This Week:
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Way Out West
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Page 44 of 44
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Things really are different out here. As I was making my way from Vermont back to Oregon recently, in mid-Montana I looked out the window and watched the scenery change from eastern to distinctly western. When we talk about "the west", we speak of an enormous expanse of land covering more than 1,000,000 square miles, offering a wide range of climate and geology. And yet there is a characteristic western landscape throughout that expanse which makes it clearly distinct from what one sees in the east. Rainfall is the key. The 100th meridian is generally considered to be the line that marks the transition from eastern US to western. This meridian also marks the division between the region where precipitation averages more than 20 inches per year to the realm where it is less than that. This sparse moisture gives the land some distinguishing features. "Canyon" is a word borrowed from Spanish to describe a common aspect of western landscapes from the Grand Canyon to the Snake River Canyon and many lesser features throughout the west. Here is a picture of Picture Gorge near Dayville Oregon and the inset was taken over eight hundred miles away in a region with completely different geology, yet they both have a very similar look. "Mesa" is another Spanish word for a typically western feature. It describes a plains which has been carved away in in some places while other spots remain untouched and standing proud. Here again we have two spots separated by many hundreds of miles, different climate and geology and yet there is a basic similarity in the shape of the land which you will never find in the eastern US. The reason for the distinctive landscape is the rain, or lack of it. I cannot claim to have discovered this on my own and I can't remember now where I read it but once one understands, one can see it everywhere out here. Gravity never sleeps and water is its tool. In regions that see heavy rains, the water is distributed evenly and everything gets smoothed out together. In the deserts, what water there is is in the rivers and streams and the land around may see a few drops per year. The result is deep cuts where the water flows flanked by proud parapets where it does not. This makes for another difference that caused the early pioneers in the west much trouble. Eastern rivers tend to be meandering streams like the Mississippi, the Missouri and the Platte, suitable for ferrying cargo over great distances. Western rivers like the Columbia, the Colorado and the Snake all cut their courses through deep canyonsfilled with seething rapids which made them lethal to would-be navigators. Perhaps the biggest difference from a human standpoint is this: In the east the people shape the land and out here the land shapes the people.