When I was a kid, I wanted to be from New York City in the worst possible way. Like fictional children in children books, I would have gotten lost in museums, become subway savvy, have hailed a cab before the age of 28, gone to Yankees games after school and considered the rest of the United States to be a vast, open, empty nothingness.
I imagined growing up under a nighttime sky of twinkling stars from the lights left on in skyscrapers. I imagined sitting in coffee shops as a tweenager, writing with my other artsy bohemian middle school friends in our green-covered composition books about our angsty, art-filled lives. Maybe even with a beret atop my head. Why not? It’s how the urbane do it, no?
I imagined being a mini-grownup standing in line to see foreign, hard-to-pronounce French movies. All of them in black and white. All of them with subtitles that I didn’t need to read because being from New York and a hop-skip-and-a-jump away from The Continent, I would have naturally gone to Paris on school field trips and would already be fluent in French. Merci beaucoup!
In New York, I would have walked across the Brooklyn Bridge so many times that I would never have thought a thing about it — just the same way that Romans don’t see the Colosseum anymore, the French don’t see the Eiffel Tower, and the English are practically blind to Big Ben.
When people would ask me where I was from, I’d say “The City,” as if there was truly only one city in America. And everyone would know exactly where it was.
The fact that I’m from Montana surprises no one more than it does me.
And while I grew up disappointed that I wasn’t from New York, as I get older, I realize more and more how much of a westerner I truly am. I can’t imagine it any other way.
This side of the Mississippi has informed my world view, my politics. It’s educated me. From Montana to Nevada, to Utah to New Mexico to California, and Washington to Wyoming, I understand the West. All these big open places that people passed by on their way to the ocean, not daring to stop the wagon train for that piece of tumbleweeded land. But also its dense, green, moist forests full of birds, elk, deer and creeks. The places covered in mountain peaks, snow and glaciers.
The West is a place with departments like the BLM, the Forest Service — always a reminder of the land first. To either preserve it or to extract from it or to harvest it. That’s the West. A land of barbed wire, cows, sheep, rattlesnakes and bison. A place where in some places the population is less than the elevation.
The reason all the literary giants get their protagonists to head west, to where their future lies, is because in the West you have room to think, room to move, room to get lost and plenty of room to find what you’re looking for.
To me, a life in New York, starting from birth, meant I would belong to it as much as it belonged to me. And what’s more, it would bestow upon me all the things that I grew up believing I could only get by living there: culture, concrete and glass, an erudite’s love of books, movies, and art, a life surrounded by hustle and bustle. I would have grown up streetwise and ready for a rumble.
Yet, I did grow up like that. I owe my scrappiness to Montana. I owe my love of concrete and glass to the fact that it was missing from all the western states I lived in (I can’t help but think of you, Wyoming — you grand space-packed landscape). When I first saw a city, it was love at first sight. My love of art, books, and movies — you were just with me from birth thanks to a mom, another Montana native, who made Peter and the Wolf and The Nutcracker a standing affair.
I appreciate that the 12 year-old that I was wanted to be from New York, from a place of history, culture and remarkable feats of engineering. To this day I still love the things my 12 year-old self loved. Only now, I love them where I am.
The West is always with me. This land of big skies, rivers, oceans, lakes and mountains, of great vast open spaces. Without it, I would be dull, gray, lifeless. Empty.