When Atherton Phleger arrived at his first job as a park ranger at Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah, he was a dedicated acolyte of the late Western writer, environmental activist and curmudgeon Edward Abbey who had studied his well-thumbed, weather-beaten copy of “Desert Solitaire” as if it were a holy text.
“If there were ever to be ‘one truth,’ as my 18-year-old self understood it, ‘Desert Solitaire’ was it,” writes Phleger, who graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing
Dead Horse is exactly the kind of place Abbey abhorred. It was designed with motorists in mind and looks out over the raw, blue scars of open potash mines of the Paradox Basin.
True believer that he was, Phleger couldn’t help but scowl at the signs and interpretive center sponsored by the mining company and tourists whose first question was, “How long does it take to see this place?”
Your memoir could be about a road trip from New York City, and how coming here unsettled you — that’s a totally valid response to this place, where the rules are looser, the spaces are a lot wider, and the landscape doesn’t hold the person quite so tightly.”
Yet he was deeply moved by what he found in the desert, whether he was lying, naked, in a natural pothole, or gazing at the Pleiades through a tourist’s telescope.
And a funny thing happened to Phleger out there in the desert, as he writes in “The Dark Sky Paradox,” winner of a prestigious 2016 Thompson Award for Western writing from CU Boulder’s Center of the American West in the memoir category:
“I saw potash in the ground and in the stars and in myself,” he writes. “Abbey still holds some significance as the curator of my adolescence, but I’ve made new space for other ideas, and Dead Horse Point exists as a reminder that the world is so much more complex than I ever could have imagined.”
“Winning the Thompson Award was kind of a closure to the chapter in my life that began with taking The American West (with center director Patty Limerick) my freshman year,” Phleger says.
“I see a lot of the center’s work as unpacking the complexity that comes with living in the West, and provides academics, artists or whoever enters to explore those themes in the context of literature.”
The 2017 Thompson Awards are accepting entries now through March 21 and open to undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at CU Boulder in the 2016-17 academic year, or who have graduated in spring 2016.
There are seven categories for 2017: fiction and academic nonfiction (i.e., research papers) for both undergraduate and graduate students; awards for poetry, creative nonfiction and memoir will be given to one winner from all levels of study. Winners will receive $500 each, and honorable mention entries will receive $100. The awards are given at a banquet the week before spring semester finals.
The awards have been given annually since 2004, and are now made possible though an endowment from CU graduates Jack and Jeannie Thompson.
Entries are evaluated by a panel of community and campus judges on their relevance to an understanding of the American West and quality of the writing. Of course, defining the West is, as they say, complicated.
“It is no easy matter to define the West or the quality of ‘Westernness.’ In general, we think of the West as the territory between the 100th meridian and the Pacific Coast, though Alaska or Hawaii should not be so easily excluded,” according to the center’s website.
“We recognize that the myth of the West has played a great role in history and still carries much influence in regional life today, and so we understand that some eligible writings will address the material reality of the West (cities, highways, ranches, mines, resorts, suburbs, national parks, dams, wildlife, etc.) and some equally eligible writings will address the West of dreams, expectations, hopes, and imaginings (factors which, in truth, shape material reality and human behavior in very concrete ways).”
“There are so many ways to write about (the West),” says Kurt Gutjahr, managing director of the center, whose family moved from New Jersey to southwest New Mexico when he was 9.
“Your memoir could be about a road trip from New York City, and how coming here unsettled you — that’s a totally valid response to this place, where the rules are looser, the spaces are a lot wider, and the landscape doesn’t hold the person quite so tightly.”
Gutjahr emphasizes that the awards are just open to any student, no matter their area of study.
“Everybody thinks the winners are going to be the writing majors, but you’d be surprised,” says Gutjahr, who has administered the program for nearly 11 years.
In 2016, for example, Phleger was the only English or writing major to win. Other winners were studying history, engineering and law.
Topics are equally wide-ranging. Nonfiction winners in 2016 explored everything from an analysis of the Ute Indian language to photographs of old “vaqueros” — Mexican cowboys. The fiction winner was a play set in California. And Tania Elmore’s winning poem, “Die Better,” probes the meaning of the “one way ticket” so many Easterners have taken to new lives in the West:
“The west is full of ghosts, see,
cowboys and Indians and consumptives,
the people who wouldn't have lasted another year
in the claustrophobia of the big city.”
Phleger, who is now working as a consultant for tribal governments, says the Thompson Awards were the perfect capstone to his time at CU.
“I have a real affinity for Western writers,” he says, “and this was almost like a chance to cosplay” — an abbreviation of “costume play” — “being Norman Maclean, Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, my heavy hitters,”