Liza P. Burkin

5 Hidden Cultural Centers of the American West

Post originally published at Freewheeling with Liza Burkin

When we think of the American West, images of cowboys, deserts, rodeos, and NRA-supporters come immediately to mind. In my travels, however, I’ve been lucky enough to happen upon five spots that break the classic Western stereotypes. The destinations listed below are centers of subcultures, niche interests, and off-the-beaten-path, random experiences. These are the kinds of places that transform travel into adventure.

1. Elko, NV: A living celebration of cowboy culture

The 12-hour drive from Salt Lake City to San Francisco along I-80 is long and lonely, with great expanses of desert and salt flats that resemble the surface of the moon. Only two cities in Nevada dot the map before the California border: Elko and Reno. While my favorite cops in minishorts have told me all I need to know about the latter, the former city was a mystery to me. Less than four hours west of Salt Lake, I rolled up to Elko and found a classic, dusty western town of about 18,000 that sits at the foot of the scenic Ruby Mountains. According to Wikipedia, its principal economic drivers, gold mining and ranching, have been the same since the town was birthed by the railroad in the 1860s. But rather than crumble away like so many other cow towns in the West, Elko today is a center of celebration and reverence for cowboy lifestyle and culture.

The town is home to the Western Folklife Center, a non-profit organization that strives to raise public awareness and support for the traditional, expressive culture of the West. For the past 29 years it has hosted the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, a two-week event that draws thousands of poets, artists, musicians and folklorists from all over the world. According to Kathy, the sweet middle-aged gift shop worker, last year the gathering garnered $8 million tourism dollars, sustaining the center itself and a variety of local businesses. Every theatre, cafe, church, community center, and backyard in town hosts readings and performances throughout the event, which takes place at the end of January/beginning of February.

It is plain to see the spill-over effect the success of the gathering has had on the town. The tiny hip coffee shop is full of vibrant local publications, the music store displays vintage guitars and banjos, and handmade leather goods peek out of several shop windows. The Ruby Mountain Hot Air Balloon Festival fills the cornflower blue skies with color every September, and the National Basque Festival brings Spanish traditions of bull-running, dancing, and strongman competitions.

2. Slab City, CA: An off-the-grid hideaway of hitchhiking, road-dog, and fringe travel culture

Ever since reading and seeing Into the Wild, I’ve been fascinated with the unincorporated, permanent settlement in the middle of nowhere (where Emile Hirsche and Kristen Stewart sing “Angel From Montgomery”). Having no idea what we’d find there other than the Dr. Seuss-meets-Jesus-freak landmark Salvation Mountain, some sun-fried aging hippies and a bunch of RVs, my boyfriend and I went to check it out. It became evident immediately upon arrival that Slab City is a thriving cultural center for hitchhikers, road-dogs and fringe travelers. We were immediately invited to a campfire gathering, and upon stepping into the warm circle were questioned by everyone where we had come from, where we were going, did we need a map, a campsite, anything! The rampant friendliness was actually somewhat unnerving, like the permanent residents, or “Slabbies,” wanted to woo us into their desert hideout for good. But maybe we were just being paranoid.

The “city” itself lies about four miles outside the small town of Niland, CA just to the east of the Salton Sea. The landscape is utterly desolate; it is easily one of the ugliest places I’ve ever seen. The camps, however, are a stunning example of innovation and creativity. Slab City has its own live music venue, outdoor movie theatre and senior center, all made from rescued junkyard materials. The wide dirt paths even have actual street names accessible from Google maps. It’s impossible to know the population, but from what we gathered most people just stay for the winter. One is only deemed a true Slabbie if they brave the blistering summers when temperatures reach as high as 120 degrees. At the campfire, the crowd was a healthy blend of residents, transients and young travelers.

Despite not staying long, I’m so glad I satisfied my curiosity of this outstandingly unique place. This is as fringe as fringe society gets, a culture born and raised completely outside of mainstream consumer capitalism. I know I could never handle the desert wasteland of the Slabs for long, but experiencing the welcoming community they’ve built from literally nothing was an experience I’ll never forget.

3. Chaco Canyon, NM: Discovering the ruins of a culture long gone

About a four hour drive from Santa Fe through wild, uninhabited desert, Chaco Culture National Historical Park is where the remnants of a highly advanced indigenous civilization still stand, revealing visions of the land’s pre-Colombian past. Populated from approximately A.D. 900-1150,this hub of ancient Pueblo trade and ceremony included massive, pre-planned complexes that remained the largest buildings in North America until the 19th century. The early Pueblos, or Anasazi (a Ute term meaning “ancient ones” or “enemy ancestors”), were the predecessors of many modern southwestern tribes including the Hopi, Apache and Navajo. For a minimum of two centuries, the Chacoans used this space to commune from incredible distances to trade and pray. Artifacts like macaw feathers from Central and South America have been uncovered, and the nearly 200,000 trees needed to build the immense, 200-700 room structures originated in forests up to 70 miles away. Without wagons or horses, that meant transporting whole trees together on foot, through the desert. Damn. We in the United States think we must travel to places like Jerusalem, Giza, or Macchu Pichu to experience great feats of ancient societies, but in fact we have awe-inspiring relics of antiquity here in our own backyard.

Perhaps the most arresting feature of Chaco is the evidence of archaeoastronomy. Much like Stonehenge, some of the structures were constructed to coincide with solar and lunar cycles and solstices. This meant generations of careful astronomical observations, which were then applied to the eerily immaculate masonry. To this day, perfectly aligned windows cut through up to five layers of rock walls let viewers gaze out into the canyon. Experts believe that a 50-year drought beginning around 1130 AD forced the Chacoans to abandon this spiritual and cultural heart of the Southwest, but we’ll never truly know what caused them to build and then leave this beautiful place. As always, a picture’s worth a thousand words:

4. Jerome, AZ: Art on the mountaintop

The glowing red rocks, silhouetted cacti and yawning landscapes of the Southwest have inspired artists of all mediums since the time of the Pueblos. Towns like Santa Fe and Sedona are world renowned for their art scenes, and draw millions of tourists each year to their contemporary galleries, Native American craft centers and celebrated turquoise shops. Yet a mile high on a mountaintop 45 minutes from Sedona, a miniature, off-the-beaten-path version of the funky Southwestern art town sits drinking in the sun and welcoming visitors to explore its cultural charms and history. Jerome, AZ: population 450, was settled in the late 1890s a copper mining town and was once the fourth largest city in Arizona. Now dubbed “America’s Most Vertical City” and the “Largest Ghost Town in America,” the village has undergone a dramatic personality change, saying goodbye to miners and hello to artists, craft people, musicians, writers, hermits, bed and breakfast owners, museum caretakers, gift shop proprietors and fallen-down-building landlords.

The day I spent in Jerome checking out galleries, jewelry stores, backyard sculpture gardens and eating at the local haunted hamburger joint left me knowing one thing for certain: Jerome is an odd place with a weird vibe. So if you’re a lover of the bizarre like me, then get off the pink jeep in Sedona and give this strange, offbeat hermitage some love.

5. Marfa, TX: The next destination

I confess: I have never been to Marfa, TX. Yet I have heard it proclaimed by many a Southwest traveler (mostly bike tourists escaping the monotony of I-10) that this oasis of arts culture is a perfect stop for anyone crossing the great West Texas desert. Its hidden wonders include a mysterious paranormal occurrence called the Marfa Lights, its classic Texan architecture provides an enticing backdrop for Hollywood film crews (in 2006 alone, There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men were filmed there), and the Chinati Foundation sustains a rich arts community through its permanent exhibits, annual Open House events and artists-in-residency programs. In recent years, writers, performers and artists have moved to Marfa en-masse from urban areas around the globe. The next time I’m driving the lonely I-10, this is one cultural center I know I won’t miss.

This entry was published on December 6, 2012 at 11:58 pm and is filed under Travel. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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