Western America Leisure Lifestyles

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The leisure lifestyles of western America are closely linked to the unique natural environment of the west. This region of the country, from the flatlands just east of the Rocky Mountains to the western coastline of North America, provides vast expanses of unoccupied space, varied topography, and spectacular natural wonders. The variety of terrain, the abundance of wildlife, and the vastness of the territory all add up to adventure. For those in search of adventure, the West is a natural playground for discovery.

The Land

The topography of the West is so diverse that it includes the lowest point of the United States (Death Valley, California) as well as its highest point (Mt. McKinley, Alaska). Majestic mountains of several major mountain ranges, including the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada, and the Cascades, stand as vanguards along the western and eastern edges of this western region. Fertile valleys and grasslands, such as the Napa Valley of California and the Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming, lie between these mountain ranges and provide a source for farming and grazing. The dry deserts of the southwest offer a contrast to the cool dense redwood, spruce, and pine forests of the northern and alpine regions of the West. Several major waterways, such as the Missouri, Platte, Rio Grande, Columbia, and Colorado Rivers, find their origins in the West and flow into the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. Where the western landmass of America meets the Pacific Ocean, there are over 1,500 miles of spectacular coastline and beaches. This diverse landscape is the setting of western leisure lifestyles.

Western History and Culture

For the early settlers of this region of the United States, the combination of environmental characteristics offered not only adventure but opportunity and hope to anyone who desired changes in life, and who wanted the independence to choose a new lifestyle. The West gave a chance for healing of the scars from the Revolutionary War, and later from the American Civil War. As Hal Rothman states, "The new nation embodied in the West transcended the inherent flaws of the first Republic . . ." and ". . . healed the hole in the heart of the nation born anew after its epic and cataclysmic tragedy" (pp. 14–15). The crowding and urbanization of the eastern regions of the United States also played an influential role in developing the attractiveness to the West. This western territory called out to these individuals through promotions that enticed them with fertile land, precious minerals, abundant natural resources, and wide-open spaces. Some of those who did find their promised land in the West became the images of the tamable frontier. Individuals such as politician Teddy Roosevelt, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, artist Charles Russell, literary figure Mark Twain, performers Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley, and mountain man Hugh Glass, became folk heroes, and, in their own way, helped to promote the West.

As more and more people came out west and developed a niche for themselves in this frontier, they found that they could define their own culture without bringing their entire European heritage along, which they felt inferior to anyway. This created an appreciation for what was already developed, such as ranches, forts, outposts, and communities, and for what was discovered, such as natural wonders and landmarks. These cultural icons became points of leisure interest.

The concept of tourism in the West was born out of this interest. As the industrialization of the late nineteenth century took hold in America, life improved economically, and free time was more abundant. This, along with the development of better modes of transportation, allowed for more people to travel and venture farther from their familiar territory to pursue leisure. Tourism opened doors for more exposure to the West, and more economic opportunities for the locals of the West. From the cattle rancher and cowboy who transformed their livelihood into rodeos and dude ranches to the American Indians who contributed the game of lacrosse, the craft of kayaking and canoeing, and their arts and crafts, leisure in the west embraced its own heritage.

Patterns of Western Leisure

An interest in outdoor environments, the desire to explore and discover, the willingness to travel in order to see and do things, and the challenge to survive through it all are the leisure patterns that are an integral part of the West. Outdoor recreation and adventure pursuits, including travel, are not exclusive to the West, but they embrace these patterns of leisure. The West's history of exploring the wilderness and surviving off the land still fascinates people today.

Western Recreational Trends

The following leisure pursuits play an important role in people's lives out West, and their popularity continues to attract others to travel out West.

Backpacking, hiking, and camping These are activities that require access to backcountry environments with, preferably, low-density usage. Since the West tends to offer more opportunities for this type of scenario, the core participation of these activities is found out west. With the exception of a temporary decline in this activity during the 1980s, backpacking and camping have seen a long and steady increase due to better equipment that is lighter, warmer, and more protective. Hiking has increased due to the healthy lifestyles trend that is part of the overall wellness promotion. Camping has benefited from the improvements and availability of easily accessible camping areas and recreational vehicles (RVs) that bring the comforts of home to the outdoors.

Horseback Riding and Rodeos Both of these recreational pursuits have close connections with the West. The image of the western cowboy riding his horse across the land, herding his cattle from grazing land to grazing land is as much a part of the West as its landscape. Even though both activities are stable in number of participants, there is a projection that both will see increases in the future due to higher family incomes that will allow ownership and care of horses, and the television media spending more time showing these activities on cable channels.

Mountain Biking This specialized form of biking was born in the West as a way to get around in remote areas. Trend data indicates that mountain biking is reaching its peak, but its popularity is still going strong in the West. The mountain bike has made remote areas more accessible, especially for those who cannot afford specialized motorized vehicles to get to these same areas. Since most of those types of land are only in the West the mountain bike will continue to be a major part of western leisure.

Climbing The western topography lends itself to this recreational pursuit. With the abundance of mountains and variety of weather, climbing options—for example, alpine and high-altitude expedition climbing in the high mountain ranges, rock climbing where the cliffs stay relatively warm, and ice climbing in frigid cold temperatures on frozen waterfalls—are almost limitless. Climbing also fits the culture of the West because it is all about adventure and interacting with the environment. While there is a growing group of climbers who frequent man-made climbing walls, the western leisure lifestyle is better reflected by the outdoor climbers. Even though the actual number of climbers fell slightly in the 1990s and early 2000s, the participation rate has increased by almost double over that same period of time. Climbing has the image of being high risk, which makes this activity a leading adventure pursuit, a nice fit in western leisure lifestyles.

Fishing and Hunting Both of these activities have strong roots in western culture because, at one time, they were the means of survival. Now, fishing and hunting are ways for people to use the natural resources and a way to stay connected to the land and those old days of adventure. Hunting was the first recognized leisure pursuit of the West. Some sociologists claim that the hunting and fishing activities are primal instincts that are almost a necessity for some, even to the point that they take the place of combative behavior in times of peace. No matter the motive, these pursuits depend on the availability of the resource, and, therefore, the close interaction with the land also extends to a close knowledge and care of its natural resources. Fly-fishing has gained popularity since Hollywood's portrayal of this activity in Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It. The West offers an abundance of streams and rivers that allow for the solitude and natural resource depicted in the movie, so the fly-fisherman's destinations tend to lead out West.

Canoeing, Kayaking, and Rafting These water-based activities have seen a growing trend in the West due to the accessibility of whitewater rivers and improved equipment. The West offers a variety of waterways that are in rugged terrain and, therefore, produce exciting rides through rapids and incredibly beautiful scenery. The coastline of the West has also become more accessible due to the increased use of sea kayaks, which are easy to transport and easy to master the skills to use them.

Ocean-Based Activities In this category of western leisure pursuits fall the activities of skin and scuba diving, snorkeling, surfing, and windsurfing. The western culture of adventure and exploration is not limited to the land. Since much of the ocean is unexplored, the sense of adventure extends to the open ocean, even though most leisure pursuits on the ocean are within a mile of shore. Surfing and windsurfing were born in the West and continue to be popular due to the accessibility to the extensive coastline that is conducive to the creation of consistent wave patterns and, sometimes, massive surf.

Skiing, Snowboarding, and Snowmobiling Even though skiing has its origins on the European continent, the West has adopted it as its own. The massive mountain ranges of the West can stall moisture-laden weather fronts heading east from the Pacific Ocean. The results are snow-covered mountains that produce some of the most perfect snow conditions for skiing found anywhere in the world. With the technological advances in equipment design, which has made learning the skills easier, and more ski resorts being built, which allow more accessibility to these areas, the sport has grown.

Snowboarding is an offshoot of surfing and had a rough start on snow due to equipment designs and conflict with skiers on the same hills. But it has caught on to the point where the increased number of ski-resort users is due primarily to snowboarders. Media coverage of competitive events in these activities has also enhanced the growing trend. A stabilizing factor has been the cost, but people will overlook that obstacle by believing that skiing and snowboarding will enhance their feeling of freedom, or they let their sense of exploration lead them to cross-country skiing, which allows skiers to roam and explore for far less money. Either rationale appeals to that western leisure lifestyle.

Along with that sense to roam and explore in the snowy winters of the West, the snowmobile, a motorized snow sled, has had a loyal following since its introduction in the 1970s. Costs, limited access to lands conducive for snowmobiling, and varying yearly snow conditions have made this activity's participation rate fluctuate. But, for winter travel and exploration in areas of the West where roads are not usable or available for other modes of motorized transportation, snowmobiling has become a major activity for western leisure.

Arts, Crafts, and Music The leisure of western arts, crafts, and music has an important place in western leisure lifestyles because they reflect life in the West. Paintings and photos of the scenic West, sculptures of western wildlife and people, pottery and jewelry from the Native Americans living in the West, and the music and poetry of the cowboys are an integral part of western leisure and culture. They have become very popular among visitors to the West due to the idea that a person can take home a piece of the western flavor just visited as a personal reminder. Music and poetry that are unique to the West stem from the music composed and sung by the western cowboys and Native Americans. Although the audience is small, the interest in these types of music grew in the late 1990s and early 2000s, due to more exposure from traveling tourists and the media.

Foreign Influences on Western Leisure Lifestyles

Many of the leisure activities of holidays and calendar celebrations found in the West are not so different than those celebrated in other regions of America, save the ones that commemorate special events unique to particular areas of the West. But there are events that are unique to the West because of the influences of foreign immigrants settling there, particularly the influence of the Asian and the Hispanic immigrants. The Chinese New Year, the Mexican piñata at Christmas, and the Japanese boys' day and girls' day have become a part of the special days of leisure in the West, although not necessarily celebrated by all. These foreign cultural influences are another example of the people who came to the West to fit in with the rest of those searching for that life they dreamed about.

Concerns for the Future

Leisure in the West has had a major impact on the use of western lands and the culture of the people who live there. The pursuit of leisure activities has altered lifestyles and the economy and raised concerns for the future, including protecting the natural environment, and preserving the very culture that gave rise to western leisure in the first place.

Environmental Preservation User conflicts have developed in leisure pursuits throughout the United States, but these conflicts have been very pronounced in the West. Battles between conservationists and developers, consumptive users and nonconsumptive users of natural resources, and purists and high-tech enthusiasts are ongoing because the West has an abundance of untouched land still available for a variety of uses. The decisions on how the land will be used generate a dialogue among the different groups, and these discussions create awareness of the value of the land and the potentials it has for development and leisure resources. This awareness has been an education to people that the western region of the United States is unique and that before it is all lost, there needs to be a conservative approach to the use of the land.

Due to user conflicts and the general concern for preserving what is recognized as the source of many leisure pursuits in the west, many areas whose unique attractions have been popular are now protected by the local, state, and federal governments. Along with the intimate use of the land is the stewardship to protect it and use it wisely.

Losing the Culture. The leisure lifestyles of the West owe much to the land and culture of the region, but, in an ironic twist, these can be the very reasons for major changes to the land and culture that molded these lifestyles. The community and environment that originally supported, developed, and, in some cases, initiated the leisure lifestyle can find themselves being over-whelmed by outsiders wanting a piece of the pie and the control that goes along with that piece. The community's interest and culture can and has, in some western communities, shifted to what the visitors want, even if it means forsaking the heritage and culture that built the community in the first place. The quaint little mining town of Moab, Utah, or the farming and ranching community of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, are examples of a transformation that hardly resembles the original culture or the community control that once built them.

The western leisure lifestyle is diverse and various. Yet, the western leisure lifestyle has a common thread that runs through all the different activities and culture: the fact that the leisure pursuits that are closely connected to the West are also intimately connected to its land. Western leisure pursuits are the interactions with the land that is uniquely part of the West and that makes western leisure lifestyles unique in themselves.

See also: Backpacking and Hiking; Bicycling; Camping; Fishing, Freshwater; Hunting; Mountain Climbing; Native American Leisure Lifestyles; Recreational Vehicles; Rock Climbing; Rodeos; Scuba Diving/Snorkeling; Snowboarding; Skiing, Alpine; Surfing; Whitewater Sports; Windsurfing


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Stacy T. Taniguchi

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Western America Leisure Lifestyles