Egan, a Westerner and New York Times correspondent, writes: "What is the West, beyond an incongruous grouping of eleven American states holding basin, range, and plenty of room to hide, a place where people think that geography alone makes them different? It was, until recently, a process instead of a place."
The one thing I don't get about Egan's assessment is "until recently," because as far as I can tell, the process never ends. Following it by way of his essays was a delight, and left me feeling much as I imagine an actual trek through such a grand landscape would, assuming one could actually trek back and forth between the old west and new, meeting all manner of provocative and odd characters along the way.
Chapters meander through diverse but quintessentially western places, from the remote and ancient Acoma, New Mexico ("possibly the oldest continuously inhabited place in the United States") to Vegas, culminating in a big picture full of engrossing and telling details.
"In all their plumbing and engineering, the water czars made one monumental error. As it turns out, the people of this most daring of American cities (Las Vegas) draw their drinking water just six miles from the same spot where they dump their waste, a stream of barely treated effluents that are particularly heavy with pesticides from hotels trying to make sure that not a single mosquito visits the Strip."
The scope of Egan's historical and personal perspectives impressed, and the writing entertained. There's plenty of empathy, humor and consternation but nothing sentimental about it, especially when it comes to the ongoing and sometimes deadly issues, all having to do with land use.
"If land and religion are what people most often kill each other over, then the West is different only in that land is the religion." More than any other, this seems to be the religion that has made America what it is.