Review: ‘True West’

In ‘True West,’ Betsy Gaines Quammen separates what’s myth and material in the West

By Maggie Doherty

Is there a landscape that’s so mythologized, glorified, and vilified as the American West? That’s the question that Bozeman author and historian Betsy Gaines Quammen investigates in her new book, “True West: Myth and Mending on the Far Side of America.” The Western states are largely defined by their vast and picturesque terrains, often crowned by their status as national parks. As the last wild homeland for charismatic megafauna like wolves, bison and grizzly bears, the West can be forgiven for its enduring stereotypes about cowboys and Indians, pioneers and explorers, all of which permeate life beyond the 100th meridian. 

It’s also a region that tends to overlook many of its Indigenous populations, violently erasing histories and cultures in the name of Manifest Destiny. 

For Gaines Quammen, the West is a place burdened with escapable myths and these pervasive tales only complicate an already complex place as it faces increasing challenges from population booms, devastating effects of wildfire and drought, and a fractured, divisive political climate. In 2021, Gaines Quammen took a long road trip across the West to pluck truth from the long roots of fiction. By one neighborly conversation at a time, she makes sense of the many tall tales — like how the West was “won” — while also looking for opportunities to mend any broken fences along the route. Serving as “interpreter and iconoclast,” Gaines Quammen is the West’s myth buster. 

Many of the prevailing myths aren’t fodder for campfire stories. Instead, they are often deceptive and dangerous, and Gaines tackles each problem without vilification or hyperbole. Gaines Quammen argues the West is buckling under the pressure of these myths — from legends that promote rugged individualism to how Lewis and Clark were the supposed first to discover the land and peoples west of the Mississippi River. There’s also a newer story that promotes anti-government rhetoric coupled with religious zealotry as embodied in the Cliven Bundy family, the topic of which was her first book, “American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God, and Public Lands in the West.” In her new book she writes, “Right now, there is too much being asked of the West. It sits between history and expectation—a place saddled with hopes that it can’t fulfill.” 

Those of us residing in the Flathead Valley are experiencing a wide range of these expectations as tourism to Glacier National Park and our surrounding communities increases to almost untenable levels. Pressures across the region include a lack of affordable housing, income stratification, resource damage due to overuse, and a lack of knowledge about outdoor ethics.  Gaines Quammen visits Polebridge to speak with Flannery Freund who owns Home Ranch Bottoms, a campground and restaurant, about the influx of tourists to Glacier’s remote northwest corner. Freund talks about the massive crowds, how many among them aren’t prepared for the area’s remoteness or long stretches of unpaved roads, and the inappropriate (there is no appropriate number, by the way) amount of used toilet paper blooms along the sides of trails. Incorporating study after study to illustrate just how popular national parks and the gateway communities they serve have become, especially after 2020, Gaines Quammen writes, “Many western parks have become free-for-alls, overcrowded with people at the same time they are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis … The myth of the West as a cheap, rough-and-tumble playland is perilous in this region of extreme limits and incalculable value.” 

While many topics are thorny — from political extremism to the rise of Christian nationalism and white supremacy — Gaines Quammen writes in an approachable style. She doesn’t denigrate those who have a different set of values and her curiosity about beliefs and cultural attitudes makes this a compelling read. It’s refreshing to see how much she genuinely listened to the people she interviewed from eastern Montana to Idaho, Escalante in Utah, and many points in between. She implores us that the problems in the West aren’t insurmountable.  She advises, “Politics, technology, industry, and reforms are not solving our problems. As people lose faith in institutions, and our democracy hangs in the balance, we need to engage with one another, build rapport, act with compassion, and listen.” 

Gaines Quammen wisely recommends that the solution is talking across the divide and engaging with our communities, person-to-person. Perhaps the West is so enshrined in myth is because it belongs to all Americans. Fifty percent of the lands in the West are public, she reports, and this fact alone likely makes this region of the country one of mythic proportion and responsibility, especially for those of us who call it home. It’s one indisputable truth worth preserving.