Montana State University

On the road again, MSU professor gains new insights into American West

September 10, 2014 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

William Wyckoff is a cultural geographer at Montana State University. (Photo by Katie Wyckoff).This new book by William Wyckoff focuses on 100 features that shape the cultural landscape of the American West.In one of many serendipitous moments, MSU professor William Wyckoff encountered this sheep drive along U.S. Highway 89 north of Gunnison, Utah. (Photo by William Wyckoff). This prominent Hereford in west-central Montana demonstrates how a side of beef can be an effective billboard, says MSU professor William Wyckoff. (Photo by William Wyckoff). Conover's Trading Post in Wisdom is one of several Montana sites that appear in a new book by MSU professor William Wyckoff. (Photo by William Wyckoff).

William Wyckoff is a cultural geographer at Montana State University. (Photo by Katie Wyckoff).

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN –A Montana State University professor who gained new insights about the West by driving more than 30,000 miles and visiting every county in 11 states has written one of the latest books in a long-running environmental series.

Cultural geographer William Wyckoff said he wrote “How to Read the American West: A Field Guide” to dispel misconceptions about the West, give Americans a more diverse picture of the West and remind Westerners why they chose to live there.

Cowboys and saloons are still a part of the American West, but today’s West is one of the most culturally diverse areas of the country, Wyckoff said. Latinos now make up almost one-third of its population. The largest Vietnamese shopping mall in the United States is in the West. Las Vegas and snowbird settlements are as much a part of the modern West as sagebrush and dude ranches.

For his sixth book overall and his second book in the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books series, Wyckoff selected 100 cultural features that shape the Western landscape. He chose them arbitrarily, Wyckoff said, then placed them into categories. Instead of focusing on the biggest canyons, the tallest waterfalls and famous tourist sites, he looked for more ordinary features that said something about the West today.

Some of those features included front yards, strip malls, electrical grids, hay bales and runaway truck ramps. Less ordinary were Japanese internment camps and Southwestern states where atomic experiments were conducted. Wyckoff also visited national parks, Indian country, Mormon country, Latino communities, African American neighborhoods, military bases and gay neighborhoods. He described worm fences, Zen in the West and zombie development.

“This is meant to be a field guide for cultural features,” Wyckoff said.

Editor William Cronon -- former president of the American Society for Environmental History and Vilas Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison -- suggested that readers use the book “in a spirit of play, much as you would a landscape itself … Once you can identify the features that William Wyckoff puts before you in these pages, you’ll be well on your way to reading the Western landscape for yourself, with endless stories waiting to be discovered wherever you look.”

Wyckoff started researching his book in 2008, usually traveling alone, but sometimes with his wife, Linda, and their two children, Tom and Katie. Five years later, while continuing to teach in MSU’s Department of Earth Sciences, he had taken more than 15,000 photos. He had also visited 415 counties and every major metropolitan area in the West, which gave him plenty of material for a book and an abundance of anecdotes about his experiences, Wyckoff said.

One trip to central Wyoming, for example, led to a sheriff tracking him down on suspicions that he might be an industrial terrorist. The sheriff wanted to know why he would stand on a public highway and photograph an oil complex. A trip to a small Utah town had seemingly the entire community knowing why he was photographing water flowing through its “Mormon ditch system.”

Wyckoff said many of the ideas in his book came from a graduate class he teaches, called “Settlement Geography of the West,” and students in that class had real input as he put the book together. He also shares examples and settings from the book in undergraduate courses, such as “Cultural Geography of the U.S.” and “Historical Geography of North America.”

Wyckoff’s book contains essays about each feature, 30 original maps and 400 photos from throughout the West. Some of the Montana photos show Virginia City, Big Sky, the Livingston Roundup, a hillside letter at Butte, Conover’s Trading Post in Wisdom, “exurbs” in the Bitterroot Valley and Jim Dolan’s fly fishing sculpture in Ennis.

Some of Wyckoff’s photos were planned. Others were serendipitous, Wyckoff said. One of his favorite unplanned encounters was a sheep drive in Utah. The resulting photo runs on page 91. Another time, he was driving in Southern California when he saw smoke billowing above the horizon. The smoke, combined with the cumulus cloud above it, created the cloudscape featured on page 64.

Wyckoff’s wife and father appear in two photos that offer “Where’s Waldo?” moments. Linda is the unidentified angler on page 358. Wyckoff’s 90-year-old father is part of the crowd walking through Virginia City, Nev., on page 217.

He realized as he traveled that he feels at home in the West, Wyckoff said. He grew up in Burbank, Calif., and has worked at MSU since 1986. His father lives in Nevada. His son attended college in Oregon and his daughter in Montana and Oregon. After a lifetime of travel and academic study through the West, Wyckoff said, “I feel it’s part of my neighborhood.”

Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books are published by the University of Washington Press. The series began in 1991 and includes more than 40 books. In addition to Wyckoff’s latest book, they include his book, “On the Road Again: Montana’s Changing Landscape,” and two books by Brett Walker, an environmental historian at MSU.

Wyckoff’s most recent book was published with assistance from the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books Endowment. The endowment was established by the Weyerhaeuser Company Foundation.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu