Where Did the West Go?

The road stretched straight and flat before me, like you’d see in a sports car commercial or a Dennis Hopper movie. On either side, the land spread wide and open. Not quite flat—with a bit of a roll here and there—dotted with juniper and other unidentifiable desert shrubs. I had been traveling out West for almost six weeks since leaving my home in West Virginia, staying with friends in Albuquerque, visiting National Parks with my husband John, and searching for someplace in this vast region that I could call home. I spent Christmas at the Grand Canyon, celebrated the New Year in Joshua Tree National Park, and camped for two cold nights in the Mojave Desert. But nothing had felt like the real West until then—that moment on the long drive from Albuquerque to Roswell, New Mexico (don’t ask) when I looked around and saw…nothing. Or rather, no one.

Don’t get me wrong—I love the National Parks. In fact, as we jostled for position at the South Rim overlooks on Christmas Day among the Asian, European, Latino, and other tourists, I confessed to John that America’s National Parks are what I’m most proud of about our country. Make America great again? It already is. It always was. All we did was have the smarts not to mess parts of it up. Parts of it.

Since then, I had been searching through northern Arizona and New Mexico in a borrowed Fiat and obsessively Googling communities in Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada. My goal? Find a nice small town with a nice small house where John and I could plant our not-so-nice small footprints and spend our weekends traipsing through wildlands. When I looked at a map and saw all that glorious green National Forest and parkland surrounding western communities, I figured somewhere out there was a town for us. But as I explored those potential sites on the ground, I found mostly strip malls or ghost towns—chain stores or boarded-up buildings. Other places looked promising, but the specter of future fracking or the legacy of past mining cautioned me away. With the Trump Administration promising more fossil fuel drilling and less environmental oversight, my misgivings grew.

I was getting discouraged. Where was the West I remembered? I had gotten my first taste of it decades ago, standing on the edge of the Beaver Rim in central Wyoming. Until then, I had spent all of my twenty-five years on the East Coast. Eastern deciduous forest and Atlantic surf were my natural habitats. But that summer, as I looked out over the breathtaking emptiness of basin and range, I felt an awe that I never could have imagined. Now, with a few more bumpy miles on my body’s odometer, I wanted to feel that again.

In 2016, the Center for American Progress, in conjunction with the consulting group Conservation Science Partners, released a report showing that between 2001 and 2011, the American West lost a football field’s worth of natural area to human development every two and a half minutes. Because of urban sprawl, energy and mineral development, roads and transmission lines, the landscape that inspired me so long ago has become more and more elusive.

Somehow, on that lonely drive to Roswell, among the desolate plains of eastern New Mexico, I found my awe again. The land surrounding me wasn’t famous for its scenery or valued for its minerals or preserved for posterity. It was forgotten—except, I suspect, by the ranchers who somehow make their living from sparsely scattered herds grazing over a vast parched landscape that can’t handle many head. I saw a few cattle here and there, an occasional car on the highway, and a mystical island of snow-covered mountains off in the distance.

Photo by Amy Mathews Amos.

Maybe that’s the answer, I thought. Find the forgotten places. Soak in the vastness of a western universe without fast food, souvenir shops, drill rigs, or parking lots by going where no one else will go. Fill the soul with a satisfying emptiness that few can find on Earth these days.

But as I finished my drive, reality hit. Forgotten places can get pretty lonely. No friends to dine with, no community to embrace, no airport to whisk me off when work demands my presence. Best to find the forgotten places on foot, with a pack on the back and a burning need in the belly.

My search for a new home continues. I’m beginning to suspect that wherever I land might not be awe-inspiring. But at least I know that, for now, some of those forgotten places still exist. That emptiness matters. And I know that, if I explore far enough, I can capture that breathtaking feeling of vast wildness once again, alone in the middle of nowhere.


Photo at the top courtesy of John Amos.

SELFIE INTERVIEW | Melanie Lynn Griffin

Melanie Lynn Griffin is a freelance writer, teacher, and environmental communications specialist whose work has appeared in Sierra magazine, AARP Bulletin, Sojourners, and So To Speak Journal. She is a pastor at Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland, and leads writing workshops and contemplative retreats. Ms. Griffin holds an MA in Nonfiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her blog Writing with Spirit is at melanielynngriffin.wordpress.com.

Eckleburg: What drives, inspires, and feeds your artistic work?

Melanie Lynn Griffin: I see writing as a sacred act, involving profound vulnerability and a deep yearning for connection. My writing is driven by that yearning and inspired by a universal spirit of Love that longs for us to be one with each other and with nature. I strive to understand and honor our human condition and our relationship with the natural world, searching for the universals that create a sense of belonging and connection. Writing is an emotionally and spiritually healing practice for me, and in my workshops, I try to empower others to tap into that healing power.

Eckleburg: If you had to arm wrestle a famous writer, poet or artist, either living or dead, who would it be? Why? What would you say to distract your opponent and go for the win?

Melanie Lynn Griffin: Clearly a fruitless endeavor, I would arm wrestle with Willa Cather. Willa was a hefty woman, a devoted hiker who was determined and ambitious. I would lose. While she’s not my favorite writer, I feel a bizarre connection with her, which began when I visited her grave early in my writing career. That trip prompted a somewhat obsessive in-depth study of Willa’s life and longings and was the catalyst for a painful (for me, hopefully not the reader) personal essay that explored my complicated relationship with my alcoholic father, who had loved Willa. Along the way, I learned that Willa might be distracted by wildflowers, all things medical, and other women. But I’m still pretty sure I would lose.

Eckleburg: What would you like the world to remember about you and your work?

Melanie Lynn Griffin: I want to be remembered as loving and compassionate and a good listener. I want to be remembered as curious, eclectic, funny, and wise. I want to be remembered as a woman who sought the Divine in everything and everyone, and who was at peace. I’d like my work to be described as authentic, insightful, and hopeful. It occurs to me that I will have to live a very long time to even come close to these dreams for myself and my work. And that would be OK.

Eckleburg thanks Melanie Lynn Griffin for sharing her Selfie Interview with us. Do you have new work published here at Eckleburg or elsewhere? Add your Selfie Interview and share the news with our 10,000+ reading and writing community. If you have a new book out or upcoming, join our Eckleburg Book Club and let our readers know about it.


Inspect the Heart. L Ann Dulin. The Eckleburg Gallery.

Music and Film: “The Antikythera Mechanism” by BT

Inspect the Heart. Lisa Ann Dulin. The Eckleburg Gallery. 2014.
Temporal Intermedia. Lisa Dulin. The Eckleburg Gallery. 2014.

The Johns Hopkins University
M. A. in Writing Program
Hybrid Forms

Fall 2014Portfolio

Artist’s Statement: Inspect the Heart is a project that has been the culmination of my greatest passions: feathers and freedom, the alien reptile mind of birds as a stand-in for othered humanity, the juxtaposition of the clinical and the magical, breakable youth, healed again. Transparency in transparency, truth within fact. I say it is a culmination of my obsessions, but this piece is the focal point through which the rest of a project will spin itself out.

Materials: X-ray of a newly hatched bird with wings outspread, one leg broken and set, over the redacted text of an autopsy textbook describing how to autopsy the heart.

L Ann Dulin

L Ann Dulin is a writer of genre and midwestern gothic, a midwestern transplant into the mid-atlantic.  She’s gigged in multiple bands, drawn a comic book, performed in countless shows in a theatre downtown, been in three different movies (none of which you’re likely to have seen), recorded an album, painted a mural, written a book, and… that might actually be it. She’s an assistant editor for The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review. Her intermedia work has been part of the Rue de Fleurus Reading series in DC, Baltimore, and NYC.