Robert Leonard Reid has given us an extraordinary anthology of his life’s work. We may as well get that out of the way. This is no shallow, tin-eared feature boasting “101 Best Places to Eat in New Mexico.”
For the most part, Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West is travel writing as diffused biography, combining a meditated natural and human history of the United States with heart-stopping descriptions of landscape.
Reid shifts between the present and past tense with lyrical diction, chipmunk-like intensity, and unremitting tenderness. He follows classic journalistic style: concrete nouns, active verbs, graceful sentences, solid paragraphs, smooth transitions. Get it right and don’t be boring.
Throughout it all, racking up miles of travel and yowzah moments, Reid is good company. He’s the brilliant professor you had in college. When it’s going well, he’s weightless.
The book’s title is misleading. Reid’s American West includes stories from British Columbia, the Arctic, even London. He retells the epic 1912 story of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott; relays the daring first ascent of Hummingbird Ridge on Canada’s Mount Logan; and invites the reader to Barter Island, Alaska, where he chases porcupine caribou and cooks Arctic char that’s “electric silver in hue with tiny pink spots.”
Did you know that caribou hoof clicks are produced by ligaments slipping over bones in the feet? Or that Arctic terns spend their lives migrating between the polar ice caps? After 25 years a single tern logs nearly a million miles while “weighing no more than a bran muffin.” Or that in 1869, when the transcontinental railway was completed, bison numbers were estimated at 40 million, and uncountable pelicans rose from rivers “like a clatter of pots and pans”?
So let’s turn the pages. We paperclip along old Route 66, stumbling between cosmologies in New Mexico and Arizona. We visit Trinity Site, where the world’s first nuclear bomb exploded in 1945. We ramble through the Diné and Hopi reservations. We climb Acoma Pueblo, where the first battle over religious freedom in what is now the United States was fought in 1598. A modern-day Saturday night in the alcohol-fueled gutters of Gallup, New Mexico, rings dead-bang true.
Reid also rips the bandage off an ancient wound. His retelling of the sad 1860s story of the Long Walk – when more than 9,000 Diné and Mescalero Apaches were forcibly marched to a dusty reservation near Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico – will break your heart. But Reid makes it clear the army never conquered the dignity of those it captured.
The entire code of Native American values was denigrated by mediocre men who did not know how to recognize them, just as they did not know how to measure themselves by them.
One of his essays, written in 1981 and updated here, states his belief that extinct California condors are a better alternative than captive condors living outside the wild world. If the last condor dies, Reid writes, “It will be – for us – a tragedy of huge proportions, but it won’t be a tragedy for condors.”
In some of his travels Reid should have talked a little less and listened a little more. Knocked on doors and smelled more armpits. Mark Twain taught us that the funniest joke is to tell the truth.
But those are quibbles in contrast to what Reid does well – he tells good stories. And some of his sentences are downright beautiful. He writes: “I believe the future is in free-running rivers and snowy mountains and deserts so wide and graceful they bring tears to your eyes.”
Plenty of hard-working writers have cracked the nuances of the West – Wallace Stegner, Barry Lopez (from whom Reid took the title Because It Is So Beautiful), and Terry Tempest Williams, to name just three. Does Reid have a place on that top-shelf bookcase of Western writers? I’m not sure. But I do know Reid is the Western writer I’d most like to have a beer with.
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