My compass has always pointed west...to the American West. I grew up in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, that in the 60's was growing like Tibulus Terrestris, otherwise known as the infamous goat head weed, which grew in the curlicues of recently created subdivision lots, where I jumped my Schwinn Stingray on mounds of dirt piled high from backhoes digging basements and foundations, amongst scattered lumber and stacks of plywood, under the vast blue sky on the edge of the plains and the mountains. And the weed, with it's pretty little yellow flowers that grew like stop-action animation, produced the thorny goatheads that were always invisibly hiding, bedeviling us, getting stuck in the knobby treaded tires and finally piercing innumerable tubes, the air hissing and the juvenile cursing with voices cracking, the fun of the late summer day ruined. We repaired the flats under the bright, hot sun on the fresh driveways of our two story homes or pink-trimmed ranches, gazing up at the Rockies, debating on whether we wanted to be like Billy Kidd, Spider Sabich or Jean Claude Killy.
Always looking west to Pikes Peak, Mt Evans, Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain Park, the white-capped, serrated peaks beckoned me and my friends to ski or climb to the top of them or fantasizing of biking down them (well before mountain bikes were invented), pushing each other to descend ever more steeps with moguls as big as Volkswagen beetles, to encounter wilderness, to go to the top of the world, above timberline, where the wind whipped and frostbit our exposed cheeks and we would take risks our mothers feared.
It amazed me that I lived so close to the possibility of death, freezing to death, eaten by bears or pumas, falling off silent cliffs never to be discovered, where many pioneers, miners, and early explorers did, in fact, perish by being unprepared for the shifts in weather, of season, of landscapes, false peaks, and lightening, but that, like Hemingway's bull-fighting and deep sea fishing I would later come to understand, was where life was most vibrant.
I marveled at living in a place so suburbanly safe, and cozy, with modern conveniences, part of a big city, living in this crease between civilization and wilderness. Looking west was where my compass was set, where, in part, my artistic vision was formed; I wanted to capture the vastness of both the urban experience and the wilderness experience, and the surreal cognitive dissonance of it. The modern west was not just fly fishing or hunting as most writers of the west are known for, seeking transcendence in nature. The west to me was, and is, big and urban, and the wilderness is omnipresent as the mountains gaze east, down onto the sprawling city.
In a graduate lit class studying Faulkner and his influence on Latin American writers, taught by Jorge Edwards, a visiting Chilean magical realist writer, diplomat and professor had a profound effect on me. Mr. Edwards said he remembered being a young man with his budding writer friends standing around in a park in Santiago, each arguing, "No! I am the true Faulkner of South America." When I heard this and envisioned this amusing scene, just as my friends and I would say, "No, I am Killy of Colorado!" I immediately understood again the sentiment to rise to greatness that all young men desire. For me it was now to be the Faulkner of the American West, instead of being Spider Sabitch. I have not even come close to that dream.
My stories are psychological, but the sentiment and goal remains, to capture the entirety of the American West, it's mentality,it’s breadth and depth, its warp and woof as Faulkner captured Yoknapatawpha county in it's sum, to build an imaginative world as fully realized as Garcia Marquez and others of the Latin American boom have done. It is an unattainable dream of which I still continue to try to capture a sliver. With my compass always set to somehow find and capture the psyche American West and the inherent, mind-blowing dichotomy of where civilization and wilderness meet, I continue on my journey as a writer, constantly tending to the goat heads and flat tires on the way.
Causes Stephen Shugart Supports
Academy of American Poets, AWP, 826 Boston, 826 Valencia