Two paintings lead a tourist homeward, through a West that never was.
I know I’m supposed to skim over the cracks — the viewpoint angles me towards the white daybreak shimmering on the horizon — but I’m fixated on the drop-off darkening behind the light-spattered rocks, I’m fixated on the precipice, the murky truth dawning in the yawn beyond the foreground. I also know I’m supposed to reject this as a symbolic interpretation, false realism, romantic candlelight softening the truth: after all, this is an image of The West That Never Was, a vacant paradise, ignoring the continuous presence of the Washoe, the Shoshone, the Paiutes who slipped through Donner Pass years before the unprepared, squabbling pioneers who didn’t recognize their trespass until too late.
The painter, Albert Bierstadt, was an Eastern interloper awestruck by the Alps from his home terrain, trying to translate the grandeur of Manifest Destiny through a filter that he could comprehend. It really must have been something, that first trip West in 1859, a pull strong enough to keep him in thrall with what he’d seen, strong enough to still be painting it in the 1870s, after the national fascination with the forty-niners had fizzled out and pioneers had already trampled this holy ground, to be still agape after all the stories had seeped out, enough time trickled through the sluice box; one whole generation had already come and gone back home.
It’s a West I want to believe in, too — I can’t blame Bierstadt — a West waiting to be filled with its admirers. But what if the West is just a giant magnet that understands its inexorable pull, half-smiles as we draw closer, knows that only those who belong will connect; the others will be repelled? I was raised in Oregon and wrenched from Oregon before adolescence, and on my first journey westward as an adult, flying into Seattle at a naïve eighteen, I nervously perched on the edge of an aisle seat on a bus from the airport bound for downtown, hugging my backpack on my lap. I noticed a Seattle Dream Boy, pouty with golden hair Kurt-Cobaining in front of his eyes, reading Camus, so much a cliché that I couldn’t tell if he was intentionally mocking the stereotype or if this was simply the land where these things actually happened.
I got off the bus and, filled with the dread of not knowing where was safe, looked for an institution — somewhere with admission fees because weirdos wouldn’t bother to pay twelve dollars to harass people — and entered the Seattle Art Museum. It was a desperate decision to find somewhere to belong, because I hated looking at art — hated it because I couldn’t do it, shamed by my stick figures and inability to translate what I saw in my head into what I wanted to see on paper, hated art because I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand how someone could spend more than a minute looking at a piece — either you understood what the artist intended when you first saw it, or you didn’t — didn’t grasp how color usage or design elements were “referencing” previous contributions; its incomprehensibility made me angry, inadequate.
But I had paid my money, and I wandered through the native Inuit art exhibit, stood beneath soaring totem poles, barely able to parse the animals morphing in and out of each other. I admired the simple dignity of the woven chiefs’ blankets. And then I saw, in the next gallery, in a room with white artists interpreting a West that they’d thought was vanishing, a huge painting that magnetized me. I found myself almost uncontrollably propelled across the floor by a piece of art, a strange homesickness swelling even as I realized that it was silly to feel homesick for a place I was actually in, even briefly, at last.
Because there were the seastacks of my youth, enveloped in darkness, looking as forbidding as they had felt, as dangerous as it had felt to ascend one knowing the icy Pacific water waited below. There too, the conifer trees, clinging for life to the edge of the rocks; there too, the gray, stormy skies contrasted with a burst of pure white light so hopeful that it brought me to tears. I couldn’t believe I was crying over a painting, overcome with empathy for the peril that pioneers had faced to be there, rending my heart into ribbons over their belief that they would stay.
My heart was still bent Oregonian nearly a decade after leaving. Like the pioneers, I was not born there, though I spent most of my childhood in the core of the Willamette Valley — the destination of the Oregon Trail-ers — and then my family had migrated east, the wrong direction. I was a native sympathizer through and through, defending the rights of the First People even against my relatives who lived on reservation land bought fair and square, and I knew it was wrong but I couldn’t control my predilection, my immediate compassion for the interlopers pictured at the bottom of the painting who had seen a dream and wanted to be there, even on land that wasn’t theirs, even claiming a life that wasn’t theirs.
Like the tourist I was, I bought a postcard of Albert Bierstadt’s painting Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast and tacked it up on my wall that summer, but when I moved back to my Midwestern college in the fall, I couldn’t bear to have it in my sight — it felt like baring my heart, my fears and desires laid so visible and vulnerable that I didn’t want to have to explain it to anyone, so I tucked the postcard away with my childhood relics, letters from friendships long dead.
Later, I learned that Bierstadt never actually saw Puget Sound during his travels; the painting was a construction of his imagination, a dreamscape composite, a synthesized experience of the West and its fascination. It disconcerted me to realize that I had been suckered into emotion by a pretender, a non-native who couldn’t even show me the real thing, but worse: I hadn’t noticed the difference. He’d gotten it close enough that I overlaid my desire to believe, to belong, atop a lie.
Yet I can’t deny him: I return to Bierstadt, fifteen years later, riveted by his presentation of the darkness of Donner Pass, the pale light of Donner Lake leaking false promise through the bleakness where the pioneers stumbled, starving, scrabbling through the chasms to chase that hope to the lake. Twenty-five short years before this painting — a painting exalting new beginnings on a virgin dreamsoil — those shores bore witness to a winter of women and men consuming leather and leathered skin, shocked by how unprepared they were to die, by what they must do to live.
At home, later, I look up Bierstadt’s Donner Lake in an online repository and I am surprised by how less sinister, less moody the image is from the painting in my memory. The encrusted years of fine dirt on the canvas in the museum must have darkened and deepened the crevices, the crevasses, the valleys of fear the pioneers had to cross, to face within themselves. They seem so surmountable in this online interpretation: a day’s walk, a gleeful tumble down verdant slopes towards a large bathtub, waiting to cleanse the months of bad decisions. But I discover this is a construction as well — the website has taken Bierstadt’s painting and altered it, tampered with it, lightened the perspective to highlight details we were never meant to see, stumbling blocks which were meant to stay obscured, promises the West never made, never intended to keep. What does time do but lay a film over what we saw, what we thought we saw, what we wanted to see?
Kristine Langley Mahler has nonfiction recently published or forthcoming in Chautauqua, Quarter After Eight, Sweet, The Bitter Southerner, and Crab Orchard Review, where her work was awarded the 2016 Rafael Torch Literary Nonfiction Award. Kristine is a nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel, an assistant editor at Profane Journal, and a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
First revision of “Interloper” published in print and e-book by 13th Floor Magazine.