In the rural Western United States, the concept of individuality — especially of the supposed “rugged” variety — is stressed so much that it is intertwined not only into regional myths and stereotypes, but it is how those of us who live here are flat-out defined by the rest of the country. And it is often how we define ourselves.
That notion is so off-base that it’s almost laughable. No matter what demographic group, what region, what political affiliation you want to look at, the members of that group will be so homogenous in everything from attire to choice of vehicle to food and beverage preferences that, were it not for obvious differences in physical appearance, age and gender, you’d think the entire West was populated by less than a half-dozen varieties of clones.
Even in New Mexico, which I consider to be the most individualistic state in the country, it’s like every resident from Taos to Silver City was set upon terra firma by some sort of cosmic central casting agency. Rainbow-Family hippies, premeditatedly flighty artists, surly cowboys, Harley devotees, in-your-face gay people, angry vatos.
As for the rest of the West, all you have to do is cast a critical eye upon a person for less than point-two nanoseconds, and you can size them up on every level from party membership to recreational preferences without even engaging your brain. You can tell from miles away if a person is a hook-and-bullet Libertarian disguised as a Republican or a granola-crunching Greenie disguised as a Democrat.
For the most part, the recreation-economy-based part of the West could pass as relatively affluent versions of the People’s Republic of China. In the resort/real estate communities, 80 percent of the residents drive the same basic three types of cars (Subarus, Jeeps, Toyotas), they all wear Patagonia garments everywhere they go, they all participate in the same handful of recreational activities and they all consider themselves environmentalists, even developers and ranchers.
Go to Craig or Meeker, Colorado, and, well, same concept, different template. Folks in those towns might as well have been cut from a people mold. Monster pick-up trucks. Huntin’ and fishin’. Damned environmentalists. Let’s have a steak.
Now, I’m not saying that the uniformity of the sub-sections and sub-demographics of the West is bad or anything (after all, I have owned two Jeeps, my wife drives a Subaru, I wear Patagonia garments, participate in all the standard resort community recreational pursuits and consider myself an environmentalist), it’s just that I consider it amusing in the social context of Western individualistic stereotypes. I consider it especially amusing in the context of sub-cultures — not just resort-town-dwelling people, for instance, but resort-town-dwelling, say, bicyclists.
Actually, bicycling is a really good example of this uniformity-in-contradiction-to-regional-stereotype phenomenon. In no sport is the notion of fitting in by looking like you fit in more palpable. I am personally far less of a cyclist than most of my Mountain-Time-Zone-dwelling brethren and sistren, though I do ride my mountain bike on occasion. It’s just that, because I am mainly a backpacker (which had its own set of uniform standards, which I’ll get into here in a minute), so, while I certainly fit every appropriate backpacking stereotype to a tee, I am a little fringe-ish when it comes to bicycling, simply because I can not afford the necessary accouterments to fit into multiple recreational castes.
Even though I own real mountain bike, it’s literally 20 years old (hard-tail, steel, no grip-shifts) and, thus, sticks out when I have the gall to enter the Temple of Biking.
And, even though I own bike shoes, gloves, a helmet and the requisite dorky-looking bike shorts, I ride with a T-shirt and, if there’s a chill to the air, a flannel shirt. I park my butt in my horribly uncomfortable bike seat sans a single psychedelic bike garment, and, when combined with the venerability of my ride, I pedal clearly outside the clique. And this fact is often commented upon, either tacitly or directly, by other cyclists who I rub elbows with, either on the road or in bars.
It’s funny to watch two cyclists who clearly have been baptized into the Order of the Pedal crossing paths. They look at things like clothing and kind of bike, and, if everything is up to snuff, then, based upon appearances alone, they will condescend to acknowledge each other’s existence. Sorta like dog’s sniffing each other’s butt. When cyclists pass a borderline outcast like me, they act like Muslims when you walk into one of their temples wearing shorts. You are a heathen, worthy of not so much as a cursory nod, and maybe even worthy of a quick beheading.
Bicycling is an easy demographic to poke fun at in this regard, because it is the mountain-jock/jockette group that pays more attention than any other to owning the latest-and-greatest and wearing a certain type of uniform/costume. But it is far from alone in staking out its conceptual territory via superficial means. Backpackers have their own appearance-based uniform standards, though there are two distinct schools these days — the Fleeces and the Flannels. (These two groups are at least as distinct as mountain bikers vs. the road bikers.)
The Fleeces are generally younger, fitter, fancy themselves as “outdoor athletes,” boast degrees in outdoor recreation and march forth at a brisk pace with orderly and new internal-frame packs. The Flannels are generally older, paunchier, fancy themselves as hiking environmentalists, have degrees in philosophy or English Lit and venture into the woods with older gear and lots of stuff dangling from their packs. The former hit the trail wearing Polartec and pile everything, from socks to underwear to hats. The latter hit the trail wearing worn Gramicci pants (and maybe even blue jeans), cotton T-shirts and baseball hats. And, when we pass each other in the backcountry, we go through the obligatory butt-sniffing/sizing up ritual, same as bikers.
Thing is, though we likely don’t like to believe we think about this, backpackers spend as much time as cyclists dealing with appearances and image before they go out in public and do their thing. I know a man who is among the most famous Fourteener-baggers in the state who once told me that he premeditatedly works hard to appear as disheveled and out-of-date as possible before he hits the trail. And his groupies follow his fashion lead.
The only point to this is that tribalism, in all its manifestations, is an ancient survival strategy, and, truthfully, true individualism is a hard thing to find. Try to be a non-conformist and you join either the cult of the non-conformists or the cult of those trying to be non-conformists. There’s nothing we can do, save don your wildest-looking bike attire and pedal to Meeker, just to see what, if anything, transpires.
Mountain Gazette editor M. John Fayhee has just embarked upon a reading/signing tour in support of his latest two books, “Smoke Signals: Wayward Journeys Through the Old Heart of the New West” and “The Colorado Mountain Companion: A Potpourri of Useful Miscellany from the Highest Parts of the Highest State.” Go to mjohnfayhee.com to eyeball his reading/signing tour schedule.