Rob Schultheis’s The Hidden West came to hand the other day and I’ve been rereading --- in part as spare counterpoint to the green excess of an Iowa spring.
Subtitled Journeys in the American Outback and published first in 1978, it remains a compact (176 pages in my paperback version) classic in the broad, diverse and sometimes sloppy category called nature writing. The nature of “outback” has shifted in 30 years, but nothing seems dated.
The quality of the writing is superb, lean and disciplined and lyrical --- an unobtrusive fact noticed more during a second or third reading. Author ego has been pared back; the reader doesn’t trip over Schultheis and fall, splat, face-first into an ungoverned puddle of words.
Iowa, for Shultheis, was just a pass-through place, experienced during his first trip west in the summer of 1962:
“I knew nothing of all that back then. I hitch-hiked from Amherst to New York, wearing a tweed jacket with a copy of On the Road in a pocket, lugging a big tan leather suitcase. In New York I spent forty of my last fifty dollars on a Greyhound ticket to Des Moines, Iowa. From Des Moines a day and a half later, I set out for Denver by thumb. I had no idea of what I was doing: my head was full of Kerouac, a West that never was, a country of scat-singing cowboys and jalopies full of poets screaming like shooting stars through the night. I hitched the curlicuing back roads, narrow ribbons of blacktop through farm towns like Elk Horn, Guthrie Center and Persia, rides of one or three or twenty miles that took me as far north or south as they did west. The countryside was gorgeous: corn fields rippled like sheets of iridescent green silk in the hot wind, and here and there grain elevators stuck up like rockets.”
The Great Plains, which Schultheis lived on the edge of for a time, were too much --- and only one essay of nine is set here, encompassing the Sand Hills and Strange Bear, a Lakota medicine man living in a remote corner of the Pine Ridge.
“If the Great Plains had an anthem,” Schultheis wrote to explain why he moved on, “it would be played on a broken tom-tom by an Indian dying of smallpox, accompanied by an Okie on a harmonica full of dust. His banner would be an American flag with buffalo skulls for stars. When I think of the plains, I think of exile, abandonment, extinction.”
Others, however, have come home to the Plains and written as lyrically about them.
Homecoming for Schultheis, however, occurred in the Southwest --- as it has for many other writers; and he settled in Telluride, Colorado, still home base. It was a landscape that he would see paralleled, along with its native people, later in Afghanistan while reporting on an earlier war there, the one that helped bring the Soviet Union to its knees.
Spending time among the Navajo, or Dineh (the People) as they know themselves, he picked up a hitch-hiker, “a kid on his way home to Kayenta: ‘My cousins and I started a rock-‘n’-roll band,’ he told me. ‘We were doing great till Marvin got scared by witches and got sick.’”
Schultheis’s descriptions of the relationship between the Dineh and their vast arid land --- “Nowhere in this continent are people and land so inextricably bound together as in Dinetah” --- has a parallel in people of another culture many Iowans have known, and still are vaguely homesick for, rooted in these more conventionally Garden-of-Eden-ish hills and prairies, fading when separated from them.
“The Navahos see their country through the eyes of lovers; their songs reiterate its beauty, refract it, enunciate it, over and over. Those furrowed, dull hills, like knees and laps draped with rose-colored silk in the light of dusk; that distant mountain, jade in flint shroud of unfallen rain; green corn against roan cliff; all these are beautiful; beautiful and therefore holy, an equation Anglos have missed. The Navaho word for god is Yei, or “beautiful one.”
“The Hidden West,” republished 1996 by Lyons & Burford under the “Wilder Places” logo, remains available from various online sources.