by Al Benson Jr.
Folks who have followed my writing for awhile will recognize that what I write below will be a little different than much of what I usually do. I have written about the South for decades now and I love the South. I love the palmetto and palm trees, the Spanish moss, the abundant wildlife, the bayous, and the wonderful hospitality of Southern people who, even though we were from the North originally, once they found out we understood their history and were willing to defend that history and heritage, opened their arms to us and literally made us “one of them.” So now we live in North Louisiana and we have never regretted the move south. This is home and we are content with it. No complaints!
But along with that, both my wife and I also love the West. We have traveled much there and before I was married I spent parts of several years in the West, including one year that I lived in Oklahoma for part of the year. Oklahoma is still a favorite spot. I was trying to eke out a living painting western scenery. I wasn’t good enough to make a go of that but I still enjoyed it.
When I went “back east” I worked near a bunch of young guys who enjoyed my paintings and when once they got an art show up they wanted me to put some of my stuff in it, which I did. They also wanted me, as someone who had spent time in the West, to submit something written about my impressions of the West. Most of them had never been there except for the big cities and they all look alike to me no matter where they are. I never spent any time in or near cities I didn’t have to, had no interest in them, except for Santa Fe, New Mexico, and it was different.
At any rate, what is below was what I gave them to print up, with some minor modifications. Some of you all that live in the West may be able to identify with some of what I say here.
The West is many things to many people. To those who have never experienced it, I can only say that they have missed something that will not long remain even as it is now.
The West, to me, is more than a geographical location (like the South). It is more than the beautiful state of Texas, which most easterners seem to think all westerners come from. It is more than the dry, burned out desert most who have never seen it think it is. They have not learned that there is beauty even in the desert if you know how to look for it.
The West is a place, but it is more (like the South). It is an atmosphere, an enigma, a way of life, and a people. As a way of life, it is something that can be carried far beyond its geographical boundaries.
The West is dark thunderheads far off over the canyon, it is the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River at flood, it’s Monument Valley at night and the Painted Desert at noon. It’s the flat (but sometimes rolling) country of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and it’s the majestic peace of the high plains country on the Platte River in Wyoming. It is a land so big that when you stand in it you feel small, and you have to realize within your deepest being that God created it and that man, mighty though he would like to think he is, is only one small finite part of it.
The West is also people. It’s the old cowboy at the Pawhuska (Oklahoma) rodeo, who upon hearing the announcer reveal the name of the next contestant in the saddle bronc riding, shouted “That’s my cousin Homer. He cain’t ride nothin’, He’ll get throwed first jump out the gate.” And he did! It’s the man in the store in Guymon, Oklahoma who, when asked if it was always this windy around here, replied “Hell no. Sometimes it gets windier.” It’s the ancient Indian at Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, who, when the smart-alec tourist tried to talk him into letting him into the pueblo for nothing, proceeded to charge him three times as much as he’d charged me to get in. The irate tourist tried to explain to him how, forty years ago, he’d gotten into the pueblo for nothing. After his ten minute (but ineffectual) tirade, the old Indian simply answered “Times change.”
For me the west did not really end each time I recrossed the Mississippi River. Thankfully, living in North Louisiana, we don’t have to recross the Mississippi to go east anymore.
For me, the West is a great deal of all I have seen, felt, lived and experienced during my numerous times in it. The deepness of its experience (like that of the South) is not something that leaves you upon the crossing of a boundary line. You, like many easterners, hate it and never go back (it’s not “green” enough for you) or you love it and continue to go back. There is no middle ground, the same as there is no middle ground with Confederate and Southern heritage. You either live it wherever you go, or you’ve never truly experienced it at all.