The West, The Wild West, and California

Monday’s freshman American history survey ended with the students having to write about what the defined as the west and what would fall into the “wild west.” Most of the students tended to favor a geographic approach to the west with the general consensus being anything from roughly Oklahoma to the Pacific was “the west.” The bigger debate came when they had to define the mythic or “wild west.” A lot of students took the view that the wild west was something out of Tombstone: sparsely populated deserts. Others focused on Texas and Oklahoma (naturally) because of cowboys and Indians. Oddly far fewer went with a Deadwood-esque west. But the one thing everyone agreed on was that California was not wild and some only put it on the paper because it was on the west coast. The few who justified their answers said California doesn’t qualify because it’s highly populated with the unstated point being it’s too sophisicated to be the wild west.

I mention all of this because the Western History Association is holding its annual meeting in Newport Beach with the most important question being cowboy boots or saddles? I admit palm trees and high class shopping (even if it is on mispronounced rodeo drive) don’t fit into my idea of the west but sometimes you’re surprised:

That’s a custom-made recliner found in an upscale western store in the shopping plaza across the street from the hotel. It also costs more than my car. Even better, most of us flew into John Wayne Airport where you walk by this. All of that’s great, but the flight in highlighted a lot of real issues for the west. For one, we flew over a reservoir that was probably two-thirds empty highlighting the ongoing water crisis in California (and reminded me of Chinatown). Add to that issues of sprawl, smog and traffic jams that contribute to it, and you’ve got ample reasons for holding a western history conference in Southern California.