Will the West Survive?
Credit: John Moore / Getty Images

Something looked off when I landed at Denver International Airport this past August. It had been about four years since my last visit, and I couldn't immediately put my finger on what was up. I bought a coffee, glanced at the 'Denver Post,' and wandered out into the main terminal, with its silly bedouin design, the domed white ceiling looking as flimsy and tarplike as ever. It wasn't until I was outside, riding in the shuttle bus to my rental car, that it struck me what had changed: The Rocky Mountains had vanished.

"Oh, yeah," the shuttle-bus driver confirmed. "We haven't been able to see them from the airport for about a month." Colorado had been experiencing its hottest summer on record. In Denver, temperatures would hit 90 degrees or higher on 73 days, shattering the previous record of 61 days set in 2000. (The summer average over the past 30 years has been only 33 days.) Haze from the heat, along with lingering smoke from the wildfires that had been ravaging much of the West – including the 18,000-acre Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs – had conspired to erase metropolitan Denver's spectacular horizon. If you squinted and the light was just right, you could make out faint outlines of the Rockies' Front Range, looking like a tentative art-school etching, begun and then inexplicably abandoned.

Record-breaking heat waves, a fire season run amok, sustained levels of drought unseen since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s: Throughout the summer of 2012, the weather came on like a grudge, as spiteful and relentless as an Old Testament plague. It was the hottest July ever in the United States, and the third-hottest summer in the history of the country. By September, 7 million acres had burned across the U.S.: 600,000 acres in Nevada; 144,000 in Idaho; 650,000 in Montana. The record for worst fire year in U.S. history had only just been set in 2006 (9.8 million acres burned), but it's likely that 2012 will surpass that number. In July, in Guthrie, Oklahoma, thermometers hit 114 degrees, breaking the previous record set in 1896. By August, 63 percent of the country was experiencing drought conditions, drying up wells across the Midwest. On a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, feral horses started dropping dead; horse-rescue organizations around the country couldn't handle the spike in business. Down in Texas, where the previous summer's drought had prompted an unprecedented cattle drive north – thinning the state's 5-million-head herd by 12 percent – an unusually mild winter (even by Texas standards) had allowed plague-carrying mosquitoes to survive and flourish, resulting in an outbreak of West Nile virus that killed at least 77 people.

In Alamogordo, New Mexico, Bonito Lake, which provided water for the city, was declared a FEMA disaster site after being polluted with more than 40 feet of ash and silt from the Little Bear fire, "the odor of charred trees and rotting fish permeat[ing] the air," according to a July news report. Rivers in New Mexico and Colorado turned black from ash runoff, so threatening the endangered Gila trout that environmentalists had to transport the fish to hatcheries after stunning them with electric shocks.

The governor of Missouri declared a state of emergency in July after 25 people died from heat-related causes; by August, 93 percent of the state was considered in "extreme" drought, battering corn growers and cattle ranchers. On a single day in July, the Department of Agriculture declared a state of emergency in more than a thousand counties in 26 states, the largest such designation in the history of the USDA. In an op-ed in the 'New York Times', a trio of scientists, noting that the Northern Hemisphere had just celebrated its "327th consecutive month in which the temperature exceeded the 20th-century average," warned of the possibility of a decades-long "megadrought" that would fundamentally change the American West. "Climate model projections," they wrote, "suggest that what we consider today to be an episode of severe drought might even be classified as a period of abnormal wetness [italics mine] by the end of the century."

National temperature maps began to resemble nasty scabs: the bloodiest reds in the center, turning various bruised shades of purple and pink as the color indexing radiated outward, becoming fleshiest at the coastal fringes. My mother called from Michigan right before my Colorado trip. A neighbor up in the Thumb had just rung her to say the fish in their pond, which is about 40 feet across, had all died. Apparently the heat got them, too.

A cliché began to circulate when people spoke of the extreme weather plaguing much of the United States: It might be a "new normal," sober commentators warned. Where had this term come from? Its popularity seemed yoked to its widespread malaise-era U.S. applicability, from unemployment numbers and outsourced jobs to shrunken pensions and austerity-hobbled local governments. Get used to the new normal, fuckers – it's going to suck! The new normal never seemed to refer to anything remotely desirable (delicious new ice cream flavors, say, or an unexplained barrage of suggestive text messages from Norah Jones) and now had extended its reach to the very elements: fire and drought and triple-digit heat waves. I wondered how the citizens of the West would adapt. Would they calmly dig in their boots like the pioneers of yore? Or had they already started bugging out?

And would this new normal mean life out there might revert to the "old normal" – which, not so very long ago, before irrigation techniques and the widespread damming of rivers, prior to air-conditioning and Wal-Mart and overnight FedEx deliveries, had made the West incredibly inhospitable to all but the hardiest of human inhabitants? For so long, the West existed as a sort of heroic painting symbolizing the core aspects of American myth: Manifest Destiny, "frontier spirit," Yankee ingenuity, bullheaded never-say-die Reaganesque optimism. This persisted even after historians complicated simplistic early portraits of the West by giving voice to Native Americans and others. Now, though, at a time when our confidence was already deeply rattled on a geopolitical and macroeconomic scale, the frontier itself – this thing we thought we'd conquered – seemed to be rearing its head, like an animal roused from hibernation.

It seemed like a good time for a road trip.