The Land and People Of America's Outback

TO the majority of Americans who live in urban, suburban, and even many rural communities not too far from larger population centers, the idea of a "contemporary frontier" existing in the United States may seem unlikely. After all, the American frontier was considered closed 100 years ago.

Not so, says Dayton Duncan, author of "Miles From Nowhere: Tales From America's Contemporary Frontier," who packed up his GMC Suburban and headed out to find people in the most remote counties of the US.

These counties, the size of Massachusetts or bigger, boast fewer than two folks per square mile and dot the Western half of the country like Mondrian-shaped splotches on a canvas. They (132 of them, according to the 1990 US Census) make up 13 percent of the nation's land mass - an area "a little larger than everything east of the Mississippi River and north of the Mason-Dixon line." Together, their population totals about 489,000 people - roughly the size of Pittsburgh.

To find this contemporary frontier, Duncan crisscrossed thousands of miles of lonely highways and back roads, where hundred-mile stretches are broken by only one tiny town or outpost.

The stories of the people living in these desolate environs are the most interesting part of his book.

Take Margaret Stafford, an 84-year-old woman who lives by herself on the barren plains of eastern Montana without electricity or running water, 43 miles from the nearest town, Jordan, population 494. Stafford is a peppery individual who had never planned on staying and was appalled at the conditions when she filed for a homestead in Garfield County in 1925. But she married and lived there in a one-room hut with her husband until he left in the 1970s. She goes to Jordan about three times a year but says, "Don't ask me to stay in that rotten little burg. Everybody knows everybody else's business. And what's going on with the rest of the world? You tell me. Well, that's why I stay out here."

The Old West had ox-drawn wagons that brought mail and supplies. Today, only the mode of transportation has changed. Jerry McComb of Presidio County, Texas, has spent 18 years driving a UPS truck in an area of dusty, arid southwest Texas that the Spanish nicknamed El Despoblado - the place without people. McComb spends about 12 hours a day on the road delivering just about everything to an area larger than the state of Connecticut. On his travels, he's had rear wheels fall off, delivered a baby, and had to walk four hours to the nearest telephone, encountering "a few ornery Brahma bulls and some rattlesnakes."

Although many Western cities are a magnet for settlers, many frontier counties continue to lose population. Duncan muses: "The old frontier was seen as the locus of boundless opportunity waiting to be tapped. People went there seeking their fortunes. With a few exceptions, the contemporary frontier is viewed as an economic backwater; what few people are moving in - retirees or `quality-of-life pioneers' hoping to find a slower pace amidst nice scenery - are usually those who have already made their money . The expectation for a frontier area once was growth; it was a nearly empty place anticipating being filled. Now, it is a nearly empty place worried about becoming emptier; the prognosis most often is for decline."

Through colorful prose and a conversational tone, Duncan vividly brings to life a territory of America unexplored by most people. He weaves in historical anecdotes about Western heroes and villains of the old frontier days. And he tells the stories of modern pioneers - and lets them tell their accounts - in a refreshingly nonjudgmental way.

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