A much longer post is percolating - having to do with daughters, dads, college experiences, and what it means (to me) to be a Westerner. As I stew on these themes, however, I wanted to share a few observations on the somewhat surreal experience of starting my afternoon in Bozeman, Montana, and ending it (at least till I board my next flight) in Los Angeles, California.
This was my third trip to Bozeman - in the last three years, I’ve taken our daughter Lara to visit Montana State University for the first time; our whole family delivered her to her freshman year last summer; this summer, I helped her get her car to Montana. This trip marked the first time that I’ve flown for either part of the journey; in years past, I’ve driven to and from Montana.
The drive to Bozeman (at least the way we do it) takes about 15 hours to cover the 900+ miles. While the drive is long, I enjoy the slowly changing western landscapes we drive through - from the granite and conifers of the Sierra to the sagebrush flats of central Nevada and the juniper-studded mountains of the northeastern part of the state. As we enter southern Idaho, the land (with the addition of center-pivot irrigation) transitions to more intensive agriculture. The Snake River plain of eastern Idaho, in turn, transitions to the timbered mountainsides and broad river valleys north of Ashton. Once we leave the depressingly touristy town of West Yellowstone, Montana, we enter a slice Yellowstone National Park and descend the Gallatin River into Bozeman. The length of the trip gives my mind (and my body) time to adjust to these changing aspects of the American West.
Flying, however, is another experience altogether. As my United flight climbed out of Belgrade, Montana, I watched the hay and grain fields of the Gallatin valley reach up to the steep slopes of the Bridger Mountains. Clouds (and this summer’s ever-present smoke) obscured most of the next hour of my flight, but I caught a glimpse of the Wasatch Range and the Great Salt Lake as we turned southwest towards Southern California. About 40 minutes later, I snapped a cellphone photo of the canyon lands of the desert southwest. I have to say: seeing the interior West from 30,000 feet is not nearly as interesting as seeing it from ground level!
Our plane hit some minor turbulence as we flew flew over the mountains marking the eastern edge of the Los Angeles basin. As we approached LAX from the south, I saw the Pacific Ocean in the distance - the western edge of the American West. The packed freeways (even at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon) and expanse of concrete and rooftops stood out in stark contrast to the fields and mountains I saw when I left Bozeman several hours earlier. This is probably not a shock to anyone who reads this blog, but I far prefer fields and mountains to concrete and rooftops.
Technology (airplanes, computers, and such) have shortened the distances between communities and people. In many respects, this has been a plus - connectivity usually gives us greater empathy for others. But in some respects, these connections present a double-sided challenge for rural communities - and for the West in general. If I can get from Bozeman to Los Angeles in less than three hours, perhaps I’ll decide that a summer place in Montana and winter place somewhere warmer (like LA) is doable. Driving around Bozeman - and flying out of the Gallatin valley - revealed significant new suburban development; condominiums instead of crops. Concrete and rooftops permanently change the ecological and cultural attributes that (at least for me) make the west the West. Flying, rather than driving, underscores how quickly these transitions can happen