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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

True West

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Stephen Trimble tells about his recent trip to South Pass, Wyoming and urges listeners to explore their sense of place.


CURWOOD: It wasn't on a map, Herman Melville once said. The true places never are. Today, author Stephen Trimble tells us of the true places he finds in the American West.

TRIMBLE: Are you lost? Sometimes I am. On this day, however, when a cheery couple in their 60s drive up and ask me this question just as I step from my truck to photograph a dirt track climbing up over a small Wyoming hill, I am not. I had come to South Pass to pay homage to my history, to the history of my homeland, the West.

One hundred and fifty years ago, right here beneath my feet, past the thousands of overland wagons bound for Oregon and California, Mormons bound for Zion, the Donner Reed party bound for tragic destiny, this was the only gentle crossing of the Rockies. In Bernard DeVoto's words, the gate through which the United States would reach its empire. Here, in 1824, Jedadiah Smith and Jim Bridger, Jim Clyman, and broken-hand Tom Fitzpatrick crossed DeVoto's fundamental watershed and rode into the frontier of fable.

The modern highway version of South Pass lies a few miles to the north of where I stand. To find the historic pass I turned off onto unmarked dirt roads using my Oregon Trail guidebooks. My 7-year-old daughter wondered why I was so thrilled to be standing on this obscure sagebrush-covered hill with its 2 small homemade stone monuments. I'll try to explain.

To live as a Westerner means coming to grips with challenging facts. A short, violent Anglo history, aridity, intense weather, a barely vegetated landscape. Pondering these facts, becoming students of this land can lead to great joy. To see the West through the eyes of scientists, historians, writers, poets, artists, and native elders, is to learn about our home. Looking for South Pass geographically, historically, metaphorically, read. Read Bernard DeVoto, Wallace Stegner, John Unruh, Patricia Limerick, and then wander out to the Great Divide. Stand on the dirt track, and free your imagination to soar through time and over the sagebrush hills.

Learning and listening. Paying attention. Only in this way can we discover where we are and what that means. Knowledge of place gives us hope. It teaches us to value our home. It keeps us from becoming lost.

CURWOOD: Stephen Trimble lives in Salt Lake City. His books include The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places.



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