An American Odyssey. Roaming the West, writer finds living `repositories of national myth'

GOODBYE, Style Section! Hello, West!'' That's what Washington Post profile-writer Jim Conaway said three years ago. During an interview with then-Secretary of Interior James Watt, Mr. Conaway was struck by the amount of publicly owned land in the West - an area almost the size of Europe - which few Easterners know much about. ``Everyday travelers in station wagons and five-axle semis look out their windows at the West and think that all that alternately inspiring and god-awful stuff belongs to the descendant of some titled lord.... Most of us travel it for days without knowing it belongs to us.'' Conaway bought a van, packed it to the windowsills with camping gear, notebooks, and a typewriter - and said goodbye to wife and kids.

``I left Washington to look at federal real estate. What I discovered was people - repositories of the national myth.''

Conaway found cowboys, Indians, gold miners, mountain men, and hustlers - as he expected. ``But I also found some I couldn't have foreseen: a gunfighter holding sway over a remote part of Wyoming at the end of the 20th century; men still taking multiple wives in the shadow of flaming sandstone cliffs. I found defenders of a mythic place, abusers of the same, some ordinary and many extraordinary men and women.''

He has chronicled his travels in a book, ``The Kingdom in the Country.'' The most important thing he learned, he says, is the huge difference these preserved public lands have made in preserving the national psyche.

``The homogenization of America has been postponed by the existence of public lands, where people can pursue lives truly different from those elsewhere, or pretend to,'' writes Conaway. ``Public lands are also an inadvertent refuge for the enduring notion of the West, and consequently for a significant piece of our collective unconscious,'' he adds.

Conaway's six-month odyssey (see accompanying map) began in Roswell, N.M., and followed a serpentine path through the Santa Fe and Gila National Forests (N.M.), the Tonto (Ariz.), Dixie (Utah), and Uncompahgre (Colo.) National Forests. He continued on through Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Washington (nearly to the Canadian border), Oregon, Nevada, and California before realizing - after he drove into a ditch one day in Oregon - that he had had enough.

Here's a sampling of the characters he met:

Dave Peacock, grizzly bear lover and expert

``Grizzlies have become the seminal environmental issue in the mountain West, and a symbol of the last truly wild and unmanageable aspect of primeval America,'' Conaway writes. And the man that knew more about them than anyone alive was Mr. Peacock. ``[He] had occasionally conducted sweats to purge himself of human odors, and stored his clothes in bags with dirt and leaves before putting them on.''

Dave Cattoor, helicopter horse-roundup leader

After flying in the helicopter that had helped collect 25,000 horses in eight years for the federal government, Conaway says of pilot Cattoor, ``He was, like both the modern range cowboy and those of yesteryear, closer to a 19th-century hippie than to the image projected by John Wayne.'' Ed Cantrell, gunfighter

``I began to hear other rumors about Cantrell: He could ride for days without eating and bring down a horse or a man at a thousand yards with a rifle.... he could quote Hemingway; he was near deaf from practicing every day with a revolver; he had the eyes of a rattlesnake, and quicker hands.

``I didn't believe them, of course. Then I found Ed Cantrell in Wyoming.''

Conaway met women as well.

Leslie Cone, for example, was a Bureau of Land Management agent managing 2 million acres of desert. And Cathy Doran, a mining engineer with Western Energy involved in land reclamation.

``What was common and significant about all these people,'' says Conaway, ``is that they live in difficult areas with difficult situations and are doing what they want in spite of it all.''

Besides being a compendium of Western characters, ``The Kingdom in the Country'' bulges with salient facts about western problems and issues. there are 300 million acres of public range, for instance, slightly more than half administered by the Bureau of Land Management, supporting 4 million head of cattle and bringing in about $15 million in grazing fees from private citizens.

The book has no pictures. ``I wanted this to be a purely literary exercise,'' Conaway says.

``I'd been wanting to do a book on the West for years, and it turned out to be far more interesting than I thought.''

His only regret is, that there remains so much more of the West to see.

``I figure I only touched about 10 percent,'' he says.

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