Anyone who has heard Missoula author William Kittredge read knows the bard-like quality of his baritone voice. There’s a glory embodied in his spoken prose that can make a steaming cow-pie seem like a pivotal point in the existential cosmos. In his recently published book, Southwestern Homelands, part memoir, part travelogue, Kittredge makes fine use of his grandiloquent oratory when relating his experiences of Southwestern landscapes and of the people who call it home.
“Most of us spend a lot of time telling ourselves stories in which our homeland is defined and located,” writes Kittredge. “Homelands are specific, but their qualities have to do with much more than landforms.”
Early on, we learn that Kittredge’s personal attraction to the Southwest has to do with his need to escape the fierce blast of Montana’s winters. As the narrative continues, we learn that he is seeking a quiet haven where he can explore the territory, write, and loll in the shade watching the winter’s migratory birds in the trees beyond the patio.
It is a second home he is trying to find and, ultimately, trying to come to terms with. Southwestern Homelands explores time as well as terrain, personal history as well as anthropological theory. It is more than a travelogue and less than a full memoir, exploring the diversity of desert landscapes, and the clashes of disparate cultures, fusing these elements and speculating on inner worlds.
Kittredge is not a native of the Southwest and makes no pretense to knowledge he does not have. Like most travelers, he depends on many sources of understanding, from barroom chats to authoritative written accounts. Kittredge’s forte is in asking questions, both of himself and of others, and then ruminating on the answers. Weaving together his personal experiences past and present, with scientific and historical records, and anthropological interpretations of culture, Kittredge’s narrative meanders like a river in spring flood, cutting new channels, in a Kerouac-inspired style that, for all its wandering, is surprisingly cohesive. Kittredge’s story reads like a tourist’s diary, but a well-educated, and often a profoundly thoughtful one.
The journey has an easy-going pace. Kittredge travels in a compact Honda with his “life’s companion” Annick Smith. Crossing the desert, there is plenty of time—watching “distances fading into distances”—for Kittredge to tell his story starting from the beginning. We learn of his early attempts at writing fiction, emulating William Faulkner at the University of Iowa, coinciding with his initial travels in the Southwest and Mexico, where he almost, accidentally, started a brawl in a Tucson biker-bar, saw his first Gila monster and was surrounded by a pod of gray whales while fishing off the Mexican coast. He tells us of his grateful transition to writing essays in the late 1970s, which also coincided with his second trip south from Montana with his newfound love, Annick.
Attempting to understand the life-ways of the desert, Kittredge explores works by many scholars, scientists and authors, studying interpretations of desert life from the Pleistocene era to the present.
Two chapters are devoted to the anthropological history of the Southwest. He describes the Clovis and Folsom cultures (when humans shared the continent with giant sloths, mastodons and saber-toothed tigers), the Hohokam, Mogollon and Anasazi cultures (characterized by cliff dwelling, horticultural settlement), and progresses to a description of the failed attempts by the Spanish to subjugate the Hopi and Pueblo people.
Though much of the history may be common knowledge to readers who have studied already extant accounts of Southwestern culture, Kittredge’s eloquent and introspective musings lend some fresh insights to these well-worn subjects.
Further on, we find our two intrepid adventurers admiring the faux volcano erupting in the Mirage Hotel parking lot, in Las Vegas. From there they venture to Havasu Canyon, but because it is winter, and the rain is threatening to turn to snow, they dare not go hiking and drive on to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Kittredge marvels at their luck: “some traveler cancelled at the elegant El Tovar Hotel. Instead of huddling in the car…and freezing on the high rim of the canyon above Havasupai…we were sampling desserts before a big fireplace, and then bundled in for the night.”
Kittredge is not the world’s most daring explorer. Several times in his travels, he misses or forgoes opportunities, often due to inclement weather, substituting, instead, the accounts of other travelers for his own.
Beyond searching for the next colorful meal of “baked brie and lingonberries” or “authentic Navajo cafeteria cooking,” or a chance to relax in the local taverns, Kittredge’s main concern is ruminating upon the meaning of “homelands.” He finds homelands everywhere, in the mysteriously abandoned ruins of cliff dwellings, in isolated Navajo hogans, in racially segregated, golf-happy, retirement enclaves, in tourist-ridden Zuni pueblos, in the solitude of the Hopi Mesas, in slowly dying farm towns, in snooty, upscale suburbs and NAFTA-stricken border-town barrios.
For much of the book Kittredge seems uncomfortable, out of his element, apparently seeking his own temporary homeland. “Entering my seventh decade,” he says, “I usually opt for quiet pleasures and diversions.” When he finds safe haven it is on a patio at the Omni Tucson National Golf Resort and Spa. Down the hill beyond the fairway, he tells us “coyotes roamed along the Cañada in search of rabbits and poodles to devour.” He says, in closing, “Homelands are made, I think, of reverence and intentions.”