Very near the end of the traditional culture of the Plains Indian, a phenomenon known as the Ghost Dance arose in which it was prophesied that the sacred lands would be returned to the people who had for millennia inhabited them, and that the buffalo and other vanished residents would reinhabit the Plains, and whether through a turning back of time or a full revolution forward to that time again, no matter: The vanquished Indian tribes, or that tiny fraction of them, found such solace in the vision, the prophecy, that the U.S. government forbade the dance, censoring even their hopes and dreams and beliefs.
In "No Country for Old Men," McCarthy writes of that same aging rural sheriff who has been fighting the ever-escalating drug wars along the Texas-Mexico border, and who has witnessed what he perceives to be the final and absolute disintegration of the culture he once knew and had for so long labored to defend: "He walked down the steps and out the back door and got in his truck and sat there. He couldnt name the feeling. It was sadness but it was something else besides. And the something else besides was what had him sitting there instead of starting the truck. He'd felt like this before but not in a long time and when he said that, then he knew what it was. It was defeat. It was being beaten. More bitter to him than death. You need to get over that, he said. Then he started the truck."
There exists, surely, no one measure or definition to describe the West: not its past nor its present, and certainly not its future. This late-summer morning, in the day's first light, I am in the suburbs of a small Western town where the leaves of an apple tree are glowing, illuminated by the rising sun--an image of great and green beauty that could occur almost anywhere--and yet I know, as if by gravity alone, or by some secret and ceaseless whisper, that I am in the West. Perhaps a million other mingled odors, silent histories and the unnamed or unknown constellations of the night before, with their faint tidal tuggings still imprinted upon my subconscious, conspire to inform me of this fact; there is no measure, there is only the place and the time, and it is now, is still now, but it is also changing, has almost always been changing. The last wolves have long been killed off from the prairies outside Houston (and the prairies dewatered, poisoned, then paved over), and yet in other places wolves are coming back, reappearing, as if following diligently the arc of prophecy.
Why should it surprise us so that such a thing can be true, that one can know one is in the West upon first awakening in the morning, even before one opens one's eyes? That one can know and sense and hear and taste and feel and see Westernness intimately, without being able to measure it? The world is full of inscrutable things--still, and thank goodness--and how much more bereft and fragile we would be than we already are were we not able to discern always and at heart's depth, without a moment's forethought or other knowledge, something as basic as the four cardinal points on the compass: in the West.
To not possess such knowledge, one day: I can think of no other better definition for the word "lost." Which we are not, yet.