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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Utahn #4: City/Country and the Pioneer Spirit

It has only been 150 years or so since the United States expanded across the continent. Not that long ago in the history of Western civilization. 150 years ago my home in the Salt Lake Valley was nothing but vegetation and the cold wind coming from the Wasatch Front. Just over 150 years ago the pioneers coming into Utah first saw the Valley from Big Mountain. The first major settlers to see the valley were the ill-fated Donner Party, followed soon after by the first Mormon settlers who held to the low areas and avoided the weather that fell upon the infamous cannibals.

The View from Big Mountain

Last week, I stood upon the very mountain the first Mormons stood upon when they laid eyes upon the Salt Lake Valley. As you can see from the picture above, they saw their entire future from the top of Big Mountain; the entire Salt Lake Valley and beyond can be seen. I felt like I had just discovered the valley myself when I got out of my car and took in the view. What the Mormons must of felt we cannot fathom. What drove them to cross near half-a-dozen states and over one of the great American mountain ranges also cannot be easily explained. Whatever their emotions and motivations, they were one of many millions to settle the American frontier.

The American frontier still exists today, but in a odd reverse of traditional usage the frontier is within the borders of the United States, not on its edges. The largest cities in the country are located on the borders or in the old East and, unsurprisingly, most of these cities are centers of collective, urbanite thinking. Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, Detroit, Washington D.C.; grand cities held under the sway of their own bloated, over-civilized nature. You have to travel outside the borders of these beacons to find one ounce of the adventures that the brave Americans had not too long ago. When I lived in Los Angeles it took me near two hours to get out of the continuous linkage of cities that make up Los Angeles County. It was not until the highways dwindled to two lanes, until swathes of homes faded into rough hills of arid desert, until the sky became bluer and the air cleaner that I could feel truly outside of grasp of modernity. Los Angeles and San Fransisco hold millions, but are specs upon the map of California, and yet hold much sway in its politics. Driving through the desert I found people who's lives were completely alien to the residents of the cultural centers of the state. These people use firearms, drive big trucks, rely on less-than-clean sources of energy for employment; things that are abhorrent to the civilized of the Golden State. I've had a respect for the natural world for many years, but it never occurred to me until I moved to one of the largest cities in the country that city life truly did not meld with my nature. It wasn't until that asphalt and concrete replaced grass and dirt that I found the repulsiveness of metropolitanization and felt an affinity towards the country-minded folk and the land untouched by inorganic improvement.

This week displayed the great divide between those of the urbanite mindset and those who are of the country/pioneering philosophy. Alaskan governor and former Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin gave an interview at a turkey farm. While being interviewed, in the background, a farm hand was in the process of bleeding out a turkey. For those who have a reality-based mindset, this is simply what happens on a farm on a daily basis. To the anchor on MSNBC, it was a chance to lampoon Mrs. Palin for her apparent feeble-mindedness and inhumanity towards the fallen fowl. No less than five different mocking subtitles for the interview clip appeared during the MSNBC piece. As soon as the clip made the blogosphere, the cyber-intelligentsia took it upon themselves to suggest Mrs. Palin be the one bled out, or that the turkey was “slaughtered alive”, or that her support for the farming industry and for meat products is a barbaric one. Apparently, these people believe their meat is produced harmlessly, without killing, or that supporting the meat industry is something only dummies do. I would not be going out on a limb to say these people are city folk (but it does not necessarily mean each of them are from the city) and that the rigors of a life not found at the nearest store is one they cannot comprehend.

I've been living in and working in cities all my life. I am a born and bred city boy, but today it is the last thing I want to be. For most of our history people have come to the cities from the country. Today's world reverses that: people of means are now turning to the country for their freedom. There are those who love tall buildings, busy sidewalks, concrete and the collective atmosphere, but most of the country isn't even close to the visions of the urbanites. You look at a physical map of the US and it's not dotted with gray steel cancers, but with brown, green and yellow farms. It's covered in land untouched by modernity, save for new irrigation systems or hikers with iPods and GPS. It's covered by forests, deserts, plains and mountains open for new explorers to discover.

The United States is not just those who gravitate to the ends of the country and congregate themselves in condos, suburbs or the high rises. America is not just those who dress up to go to work, hold their breath for the newest celebrity gossip or spend a month's pay on uncomfortable shoes. America is also the farmer, the hunter, the small town clerk, the lone county sheriff; these citizens who hold to the ideas of smallness, of humbleness, of simpler, easier lives. The city/country mindset is not Democrat/ Republican, liberal/conservative, white-collar/blue-collar or city-dweller/farmer, it goes much deeper. It touches the very nature of those who stayed in the East and those who took up the motivation to cross dangerous land and create new parts of the country. Like me, a city dweller can have the country mindset or a small-town resident can dream collective sheep. It comes down to one's willingness to take one's life into one's hands and to shape it through the unknown and through an undying need to explore that unknown. I long to find new places, make new trails, find things few see for few really take the time to climb a mountain (even in a car) or explore old paths (physical or historical). The pioneer spirit lives on, both geographically in the wild between the East and West Coast, and within individual Americans looking to find their own Zion. Take time to explore, you never know what you'll find.

Cross-posted at Conservative Underground

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