It is that time of year to make serious plans about packing the family into the station wagon and heading west for the Grand Tour, with such stops as the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the Grand Canyon, Indian reservations, the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, the Las Vegas strip, Disneyland and Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.
Along with the customary road maps and insipid publications detailing where to eat and sleep and what to see, "Empires in the Sun: The Rise of the New American West" should be carried along to get an idea of the dark side of the western experience in the style of Carey McWilliams, the late editor of The Nation and an earlier social critic of the West, to whom the book is partially dedicated.
As a guidebook to the making of the contemporary West, who made it and for what purposes, this book is indispensable, although somewhat superficial. It tells who wields the power and who has garnered the wealth in what has become known as the Sun Belt--at least that western portion of it where population and its concomitant problems have migrated in the last 10 to 15 years. This is the alternative West, the West behind the gleaming new high-rise office buildings that house the seekers after energy resources, and the marvelous scenery of the national parks and forests.
While passing a coal-burning power plant in the Four Corners area--where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet--or when caught in smog-bound traffic in any one of the six cities portrayed in this book, you can read about how the California Business Roundtable has attempted to direct the fortunes of that state, who controlled downtown redevelopment in San Francisco, the powerful Community Committee of Los Angeles, Denver's new energy elite, the economic and political clout of the Mormon Church, organized crime's influence in Arizona, mob and corporate influence in Las Vegas, and how the Indians have been left out of their rightful share of the new wealth.
The authors have attempted to catch all the West in their net, including illegal aliens, resident Chicanos, Asian Americans, blacks and western labor and environmental movements. Through all these topics, the search for and capture of water is interwoven--it being the key to power and wealth in an arid land.
This is a small basket in which to stuff so many fish, and the book suffers because its scope is too large. But that is the nature of a guidebook. Unfortunately, only half the story is told. While concentrating on the urban centers, the most interesting aspect of the recent population shift within the region--the growth of rural areas and the dispersal of power--is missed. And the tedious style of modern investigative journalism misses the feeling of a magnificent country that is being defiled. One other problem with the book is that it leaves an after-the-fact impression of a comprehensive plan, or plans, to gain power and wealth in the West, where happenstance or the opportunism of the moment may have been the case.
But this book is welcome. It is part of a growing body of literature that has emerged within the last 10 years which deals with the ultimate reality of the West--resource extraction--rather than the myths of cowboys and Indians that predominated before. As a Salt Lake City reviewer wrote of a recent book on western water, "This is what modern histories of the West will be: discussions of water rights and development projects."
This way of approaching an understanding of a region may be less interesting than repeating the myths, but it is necessary if the West, which is headed toward becoming a nation, is ever going to understand itself. For tourists, there is the opportunity for a meaningful travel experience.