. Consider Las Vegas: New York has the subway, sure, but New York, New York (hotel and casino, not karaoke standard) has a damn rollercoaster. How would you rather get around Times Square?
The West has come a long way since the days of Wild Bill Hickok, who rests eternally on a hill on the outskirts of Deadwood, South Dakota. Booze and gambling endure, of course (and you can leave a pint of whiskey as an offering to Wild Bill without a fine for open carry). But the West has risen in the food and drink world, befitting a land of such contrasting topography. One could be forgiven for thinking that the land out thataway is all sagebrush and tumbleweed, but it’s fertile with fruit, and grape, and grain. Ever heard of the Inland Empire? The salad bowl of America? How about the Sonoma Valley? The Willamette Valley? That’s not to mention the vast rangeland where the country’s burgers get perfectly fat.
Yes, the West has won, whether you like it or not. And it will continue to win, and capture the hearts of those who look back East and say, “What was I thinking?” So from now on, when easterners ask where I’m from, I’ll look them right in the eye and say with all the weight the term deserves, “I’m from Out West.” And silently, “I win.”