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Writing Samples

Spirit of the West

Introduction to Apa Insight Discovery Guide: Wild West

Copyright 1999. Nicky Leach. All rights reserved.

Picture this. You’re out West, driving an empty highway bolted straight to a forever horizon, one hand on the wheel, coffee cup in the other. A map lies strewn across the passenger seat. Bach’s Double Violin Concerto soars to a crescendo on the stereo just as the sun dips behind the mountains. The smell of sagebrush and smoky pinyon wafts through the open window. As the last strains of sunset and Bach fade, you pull over and begin walking a dirt track with no particular destination in mind. Elk and deer haunt the shadows. Just over the rise, a coyote soprano breaks into a short aria. The koyaanisqatsi thrum of the big city feels like a lifetime away.

And you think: Perhaps I’ll never go back.              

Sound familiar? Epic fantasies underlie almost everyone’s experience of the West. We measure ourselves against that flat sagebrush plain, the hypnotically blue bowl-shaped sky, the battered summits of mountain ranges, the bright shock of rivers surging through desert canyons, and understand suddenly why a joyful Walt Whitman wrote, “I am immense. I contain multitudes.” For all the talk of heroics, manifest destiny, and national wealth that has driven settlement of the West, the simple truth is that it is a place of personal reverie, only lately learning how to cooperate and build communities of many individual destinies - as Wallace Stegner said, “a society to match the scenery.”               

The American West is young country, both physically and mentally, experiencing growing pains as it moves from willful teenage whim to patient adult understanding of the world and its processes. Today, this boundless place is learning that freedom means finding the balance between possibility and self-imposed boundaries.

The West is defined by water - or lack of it - a fact appreciated by all its Indian residents and early arrivals such as the Spanish, John Wesley Powell, and the Mormons. Dubbed an “oasis civilization,” by Professor Walter Webb, this is a land shaped by aridity, where 86 percent of its residents now live in cities along the Pacific, the Rockies, and major rivers like the Rio Grande and the Colorado. The lessons of cooperation, size limitation, and shared resources in the Indian villages were lost on many 19th-century arrivals. The interior West is littered with the ghosts of boom-and-bust mining towns thrown up without civic thought and abandoned when an insatiable appetite for more drew their residents away.               

But the mythic idea of the West remains as important as grittier realities, helped along by all those willing to buy into the fantasy. Hard-working cowboys with time on their hands cling to the rugged individual image created for them by greenhorn easterners like Zane Grey and Owen Wister. Indian tribes, struggling to overcome unimaginable cultural losses, use a combination of reality and romance to promote Indian heritage tourism and show how they have survived and adapted to every century’s demands. Those ranchers who haven’t sold their land for ranchettes yearn for the days when cattle was king even as they explore different grazing practices, reintroduction of dryland-adapted species like the buffalo, and a little heritage tourism of their own.               

More than half the West is publicly owned and, therefore, sparsely populated, making this the best place in America to have a direct experience of many different natural and cultural landscapes. You can visit preserved Ancestral Pueblos in the Four Corners and sacred Indian sites in every state; Spanish missions in southern Texas, southern Arizona, and California; gold mining ghosts in the Black Hills, northern California, Nevada, southern Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, and Montana; historic westward trail sites from Nebraska to Oregon; and breathtaking natural treasures like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, Carlsbad Caverns, and many, many more.

Be ready to meet a place of great paradox and unearthly beauty. Open your heart and mind, strap on your sense of adventure, and come on in. 


Copyright Sunset magazine: March 2002 issue

It is 8 a.m. in the Breakfast Room of Bear Mountain Lodge, The Nature Conservancy’s new inn, outside Silver City, New Mexico. Sunshine is pouring in through the east portal. Cuban music plays quietly on the stereo. Florentine frittata, Moroccan pepper sauce, warm breakfast breads, fruit, juices, coffee, and tea fragrantly beckon from the counter, as guests introduce themselves and compare bird life lists. 

Birding is the big draw at Bear Mountain Lodge. The inn is adjacent to the 4-million-acre Gila National Forest and halfway between The Nature Conservancy’s Gila River and Mimbres River Preserves. Three hundred bird species have been recorded in these Southwest riparian woodlands, including a remarkable 250 pairs of endangered Southwest willow flycatchers, western yellow-billed cuckoos, Gila woodpeckers, and rarely seen common black hawks. A flock of about 200 greater Sandhill cranes winter in the Gila Preserve.

Naturalist-led hikes to the preserves are a highlight of a stay here, but you don’t have to leave the 178-acre property to enjoy wildlife. Mexican jays, mountain chickadees, and other seed-eaters attracted to the pinyon-juniper-oak woodlands can be seen from three nature trails. Between March and September, butterflies and wildflowers emerge in large numbers and migrating hummingbirds visit feeders. Other birds are attracted to the pond behind Myra’s Retreat, the guesthouse named for legendary proprietess and avid birder Myra B. McCormick, who donated Bear Mountain Lodge to The Nature Conservancy in 1999. 

The 1928 Lodge has at times been a ranch, boys school, country club, and dude ranch. It reopened in March 2001 after a painstaking restoration by the Nature Conservancy of New Mexico. Six rooms in the Lodge, four in Myra’s Retreat, and the Wren’s Nest guesthouse feature hand-carved ceiling vigas and 1920s Mission-style furnishings, with luxury extras, such as Jacuzzi tubs in some rooms. The Nature Conservancy’s commitment to supporting small local businesses is obvious. Tiled bathrooms have natural toiletries made in Silver City. The kitchen produces delicious breakfasts and artistic set-menu dinners on weekends using organic produce. Hand-carved Southwest-style beds, tables, chairs, and armoires made from small-diameter trees from a local forest restoration project are found in every room.

Activities at the Lodge begin in the Conservation Education Center, where guests pore over maps, wildlife checklists, birding guides, and wildlife sighting books (mule deer, javelina, cougar, and even bear have been seen here). Enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff naturalists answer questions and lead nature programs, including sunrise nature walks on the property, day hikes to the river preserves, and bird banding demonstrations during migration periods. Workshops on astronomy, geology, bats, and breeding birds are planned for 2002. Of particular interest are archaeology programs on the local Mimbres branch of the Mogollon culture. A Classic Mimbres field house was uncovered near the Lodge. Western New Mexico University Museum in Silver City houses the world’s largest collection of black-on-white Mimbres pottery. And a 44-mile scenic drive north of Silver City deadends at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, a 13th-century Mogollon Indian site. 

Bear Mountain Lodge (from $95/night, two-night minimum; P.O. Box 1163, Silver City, NM 88062; 1-877-620-BEAR or 505-538-2538; Or contact The Nature Conservancy of New Mexico at 505-988-3867.

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