A Road of Her Own: Women’s Journeys in the West, edited by Marlene Blessing

Review by Columbine Quillen

Women in the West – January 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

A Road of Her Own: Women’s Journeys in the West
Edited by Marlene Blessing
Published in 2002 by Fulcrum
ISBN 1-55591-307-5

I DIDN’T EXPECT MUCH from a book called A Road of Her Own: Women’s Journeys in the West. The saying that you can’t judge a book by its cover seems foolish in this day of glossy advertising and niche marketing. But sometimes it’s true.

When I saw this book with its clashing maroon and turquoise stripes bordering a black and white photo of a bleak dirt road — out on the plains, going nowhere — I assumed the worst. I thought that it would be like some of the other women’s anthologies I’ve read.

For the most part, those stories were overwritten narratives of New Age women trying to find themselves in some pseudo-spiritual manner. They were introspective, narcissistic, slightly pretentious tales put out by small presses….

But I was very pleasantly surprised by A Road of Her Own. This book was filled with entertaining stories written by talented, thought-provoking women. The narratives range from single women taking long car trips across the West, to a multiple sclerosis victim hiking for weeks by herself in Wyoming’s Absaroka Mountains, to a single woman moving into the Alaska bush to be a music teacher.

Although all of the stories were absorbing, my favorite was Teri Hein’s “Saturday Night with the Hutterites.” The Hutterites are part of the Anabaptist tradition which originated in the 1500s in southern Austria. After fending off both Catholicism and Lutheranism, they fled to Russia where they were content until Czar Nicholas took over. Then they fled to what would become South Dakota, and spread out across the American Northwest, where they still reside today. Hutterites speak German with a Tyrolean dialect and English with a German accent. They live communally and share all of their labor and assets.

The particular clan that Hein visits is named Pleasant Valley and they live three miles from Belt, Montana. Hein claims that one reason there are so many Hutterites in Montana is because they need 5,000 acres to support themselves, and Montana is one of the last places where there is still enough land.

THE AUTHOR’S INTERACTION with these people is both fascinating and bewildering. Hein is a modern woman who lives with her boyfriend out of wedlock, drives a car, and makes independent decisions. In many ways, she’s perplexed by these young girls, who want to live in a society where they will never make an independent decision, will never watch television, will never have a driver’s licensee, and where they will wear the same simple fashions for work, play, and parties for the rest of their lives. Hein wonders how it must feel to grow up with a group of kids and then spend the rest of your life in their close company.

When she asks a group of girls what they would like to change about their lives, one answers that she would like to have a driver’s license. So Hein asks if she would like to go to Great Falls (twenty-two miles away), but the girl answers that Great Falls is too far; she would just like to go to Bent.

When Hein asks what she would do in Bent, the girl replies: “I don’t know. I would just drive there, and then I would drive back.”

Hein is also surprised by the men’s willingness to live in this community. And she is charmed by their hobby of girl-watching, which involves going to a communal place in the evenings and intently watching the girls who they work beside, go to school with, and will someday marry.

The men do hard physical labor all day and often work with equipment or animals that they are not particularly fond of. But they never complain, because this work is their duty.

Men are also supposed to do all of the worrying for the community. When Hein asks some women if they worry about whether their colony will grow too big for the land they own, a 16-year-old boy laughs and replies: “Now, what are they going to worry about that for? They’re girls and it isn’t their job to worry. That’s the men’s job.”

I especially liked Susan Zwinger’s “The Last Cowwoman of the Escalante,” too.

When Zwinger makes a poor decision and enters barren slickrock country on a rare muddy day, she’s not unduly alarmed. Although most people would panic about being forty miles from the closest highway, Zwinger has faith that she can hike out if necessary. “I’ve got all I need to survive for three weeks,” she says.

The author is also a master of description:

“I’m alone in 70,000 miles of slickrock. The road grows rougher: the dry chop of mud is hard on the tires. My truck clings to the narrow rims of a canyon whose headlands are eating rapidly to the northwest from the Colorado. They’re buying their ticket to the ocean.”

THE FIRST NIGHT Zwinger camps, a yappy domesticated dog keeps her awake. Figuring it must be a cowboy’s dog, Zwinger is surprised when she runs across its owner: a 62-year old cowwoman named Terry Virago, who has been out on horseback.

Virago asks, “Whad’th’hell are ya doin’ out here all alone?” And Zwinger is obviously wondering the same thing.

But the author ends up spending a couple of days with Virago. The woman is tough, bold, impudent, and garrulous — and for a living she herds 150 head of cattle over 133,000 acres and runs horse trips for “rich folk.” But Virago is obviously lonely and worried about her future, too.

The older woman is disillusioned when she finds out that Zwinger is a granola-eating, Wild-Oats-shopping environmentalist. And Zwinger is confused at how this woman can bear to be so out of touch with society. But after a few hours of chatting, the two find out that they have many of the same concerns: finding a man, preserving the wilderness, and maintaining their identities.

A few of the narratives in A Road of Her Own did not appeal to me. For example, Women at Work, a tale about two friends on a road trip by Susan Biskeborn, is a romanticized memory of being childless, young, and fit, and I found it a little dull. But maybe I just couldn’t relate because I’m still young and childless, and can go off on long road trips whenever I want.

Also, unfortunately, a lot of the stories are about road trips. Some of them are excellent, and most are satisfying, but I would have enjoyed more stores about hiking — and there are no stories about women biking, kayaking, rafting, or rock climbing, which are sports often associated with the American West. It would have been nice to see a little more adventure, and a trifle more diversity.

But this is a great book for both genders. The landscape is familiar; the emotions are universal; and the stories hit close to home. What’s more, contributors include Susan Tweit, who lives in Central Colorado and writes for the Mountain Mail in Salida, and Linda Hasselstrom, whose previous work has been reviewed in Colorado Central. Both authors occasionally contribute to Writers on the Range, too.

If you’re looking for a book about living in and observing the West, definitely put this on your Christmas list. Each time a book is purchased, a donation goes to the Rocky Mountain Multiple Sclerosis Center in Denver, so your gift can serve more than one person this holiday season.

— Columbine Quillen