California Literary Review

The Hundredth Meridian by Chilton Williamson

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April 22nd, 2007 at 8:37 am

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The Hundredth Meridian
by Chilton Williamson
Chronicles Press, 149 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

A Solid Take on the New Old West

Chilton Williamson definitely cares about the West. Every essay in his collection The Hundredth Meridian – Seasons and Travels in the New Old West makes this abundantly clear. Most of the writings have been culled from columns he wrote for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. From wanderings in the high country near his home in the same community of Kemmerer, Wyoming to a mildly eccentric homage visit to the approximate grave site of writer Ed Abbey to Navajoland scenes I and II and beyond, every word Williamson lays down indicates a man who is tied into the land, the heritage and the mythology of the Old West especially as it evolves into the New West.

No one can write about the land and the West in particular without having spent a great deal of time wandering bluffs, peaks, coulees and sage flats in all kinds of weather from blizzards, to torrential rains that turn the soil into mud soup to searing hot July afternoons. Time spent with friends or alone on some rocky point blend and weave into a fabric that becomes one’s attachment to good country. These experiences often send a soul running for the safety of a living room couch and the imagined security of a television remote control. Or, as is the case with some of us who suffer from a terminal fear of all things city, civilized and organized and who hold a hopeless attachment to the enormous spaces of the West like Chilton’s case, a person can’t get enough of remote, wild country as the following suggests:

The road followed Smith Fork in the narrowing canyon, deeply-wooded on the right side and descending on the left in steep grassy cliffs to the creek, which foamed clear over boulders and short falls and tunneled under carapaces of compacted snow and ice where they crossed the channel over. More snow lay in drifts higher on the steeps; behind these, snow cornices along the high western wall of the canyon curled against the blue sky…The air was blue as we started in, and the down-canyon wind gave it an edge that was pleasantly cool and refreshing after the desert heat. We rode in file, keeping to the trail above the creek, across largely open country broken by timber stands and outcroppings of rock.

That passage nails the West as seen from atop a horse working its way into the high, back country of, say, the Wind Rivers. And Chilton also displays a good sense of humor in the book as exemplified by this exchange with a companion in camp later the same day:

“Do you want another drink.”

“No.”

“NO?!!”

“There’s a man named Alton Windsor in Wisconsin who will write another letter to the magazine if I do.”

“Why would he care?”

“I don’t know. But he does.”

“Oh, come on and have another one. He’ll never know.”

“He will if I write about it.”

“Then don’t.”

“All right. I’ll have another drink. Here’s to Alton Windsor.”

“Mr. Windsor. Cheers!”

Williamson is a conservative in the true sense of the concept, not a dogma-driven neo-con fanatic as is so common on many of television’s talking head shows that masquerade as news programming these days. He believes in free enterprise and prefers his West served to him on a platter delivered by private individuals and not overcooked on a cracked plate dumped his way by a government bureaucrat.

He states quite clearly in the book’s forward what his position is and what direction The Hundredth Meridian will take:

What the Old West had that the New West increasingly lacks are, finally, reality and dignity – the reality of what is basic to human experience, the dignity that comes from acceptance of the physical trials, dangers, hardships, and experience which accompany the reality” (an interview with Williamson giving further insights into his viewpoints can be found here).

The author is one of us, and by that I mean someone who calls the high plains and Rocky Mountains home, someone who is more than a little bit fed up and disgusted with and has little time for people who would or do move here dragging the baggage they’re fleeing with them or, perhaps worse yet, those who pontificate from the distance of other parts of the country about how the West should be run. The “tree huggers” with little awareness, concern or compassion for how the land operates as a natural system. The self-satisfied, misinformed crew that supports sadly-confused groups like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), those who would turn the land into a theme park. Williamson prefers the company of individuals who get their hands dirty out this way – the ranchers, roughnecks and loggers. He has no desire to see this vast landscape turned into an industrial park but he doesn’t want to see the region subjugated and degraded into a homogenized, milquetoast arcade like Yellowstone National Park has become.

Should Williamson ever find himself in my part of the West, I hope he calls me so that I can take him down to my dry camp of many seasons in the coulees and bluffs of Tongue River country. I’d like to share a bottle or two of whiskey with him around a modest fire as we talk of the landscape and a way of life we both cherish as stars blast away overhead and coyotes riff through the night.

Many will disagree with my assessment of this book and with Williamson’s opinions. That’s life. The Hundredth Meridian should be required reading for anyone thinking of visiting, moving out here or of forcing their worldviews on the West.

(Author’s note: Finding this book may be a bit of a struggle. It can, however, be ordered directly from the publisher: Chronicles Press.)

  • Bob Cheeks

    Wonderfully rendered review. Chilton is a favorite.

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