The Mystique of the West – fueled by romance, it's a cultivated mystique. But what exactly is that? Images…moods… From the colors of the desert to wide-open skies illustrated with spectacular clouds, to deep forests rising toward snowcapped peaks. The west was born in nature, and nature sparked culture, and the culture out here has reinvented itself – over and over and over again.
There’s the west of the pioneers and gold miners that dots the Rockies; the new west of athleticism – borne out on skis, snowboards, mountain bikes, scaling rock faces, and running steep trails; the west of the frontier, windswept plains, agriculture and oil. Once while waiting for a traffic light in east Denver, a large tumbleweed blew through an intersection in front of me. I watched it roll past, my jaw agape. I was new to Colorado; tumbleweeds only existed in movies before this. My life was turning into a film set. This place, so unfamiliar, known only on a screen.
Film has definitely driven the romance of the west for many of us. From costumes (oh, the costumes!), to sets and locations, to cinematography that can make you cry, western pictures have captured our hearts. Nothing could be duller to me than watching some old western when growing up, but when I discovered the swashbuckling spirit of William Goldman* and George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the west became someplace new, not old. It meant enterprise, independence, trailblazers and bad-asses. Had Katharine Ross’ strong character not brought so much to that film, I wonder if it would have had quite the impact. She was an independent woman of historic America, raising the bar for all women to follow. Count me in.
But there’s more. There’s possibility. We reinvent ourselves when we head west. We run to things and from things. We disappear and come out the other side – a completely different person, nearly unrecognizable; skin shed. Like Johnny Depp’s “William Blake” in Jim Jarmusch’s frontier fantasy, Deadman, the west turns us into people we never knew we were – or could even be. The west signifies potential, and to find it, you have to explore.
The open road lets us command our destiny, and claim our independence. It’s been part of the American spirit since it was settled – a characteristic we in the US hold dear. Driving Colorado’s winding mountain passes, through dense woods and up steep inclines, it’s easy to feel distant from the refined world. We can leave behind what we were groomed to be and cultivate the self we know innately. Riding through the west – you can become anything. And you’ll have stories to tell from along the way.
It’s no easy goal – finding one’s “true self”…our instinctive, untaught, personal “manifest destiny.” It’s a character-building journey, and making it is a hallmark of charisma. We wonder: might “charisma” be the defining characteristic of the mystique of the west? When we think of Mattie Ross’ character in the story True Grit, we see incredible drive that propelled her unhindered through life and death situations, pulling her toward her quest. The girl had real courage, the kind called “strength of character.” That was grit, which really is charisma. And her spunk and style transformed her into one of those literary legends that our society identifies with the west. Were people like Mattie Ross real? They had to have been. Just try driving through Colorado’s Ophir or Mosquito Passes today, even in a 4wd, without white-knuckling. Or Rabbit Ears to Steamboat through a winter storm at night – snow swirling up dizzyingly before your headlights. Then consider doing any of this in a stagecoach. You really had to want to be there. Now, in order to equal the grit that defined our pioneer ancestors, we have to get creative, and we have to motivate ourselves. It’s not so easy. But is there any other way to live that’s true?
So if you’re coming out this way, bravely be your truest self, stand up for your beliefs, and never stop fighting for what compels you. It’s the mark of a true individual, and the spirit of the west. Mystique or no mystique, it’s a great way to live. Welcome to Colorado – welcome to the west!
* William Goldman, the screenwriter, spent eight years meticulously researching and writing this historical bio-crime-pic/buddy movie.
Rabbit Ears Pass in whiteout conditions, Denver Post, May, 2012