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View from the USA: Western Values

America might be a less-divided place if tree-hugging city-slickers went a little wild and learned to embrace the rootin’ tootin’, bullet-totin’ frontier spirit

View from the USA: Western Values
Aaron Millar. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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I have a man crush. His name is cowboy Clay; he rustles wild mustang horses, swaggers like John Wayne and when I grow up I want to be just like him. We met in the Great Basin of Nevada, a vast cattle land of stark white salt beds and scratchy sagebrush. He was doing girlie stuff like throwing lassos and wrestling steers, while I was being butch by taking notes in my little Moleskine journal. And somehow, we hit it off. Don’t get me wrong, Clay could make a lady swoon from 50 yards and legend has it his six-shooter is more like a 12-bore — if you know what I mean — but I didn’t have a crush on Clay for his tight blue jeans and rugged good looks; I had a crush on what he represents. 

Let me begin by saying that I’m a liberal, socialist, tree-hugging Bernie Sanders fan. I’m as left as a Che Guevara lookalike playing left-back for an all-left-footed Marxist football team. I don’t even fire pretend guns with my fingers. But to understand the American psyche you have to understand people like Clay. You see, there are two Americas, and this election proved it: the United States of the cities (all blue) and the good ol’ USA of the countryside (all red). In California, they’re advocating for stricter firearm legislation; in Louisiana, businesses put up warning signs with pictures of handguns that read: ‘If you’re found here at night, you’ll be found here in the morning’. But behind all the bullet-toting bravado of the rural American identity there’s something irresistible too: freedom. 

Think about it: less than three centuries ago, about the time our ancestors were clinking china teacups and waltzing to Beethoven, the American continent was all but completely wild, filled with herds of bison that stretched across the unfathomable vastness of the Great Plains. For us, the freedom of the frontier is ancient history; here, it’s only a few generations old. You can sense it, like ghosts, in the mountains and canyons, and in the footprints of wolves and grizzlies that still prowl this land.

Last summer, I took a road trip around my adopted home of Colorado to try to experience some of that raw frontier spirit for myself. I saw ghost towns, lost and overgrown in the forest; hiked into the dark of old, abandoned mines and poked my finger through a 100-year-old bullet hole, shot into the bar of the Diamond Belle Saloon, with ragtime still playing to this day. But to really capture a sense of that free frontier spirit, how it actually felt to be alone in the far reaches of the Western range, you have to leave the crowds and souvenir shops behind and go into the land itself.

That’s how I met Poste, an old wrangler who lives in the mountains and goes by the name of Fence (for real). He took me for a ride along the Outlaw Trail — which Kid Curry, and others, used to rob freight trains between Montana to New Mexico — and showed me the hills where, legend has it, his gold is still buried. But the real treasure was Poste himself: here’s a man who can sit in the saddle for more than two days straight, who calls politicians “lower than a snake’s ass in a wagon rut”, who rails against any kind of gun control or regulation. Poste is a living, swearing, dirty joke-telling embodiment of the frontier itself.

That got me thinking. Perhaps the divide in America isn’t about guns and red versus blue at all. In George Monbiot’s excellent book, Feral, he argues that our modern lives have been watered down, that civilisation has sanitised the wilderness and stolen part of our soul. Perhaps that’s what rural America is standing up for. Perhaps that’s the crush I had, too. Not on Clay, but on what I was missing in myself. I’m still a tree-hugging liberal. My finger guns are well and truly holstered. But I want to run with the mustangs, too; I want to swear and put my fists up and throw lassos and wrestle steers. I want progress but, like Clay and Poste, I want the wildness in me, too. colorado.com

British travel writer Aaron Millar ran away from London in 2013 and has been hiding out in Colorado ever since. His latest book 50 Greatest Wonders of the World is published by Icon Books (RRP: £8.99).

Published in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)