This is the fourth installment in my series about Route 66. If you’re just joining us for the conversation, you can find the previous newsletters below.
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Growing up in California, I always thought I lived in “the West” as a kid. I mean, how much further west can you get in the contiguous United States than coastal California? But I always wondered where all the tumbleweeds were.
I’ve since learned that the West isn’t so much a defined region with tumbleweeds as it is an idea. Coastal California may be the furthest west you can get by car in the United States, but it isn’t the West — at least not anymore.
Route 66 takes you through much of what is left of the true West. The defining feature of the West is land. It’s everywhere you look — vast expanses of it without a single disruption. Miles upon miles without a single community or other driver. Nothing manmade but your car and the asphalt beneath the tires.
Each state has its own version of this open land. It’s almost as if the backdrop changes each time you cross a state line. Arizona has its ruggedness marked with meteor craters. New Mexico has its red rocks and high pine forests. Texas has its wind swept plains. Oklahoma has its rich red soil. Missouri has its rolling hills and countless streams.
In their rugged beauty, each state assaults the stereotypes of dry deserts and boring flatness in their own way — although there were quite a few tumbleweeds along the way.
That rugged beauty is reflected in the people who live — and have lived — here. When you’re passing through on Route 66 you see abandoned homesteads from time to time — simple stone and wood shelters built by pioneers over a century ago and by the indigenous peoples who made their existence here for centuries before them. For centuries the people scratched out an existence from that land; its ruggedness made them rugged.
In all that open space is opportunity. This too is in the genes of the people. Their forebears came here seeking fresh starts and opportunity. They found it in the West.
Those who fear overpopulation need look no further than the West to see the antidote to their concerns. Here lies plenty of space and opportunity for all. For generations those with nothing have made something of themselves here and there is still room for future generations to make something of themselves. The problem of overpopulation is not one of a population that is too large or space that is too scarce — it is a problem of opportunity that has not been tapped into.
This story of the West is an American story. A story of finding broad expanses of new opportunity and building the infrastructure to throw it open to rugged individuals who want a chance to make something of themselves. But today many have sensed that those opportunities have closed or become too expensive to be accessible to the masses. The next great expanses of opportunity have been hoarded for the few rather than being thrown open for the many.
Horace Greeley, a journalist, reformer, and abolitionist in the 19th century, is cited as coining the term “Go west, young man.”
Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.
We obviously can’t go much further West than California. But we need to start building the next frontier of opportunity and figuring out how to get huge numbers of people there.
In moderation, Matthew