A life-long westerner, Drew S. declines the label.
Wearing a beard on his chin and running shorts over his black long underwear, he sat nonchalantly at a table among the eclectic decorations at the Jolts and Juice Company coffee bar in Ontario, Oregon. His Sudoku puzzle nearly complete, he tipped an ear toward the unexpected question: What do you think makes you a westerner?
Curious, he tossed his Sudoku aside and settled into an hour-long conversation.
“I have almost never identified myself as anything other than myself,” he said. “I’m not a joiner of clubs. This is me, and I’m human just like you. We have everything in common except how we go about it.”
Drew grew up on a farm (“it had a farm-like field”) just outside of Rexburg, a town of 25,000 in eastern Idaho. It’s high-desert, agrarian country, within a couple-hour drive of the Grand Tetons, and it has deep Mormon roots. Drew’s family fit the mold to some extent. They weren’t Mormon, but they raised what they ate and grew a great deal of what they ate as well. And Drew, unknowingly, grew to love the wide-open soul of the area’s abundant high desert.
“I identify myself as a country boy even though I haven’t lived like a country boy for 40 years now,” he said. “We didn’t have this connectedness all day. Now, I don’t have periods of time where I don’t bump into somebody. When we were kids, we’d hop on our bikes and be gone eight hours.”
One could say Drew’s childhood was stereotypically western. He grew up on a farm where the family grew most of its own food. He enjoyed independence and a wide-open-sky kind of freedom. He nurtured an unknowing and intense connection to the land. But he’s averse to the label of westerner and the assumptions that go with it. There are numerous people who live in Appalachia, for example, who could claim the same life experiences.
“I think it’s comparative,” he said. “I never considered myself a westerner until I met an easterner. For someone to come here and be amazed at everything that is or isn’t here: ‘Oh my gosh, these mountains are so astounding’ or ‘Gosh, I didn’t realize there are places where people don’t live.’ Those differences made me realize these are the kinds of places I want to be in.”
Make no mistake, this life-long westerner doesn’t bend to the whimsical notions of the West portrayed on the silver screen that most certainly shape at least part of the national consciousness of what a westerner is or should be.
“The West, the code of the West, the mystique, or mistake of the west—if you have the Disney view of it—you might be astounded to come out here and find Kmarts and everything else,” he said. “The sense of scale is the biggest thing for me. When I go to the East Coast, or Europe for that matter, I always notice the difference of being closed in.”
Still, Drew declined to crawl beneath the western umbrella. To embrace such a label, he said, would be to imply that he is a person worthy of being set apart from everybody else. He paraphrased from the widely publicized 2012 Wellesley High School commencement speech in which English teacher David McCullough, Jr. told a field of graduates: “Even if you’re one in a million on a planet of 6.8 billion, that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you … If everyone is special, that means no one is.”
“If there’s anything that ties human beings together, it’s a desire to be somebody special, but even if you could identify the why-I’m-a-such-and-such gene, people are still going to die of cancer,” Drew said. “What difference does it make how we define ourselves?”
That led to his thesis in retort of the question: What makes a person a westerner?
“Maybe westerners identify themselves as westerners because it sets them apart from other people.”
Drew S. lives in Idaho Falls, Idaho. We enjoyed an hour-long conversation at a coffee shop in Ontario, Oregon on Dec. 15, 2013. Preferring relative anonymity, Drew declined to offer his last name or allow his photograph to be taken.