Saturday, November 02, 2002


Pushed Off the Mountain, Sold Down the River: Wyoming’s Search for Its Soul
by Samuel Western
(Moose,Wyo.: Homestead Publishing, 2002)

”The pamphlet is a one-man show. One has complete freedom of expression, including, if one chooses, the freedom to be scurrilous, abusive, and seditious; or, on the other hand, to be more detailed, serious and ‘highbrow’ than is ever possible in a newspaper or in most kinds of periodicals... It can be in prose or in verse, it can consist largely of maps or statistics or quotations, it can take the form of a story, a fable, a letter, an essay, a dialogue, or a piece of “reportage.” All that is required of it is that it shall be topical, polemical, and short.”

– George Orwell

2002 seems like an unusual year to see the resurgence of the old eighteenth century age of pamphleteering described so well in texts like Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, but that is precisely where Wyoming author, Wyoming Future’s Project member, and former correspondent for The Economist magazine has taken us in his first solo publication, Pushed Off the Mountain, Sold Down the River: Wyoming’s Search for Its Soul.

But we always were behind the times here in Wyoming. Or were we?

That’s one of the many questions Western poses and makes a good attempt at answering, in his weird fashion, here.

Pushed Off the Mountain is no less than a call for revolution in the way we live in, and think about, Wyoming. It’s a fine piece of rabble rousing that, to judge from the letters columns in this last week’s worth of the Casper Star Tribune is having a rousing effect on those of the ordinary citizenry of Wyoming who have been crafty enough or fortunate enough to get a copy of the thing. Indeed; Western has found an audience so uncritically ready for what he has to say that CST letter writers in particular have taken to just barely skirting plagiarism in their desire to spread his word; wholesale rip-offs of entire paragraphs from Pushed Off the Mountain pepper letters printed in support of everything from candidates for mayor of Evansville to Dave Freudenthal’s campaign for governor.

Actually, this uncritical audience – the review page on for this book, too, is a study in “attaboys” – is something new in a way this particular broadside is not. If Josiah Quincy or Samuel Adams or Ebenezer Chaplin had enjoyed such acclaim in pre-Revolutionary America, there would not have been any Empire Loyalists at all and Canada would probably all be French-speaking. OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but hey, it wouldn’t be LIANT without a bit of that, would it?

And how is this pamphlet – for that is certainly what it is: meeting all of George Orwell’s criteria for same, being polemical, topical and short (though occasionally it does stray from topicality like a C-X debater who did too much research and can’t fight the compulsion to show it off) – so revolutionary?

My dear friend Martini the Photog summed up a lot of Western’s message very well indeed, without even reading the book (he’d been hearing me rattling on with fragments I’ve been intending to toss into this essay for a few days before we dined at the Hotel Wolf). I shall paraphrase him here, but I have his permission to do so:

To accurately reflect the realities of Wyoming, past and present and, if we’re not careful, future, the famous bucking horse adorning our state’s license plates should be replaced by the image of a Wal-Mart greeter in a walker.

(Early on in Pushed Off the Mountain, Western reveals a fact that has made many of my fellows blink hard: the largest private employer in the state of Wyoming is, in fact, Wal-Mart. As for the walker, well, what’s the average age in Wyoming again? Uh huh)

Pretty revolutionary, huh? And, as I said, a pretty accurate summing up of what Western has to say, so very accurate that I could stop right there and almost feel I’d done an okay job of examining this book, but I won’t; this isn’t the only somewhat shocking notion Western has to share, and alas, this book has some funky and troubling flaws at its heart that worry me as one of the few young people in this state who has taken up the reins and is going to have to deal with the consequences of this revolution, if it happens.

Confession time: As I grew up from drooling, fishing lure gawking toddlerhood up through snotty adolescence and into a full-fledged dribble from Wyoming’s much-vaunted brain drain (uh oh, I’ve been reading too much Edmund Morris, haven’t I?), I have always wanted to puke at how deeply and gratuitously my home state reveres The Cowboy. To grow up in Wyoming is to be confronted with His image and accoutrements everywhere: our university’s mascot is a cowboy. When I first saw the scene in the original “Blues Brothers” movie, in which Jake and Elwood stumble into a roadhouse that features “Both kinds of music, country AND western,” I rolled my eyes and groaned with recognition. Politicians who have never even ridden a horse don cowboy hats when they hit the campaign trail (Michael Dukakis looking like an ass in that tank in 1988 didn’t even cause me to blink after a lifetime of this spectacle!). The only clothing style available for kids of all ages in small towns (well, at least pre-Wal-Mart era small towns) is available at the local feed store and is, therefore, cowboy style. Cowboy, cowboy, cowboy. And what wasn’t an avatar of things cowboy must be “frontier” or “old west” or “pioneer.” It was this, more than any “lack of economic opportunity” that drove me, your humble blogger, out of the state when I was 18, and I doubt I’m the only one who would say this if asked.

One would think that a state so hung up on its supposed independent, agricultural past would know a thing or two about the dangers of monoculture, wouldn’t one? But no. Wyoming history classes in the schools learn about the Johnson County range wars and about the ride of “Portuguee” Phillips and about John Colter and Jim Bridger, but never a word is breathed about James Cash Penney,who founded JC Penney as a dry goods store in Kemmerer, a town about Saratoga’s size, or W. Edwards Denning, a Powell area native who was one of the architects of Japan’s economic recovery after World War II.

And, as Western demonstrates with some compelling-looking evidence, anecdotes and interviews with historians, former governors, and fellow members of the Wyoming Future’s Project on which Western once served, that version of history is somewhat bunk.

Take the oft-quoted observation, pounded into the minds of voters and visitors alike, propagated by the state Department of Agriculture, by the University of Wyoming’s College of Agriculture, by every office seeker in the land except for your humble blogger (who, let’s be honest, was never an office seeker anyway), namely that “Agriculture has always been a major industry in Wyoming and its importance to the state’s economic stability will continue.”

As Vladmir Ilych Lenin once observed, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” We in Wyoming have heard this pronouncement on high about the importance of agriculture to our state’s economy and “way of life” so often that most of us have never thought to question it.

But along came Western, who put his years of coaxing stories and surprises out of raw numbers to good use in showing that Wyoming has never been a great agricultural producer in the grand scheme of things, producing, for example, just two percent of the total value of America’s cattle and calves. And while Wyoming schoolchildren like I once was grow up learning all about romantic, free and independent figures like trappers, homesteaders, bronco riders, wildcatters, prospectors and cattle barons, Wyoming has always been home to a far greater number of coal miners, railroad workers, laundresses, government surveyors, tie hacks, school teachers and yes, cowboys – the real kind, who worked long hours for something like maybe 50 cents a day if Western’s data is accurate.

Nor has Wyoming been particularly behind the times. Once upon a time, we were somewhat ahead of them. For example, as I personally learned for the first time in Pushed Off the Mountain, Cheyenne was one of the first cities in the United States to have electric lighting, and was also home to the first Carnegie Library built west of the Mississippi! We can’t go visit that library building now, though, of course – in a fit of revisionism in the 1950s and 60s, the city of Cheyenne underwent a thorough and ruthless program of demolishing buildings that didn’t promote the cowboy image.

Kind of creepy, even Orwellian (in the 1984 and Animal Farm sense, not the British Pamphleteers sense), isn’t it?

Western’s pamphlet is full of stuff like this, and offers the worried reader many opportunities for operatic wailing and gnashing of teeth over where we have gone wrong and how obvious it is that we have been lobotomizing ourselves from the beginning, great fun, for certain kinds of readers. But there are problems in how he went about presenting his data that, I fear, may come back to haunt him and undermine the authority of the hard numbers and candid quotations he shares in Pushed Off the Mountain. I’m talking specifically about most of Chapter IV, “Mission Improbable” in which he attempts to give a history of Roy W. Schenck’s tenure as Wyoming's Commissioner of Immigration from 1911 to 1913.

Reading and re-reading, I think I can see what Western was trying to do with this chapter; it’s a great example of our somewhat frightening history of obliterating inconvenient history, but when he starts off his remarks by declaring, for example, that “His office received and wrote tens of thousands of letters; all but a few have vanished” and nowhere, not even in the brief notes section at the end attributes or does anything at all to prove this statement. He then spends several pages relating a tale he appears to have deduced entirely from these few surviving letters and an unspecified volume of annual reports. The account of how Wyoming once was sold as a “Land of Great Reward” in total avoidance of its high, arid terrain and short growing season is maybe amusing reading, but its pertinence to the overall argument of Pushed Off the Mountain is as suspect as its sourcing; were I Western’s editor I would have told him to condense it or throw it out as irrelevant.

Ditto many absurd paragraphs about former governors’ tastes for blood sports (Moonlight) or dahlias (Miller); fine for an overall book-length history of Wyoming, perhaps, but not at all pertinent to a pamphlet looking at Wyoming’s search for its soul.

These perhaps trivial complaints aside; there are still portions of Pushed Off the Mountain that I wish everyone who lives here now or who has ever lived here or worried about here would take the time to read. Western’s account of the Fox family’s homesteading disaster during the Great Depression, for example, (an era Western is right in being very concerned about the refusal of Wyoming’s government and citizenry to even acknowledge except to castigate or praise FDR and the New Deal) is moving, illustrative and haunting.

But for the reader who is really impatient or pressed for time or just can’t digest anything but the good stuff, turn straight to Chapter X, “A Fine Map Filled With Detours” in which Western, in true Economist style, methodically and succinctly dismembers six harmful ideologies Wyoming’s people have clung to to their detriment, and then proposes eight steps we could take to make our future less pathetic than our past.

I’ll summarize these for people who don’t have the time to track down this increasingly hard-to-find book, but I would still urge all of you to take that time if you possibly can. Flaws and all, it’s one of the most important tracts published this year.

First, the ideologies:

1. We could prosper if the federal government only let us - while it’s true that the federal government owns nearly half the land in Wyoming, it owns a similar percentage of land in most of the western states, and they’re all doing a damned sight better than we are, mostly because they haven’t focused so autistically on natural resources development (an economic sector unusually vulnerable to outside forces and national policy over which a tiny population of less than 500,000 can exercise little influence).

2. We cannot live peaceably with the federal government and keep our sense of honor - We won’t be nearly so beholden to Congress, the Forest Service, et al if we start paying our own way instead of letting the rest of the country and the federal government pay for services we use. Federal money and federal protection (again, largely requested on behalf of agriculture and minerals development) come with strings attached. We’ll keep being puppets until we start doing for ourselves.

3. Agriculture remains a cornerstone in the state’s economy - On a per proprietor basis, Wyoming ranchers’ and farmers’ incomes are well below the federal poverty level. There are about 300 ranchers in the state who raise more than 1000 head of cattle a year, and they do okay, but the rest are either barely getting by if they’re really trying to live off agriculture, or they engage in ranching as a “ceremonial” occupation, raising what my dad always calls “pet cows” while running, say, an auto parts store or a law firm to make the real money.
Western also blows some nice, big holes in some of the statistics Gov. Geringer and others throw around when they claim ag to be one of the top three industries in Wyoming.
Agriculture’s true value is the legacy of open spaces it has left us, which puts Wyoming in a truly wonderful position to capitalize on the markets for things like non-consumptive use of wildlife (like birdwatching), as well as hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation.

4. A commodity-based export economy is good for Wyoming - In fact, it creates a population of transient workers and retirees who come here to protect their wealth in a state who relies on mineral taxes to provide services to its residents instead of having things like state income taxes. And Wyoming doesn’t really get much in return for what it does export: Wyoming is dead last in the nation in its export income.

5. We can rent-seek our way to prosperity - Structuring an entire economy around corporations paying the bills isn’t as smart as it sounds. It makes for excessive dependence on outside forces, and gives no one living here any stake in freeing us from that dependence. Our apparent free ride on the backs of mineral companies is actually paid by end consumers all over the country; we are creating our own giant sucking sound on the nation that is more real than anything Ross Perot ever babbled about.

6. Free and independent societies neither need nor pay taxes. They don’t need much in the way of services - Actually, this is pretty good, but isn’t too helpful on its own without any effort to persuade the actual citizenry of Wyoming (not just the ranchers who dominate the legislature) to ask less of their state government.

Now to the suggestions:

1. Move away from a fear-based economy - We whine and worry an awful lot about what we don’t have, what imaginary forces are holding us back, and what if companies X and Y suddenly decided they’d get a better deal from a bigger sucker than we are. So we never do anything about it; we never let ourselves look at whether or not the tax breaks we give to mineral companies are doing us any good, whether all of the money we’re using to subsidize agriculture might be better spent on something that actually could make a difference to our future like expanding what the University of Wyoming has to offer us or working with native companies like In-Situ (extensively profiled in Pushed Off the Mountain along with UniLink in another good chapter entitled “Thriving in Hard Times”) to develop what Wyoming already has.

2. Take active steps to reinvigorate our mythology of freedom - Encourage the people who are here to have the bravery to try something new. While I have come to agree with friends of mine who actually are entrepreneurs that entrepreneurship is not something that can really be taught, I still say it is a quality that can be recognized and fostered. When a kid shows promise flinging a baseball he gets cheered on from an early age, but if a kid starts a lemonade stand he’s just cute and nerdy. As I’ve said before, what kind of people would I be living around now if Wyoming’s schools paid as much attention to people like Penney and Deming (and their modern counterparts at In-Situ and UniLink) as they do to Liver Eatin’ Johnson?

3. Stop promoting Hollywood history - We live in a state, not a theme park, don’t we? And let’s stop lying to ourselves about how independent we have always been, and stop editing out everything that isn’t “cowboy”.

4. Inward, ho - Quit blaming the outside for our problems and start looking within for solutions to problems like, oh, how about education funding, a problem our legislature appears to believe is insoluble by anyone in Wyoming and so repeatedly hires the same bungling California consulting firm to “fix” for us, despite the fact that each “fix” seems to require that we hire the firm back to “adjust” a few years later (I’m editorializing myself, here).
Also - building a grass roots economy is worth the effort.

5. Accept competition as a way of life - Western is mainly concerned with what he sees as anticompetitive grazing lease policy, but also observes that our fear of poverty leads us into protectionism of old industries at the expense of fostering future possibilities.

6. Invest in infrastructures that foster free expression and ideas. Wealth will follow. - Wyoming is in a unique position in that our state coffers are relatively full, our landscape is still largely unspoiled, and we are still “a small town with long streets.” All this gives us an amazing chance to shape our own destiny NOW, when we have the advantage of the bad examples of other states who grew before things like clean technology and conservation ethics took hold to warn us away from stupid and costly mistakes. Time to start taking advantage of all of this.

7. Take the cure for Wyoming Alzheimers (we forget everything but grudges) - Self explanatory.

8. See Wyoming as included in the center of the nation, not a century-old throwback priding itself on “Wyoming, the way the West was”

In conclusion, folks, I’m thinking pretty seriously about trying to see if I can get Samuel Western to come and speak at our Chamber of Commerce banquet in January. More people need to start thinking about the questions he’s raised, the suggestions he’s posed, and the illnesses he’s diagnosed.

Friday, November 01, 2002


No LIANT today, as such, but I haven't been lazy. I've been cleaning up the spookhouse, getting the web page enshrining same ready, and oh yes, starting my National Novel Writing Month entry.

The website there only allows the posting of tiny little excerpts, so while I am proud to state that my word count as of today, Friday, Nov. 1 (the sixth anniversary of my return to Wyoming, if anybody cares!), at 16:26, is 1,554. Only 48,446 words to go by Nov. 30! Think I can do it?

For those interested in the "process" (if that is a word at all applicable to what I am doing) of how this is all going, I started my novel at about 2 a.m. after waking up from a howling, four-alarm nightmare, taking a hot, dark shower to fight off the migraine that wanted to accompany it, and deciding that taking a stab at this novel-writing thing beat the hell out of lying awake praying that the headache god would pass me by. I had a feeling the headache god had been plaguing me for having the temerity to seek sleep when I should have been scribbling! Who cared if I'd just spent several hours telling spurious fortunes (though every single one of them came true! Even the really weird ones) at the entrance to our haunted house (sort of like writing! Extemporaneous drama, anyway!) and then a few more patting my cast and crew on the back and pouring various libations down their throats in thanks? Certainly not the headache god.

So anyway, those who care to have a peek at the novel in progress can go look at the blog I've created to store the thing online. My first 1,554 words are now enshrined at:

The Coffee Hour in Saratoga

Click on the highlighted text and bookmark it if you want to keep torturing yourself with my first serious whack at utter hackdom!

I hope to have my piece on Samuel Western's book done tomorrow. I promise! Don't I?

Tuesday, October 29, 2002


We have a man down in the Fireman's Hall! Call in! Call in!

That's not at all how this year's initial Haunted House Injury Report sounded earlier today, but isn't it a great way to really grab the reader's attention by its fake devil horns and shake it until its "Billy Bob" teeth rattle?

I'm practicing for my NaNoWriMo novel, can't you tell?

But typing is proving a bit difficult ever since the first Haunted House Injury of the season was sustained, this very morning, by, of course, your humble blogger.

Said humble blogger now has deep, gaping wounds in three of the fingertips of her right hand, from which she finally, after much effort, cursing, spitting, employment of an unimaginable variety of objects in lieu of tweezers (since the swiss army knife she uses as a keyring has everything BUT a pair of tweezers), squeezing and pinching, removed truly enormous slivers of wood after hauling large slabs of the devil's own particle board out of her own dear personal dad's pickup without gloves. YHB fully stipulates she has no one but herself to blame for this unfortunate turn of events, and so is, as you can see, not using the discomfort as an excuse not to blog. She is playing through the pain.

This is good news because it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better, if last year was any indication.

But of course last year’s Halloween Body Count should not, not even conceivably, be possible, because a crucial element in last year’s mayhem is this year missing: "Angel Hair."

This not being the pasta, but rather the spun glass decorating product used on Christmas trees and as a particularly appealling fake cobweb product for Halloween decorations. The stuff was banned, also before YHB's birth, as being contraindicated, she believes, by the Geneva convention among other things. Truly nasty stuff.

Last year, some unknown sadistic ass almost as great a sadistic ass as the inventor of Angel Hair donated a vast quantity of, yes, Angel Hair, to Saratoga High School's art club, Nouveau – obviously said sadistic ass is not a fan of the fine arts, hence his supposed homage to the spirit that once motivated the donation of smallpox-infected blankets to some of the aboriginal residents of our happy little valley (who then sought a cure for smallpox in the waters of our very own Hobo Pool, but that's getting a bit off the subject, isn't it?).

Nouveau, in turn, waited until last year's Haunted House project to use the stuff, which they did, with the wild abandon of, e.g. Tammy Faye Baker applying eye shadow and rouge to a human face. Oh, the stuff was everywhere, imparting its eerie blacklit glow to an astonishing variety of "rooms" in the haunted house. Yea and verily, it took all of my powers of persuasion and coercion to keep our "spaceship" set from being festooned with Angel Hair as well, but only after about 30 minutes' argument over whether or not space aliens had cleaning staffs onboard...

I being a person born only in 1970 was not aware of Angel Hair's particularly noxious nature; it just looked like really good fake cobweb material, and as I've mentioned, really caught and played the blacklight to marvelously spooky effect.

I certainly know about the stuff now, though.

Cut to the day after Halloween, when it's time to haul all of our Halloweeniness out of the Fireman's Hall so it's spic and span for the next time the chamber or some other organization needs to fill it up with crap again.

First we had to take down the fake walls – wooden posts, PVC pipe, and black fabric – comprising the "maze." But before that... before that...

Damn the person who invented Angel Hair! Damn him to his very own circle of hell! Entomb his fiberglas-spinning ass in the ice alongside Satan himself!

We had to get all of those fake cobwebs off the fake walls... and the furniture... and the real walls...

By the time the Fireman’s Hall was actually cleaned up and it was time for me to rush off to a town council workshop on, as I recall, a proposed amendment to an ordinance we had previously passed banning the installation and maintenance of septic tanks (cooler septic heads had later prevailed, persuading us that not letting people maintain what septic tanks were already in the ground and in use might not really be in the public interest), the Minister of Fun and I had so much shimmering white fiberglas bits embedded in the flesh around our faces and jawlines, in our hands and forearms, that we glowed ghostly under the blacklights even in our ordinary street clothes.

We continued so to glow for two months.

And ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Here’s the coda! Because Angel Hair is also very, very tenacious... so as we unpack the fake walls and other accoutrements for this year’s event, we continuously encounter more bits of the stuff, bits which unerringly make for the flesh and stay there.

The Minister of Fun and I are assiduously avoiding blacklights and mirrors throughout the process to spare ourselves unnecessary post-traumatic stress disorder-flavored blackouts.

After all, the MOF, last year, also has traumatic memories of fainting in his werewolf costume in the heat of the moment last year...

All this to scare a few hundred children for the night.

But once upon a time, a small but demented but dedicated but seriously sick group of parents and other assorted grown-ups did this for me, right here in Saratoga...