Being and belonging in the West

By Jen Jackson Quintano
Reader Contributor

It was a calculated kind of romance.

From day one, I knew what I wanted and I sought out my ends with a single-minded conviction. I studied my quarry’s history, moods, scars and wonders. I learned the proper dialect, integrated the prevailing perspective, forsook my five-generation-deep roots elsewhere for new ones.

I tried to earn belonging. As if it were an honor to be conferred. As if a High Priest of Place would eventually lay hands on me, anointing me as being Of the Desert Southwest. As if I could sacrifice enough of my past to generate a whole new present.

The author and her husband Tyler working in the woods together.

The author and her husband Tyler working in the woods together.

In my attempts to belong to southern Utah, I even dated a local whose great-grandfather’s name adorned several landscape features. I desired him for all he represented to me, unwilling to embrace who he actually was.

Ultimately, I wanted that place to love me back.

The landscape remained indifferent to my ingratiation.

Being and belonging in the West are not synonymous concepts. There are a million ways and places to be here. Logger, lawyer, rancher or teacher. Desert, mountain, forest or plain. All are valid. But belonging is a trickier matter.

Many small towns in the West place a high value on being local, with “local” implying “belonging.” The more generations one’s family has rooted in place, the more valid one’s claim is to home ground. (Bonus points if your family name holds space on a street map.) When I moved to southern Utah, my landlord warned me, “I’ve been here for 50 years, and I’m still not considered a local.”

The West is a place in flux, with much threatening its sense of identity and history. Towns like Aspen and Sun Valley are virtually unrecognizable from their incarnations of 50 years ago. The same is true for onetime mainstay industries like logging and ranching. Now, one is more likely to see forestry and farm implements as yard art than in actual use.

While living in the Old West wasn’t easy, there was a certain romance and ruggedness about it. Isolation was both the price of life and its reward.

The New West proffers different challenges, like how to afford a home with prices inflated by second-homeowners, while subsisting on a service industry income. Natural beauty is the new hot commodity, the latest gold rush, bringing waves of visitors and newcomers. But natural beauty doesn’t pay well.

Facing these changes and challenges, it’s instinctive to circle the wagons and say, “I knew and loved this place before all of you got here and ruined it.” It’s natural to identify territory and tribe in the midst of instability. It’s why Coloradoans hate Texans. It’s why Oregonians dislike Californians. (A 1990s-era Oregon Lottery billboard proclaimed “Luck happens,” with a picture of California having fallen off the map into the ocean.) It’s why there’s a bumper sticker that defensively proclaims, “I wasn’t born here, but I got here as fast as I could.”

I was raised as a local, a member of the insider tribe. I’m the fifth generation of my family to call Medford, Oregon, home. My grandmother and I grew up on the same street and attended the same school. Knowledge of the history of downtown buildings, of the movement of elk on and off Roxy Ann Peak, of the iconic pear orchards, and of periodic flooding of Bear and Lithia Creeks…these were the gifts my family had to confer to me. And I rejected them. Though I belonged to the Rogue Valley in a deep historical sense, I never had a concomitant feeling of personal intimacy with the place. From my perspective, I belonged there no more than the dreaded Californians who drove up property values.

Upon moving to Utah – a place whose accidents of geology resonated with the vagaries of my twenty-something being – I finally and profoundly connected with landscape. It was a homecoming. And I was a complete outsider. I envied the Allreds and Johnsons and Pollocks who took their rootedness for granted. It’s why I dated one of them. I tried to assimilate roots. I failed.

Like it or not, my roots remain in Medford. Rejecting that history does not change the present. Though Oregon is not home, those roots inform all that I am, including the part of me that fell in love with the desert. Including the part of me slowly embracing the wonders of North Idaho. I once belonged, and I still do.

After a decade in the desert, I moved to Sandpoint with my husband. There was little romance in our reason for moving here; namely, we could afford it. Secondarily, it was a good place to establish our business, and it provided the wild wide-openness we crave.

We’ve been here over three years, and I’ve not striven to learn local history. I have not walked from here to the horizon lines. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t yet voted in Bonner County. I don’t know the secrets that only time confers: huckleberry stashes, secluded swim spots, feral fruit trees, elk habitat. Instead, items of interest slowly trickle into my awareness. I hold them lightly, not grasping, not manipulating knowledge to assuage my need to belong.

The West has always been a place of territorialism, of perceived insiders and outsiders. An extreme manifestation of this was the recent standoff at an Oregon wildlife refuge. One can also find it in the Letters to the Editor section of every small town paper: newer arrivals offering suggestions to make their adopted home better, old-timers decrying the loss of the place and values they once knew.

The best I can do is embrace my new community and my transplantedness. I can be sensitive to all that came before me here and assert my right to be a part of the ever-unfolding history of this place. Being confers legitimacy. Being is belonging. I understand that now (though the Oregonian in me still likes the idea of ocean-bound California).

This time, in this place, I’m not storming the gates of belonging. I’m simply living here. And that is enough.

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