Kristen Lodge: What’s your western myth?
Grand County, CO Colorado
Walking helps me feel connected to where I am; however, most walks include my dogs. So when I walk a mile each day from my hotel room to the writer’s conference in downtown Denver, it feels weird not having my dogs with me; pulling and sniffing at every smell.
This day, as my dogs play with other dogs at Four Paws Resort in Granby, I observe a large bird as it flies over me and lands in the South Platte River below me, unencumbered by incorrigible dogs at their sound. As I continue on the concrete sidewalks into the city I pass the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail yard. I’m excited for the first day of the conference. The first panel is Writing the West: Transplanted Writer as Literary Outsider, and Pam Houston is on it.
The first presenter is Summer Wood, a writer who has a blog called “the Where of It.” She writes about place and landscape. She talks about the Wagon Wheel Myth; about the pioneers who traveled west in their covered wagons, and when they broke a wheel, sometimes had to stay in a place for weeks until they got it fixed. Some couldn’t afford to keep moving and stayed in the place they broke down. Some fell in love with the place, and stayed. Some moved on.
Now I know there is a name for what happens to people who land somewhere they didn’t originally set out for.
Pam Houston speaks next. She has published fiction titles including “Cowboys Are My Weakness” and “Sight Hound,” both excellent stories about a woman living in the West.
Her first comment is about Summer’s Wagon Wheel Myth. It reminds her of the time just after college when her bike broke on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. She had no money to fix it so she and coasted down to Grand Lake. She said a nice man who owned a cabin let her stay there until she figured out what to do.
Many years later she writes about living in Fraser, in the chapter, “Home is Where Your Dogs Are,” in the book, “a little more about me.” She writes about living in a sheepherder’s trailer called the African Queen and working as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Fraser. I’m thrilled that her adventures in the West include living briefly in a Grand County town. Some people who live here remember her.
I think about these connections to writers who live western as I walk back to my hotel. Past the river, again, watching birds rest on rocks in the middle of the South Platte River.
I think about how Pam says that she will always be someone from New Jersey who writes about the West. My favorite books and stories are about western migration, past and present. I love a good story about an outdoor adventure on a river or someone trying to start over in a new place. I like their character’s idealism and tenacity; qualities I admire in people I know. It’s why I read Wallace Stegner and Willa Cather. It’s why I read contemporary women adventure stories in the backcountry from authors like Pam Houston; and it’s why I can watch Ken Burns’ “The West” documentary over and over.
The western myth that brought me here is the idea of freedom and possibility. I didn’t “break down” here and I’m not ready to leave anytime soon. As I walk, hike, and bike the same trails and roads of Grand County, over and over again, with the peaks of the Continental Divide always looming in the distance, I remember Pam telling tells us it was the canyons that inspired her and made her write the best stories. For me, it’s the Continental Divide and the lofty peaks that orient me to this place and make me want to know every inch of it; and to tell stories about it.
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