The President was born in Hawaii, which makes him about as western a westerner as an American can get. His opponents and their minions called him a lot of things in the course of electoral politics, but none of them called him a westerner. I myself am modestly western. I was born in Montana, spent the first year of my life in Lodgegrass on the Crow Reservation, moved to Salt Lake City (west), to eastern Oregon where I grew up (west), and to three Pacific Northwest universities where I was educated (west). I have lived the last fifty years slightly north of the 45th parallel and definitely west of Buffalo, New York, which I take to be the last American city to be uniequivocally eastern. All the same, when a person announces (with some slight alteration of vowels), “I’m a southerner,” I say, “How nice. I’m a northerner,” not “I’m a westerner.” Now why is that?
Part of the answer is probably a response to veiled belligerence. It’s not a burning issue out here in the wilderness, but we did win the C***l W*r. Hey, Jerusalem. However, if someone from New York or Boston wants to know where I’m from, I don’t say “I’m a westerner,” to them either, because their response is likely to be, “Isnt’ that nice? I have a cousin in Akron.” Or Chicago or Minneapolis or St. Louis or Denver. Fine cities but notably east. Time zones east.
In 2009, my mystery novel, Buffalo Bill’s Defunct, won a WILLA award from an organization called Women Writing the West, aka WWW. The award is named after Willa Cather, a writer I admire, so I was pleased and flattered. I was also puzzled. What I wrote had a setting that was west of the Mississippi–in the Columbia Gorge–but I was writing a mystery, not a western. Insofar as the title and action take a poke at the Buffalo Bill mentality, the book is an anti-western. Certainly no hard-bitten gunslinger gallops into town, shoots up the bad guys, scoops up the school marm, and gallops off into the sunset. I got so I was embarrassed to refer to the award. It was a real honor, and I felt as if I didn’t deserve it.
Still, Willa Cather didn’t write westerns either.
Figuring out what “west” really means is a worthy challenge. I have to limit myself to understanding only part of the huge area–the Pacific Northwest, say, excluding Alaska, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, and Idaho. Oh, and Texas. The PNW dialect, with English under only mild pressure from Spanish, doesn’t change from San Francisco to Sitka. It’s slow speech but similar to NBC standard, so nobody is going to tell us local speakers what a charming accent we have. We tend to say “pop” instead of “soda,” and we pronounce “shutter” as if it were spelled “shudder.” We do not drop the “g” at the end of present participles.
As a culture, we are less religion-ridden than the South or the square states, and although cooking magazines tend to behave as if we have no cuisine, we eat rather well. It’s possible in ordinary restaurants to order something that is not fried or smothered in orange cheese. They even serve fish. We have more Asian influence here than in most of the country (except Hawaii)–in food, religion, and architecture. When we go to the beach, we wear sweatsuits, and we have a sad tendency to dress down even at work or in restaurants.
The northwest is divided vertically by the Cascade Mountains, and the cultural division echoes the geography. The land east of the mountains is rural and conservative, closer to Idaho than to California, literally and figuratively. It is dry, some of it high desert. West of the mountains, the land is urban, progressive, and very much focused on high technology. It includes the rain forest of the Olympic National Park, which gets more than 200 inches of rain a year.
Vast tracts of Washington and Oregon comprise Indian reservations, national parks, and national forests. True enough, eastern Oregon is home to the Pendleton Round-up, but the Hanford Nuclear Reservation lies right across the Columbia River from all that yee-haw bull-riding, calf-roping western-ness. These days seeing a field full of wind turbines is as likely as coming across a cattle round-up, and vineyards dominate agriculture. Oregon has no sales tax and Washington no income tax. Washington just legalized recreational use of marijuana. Wahoo.
Now that I have all that straight in my head, I’m looking forward to my next encounter with folks from otherwhere:
“Howdy. I’m a westerner. I’m from Vancouver.”