Back East and Out West

When I lived on the East Coast, which was for much of my life until last year, I never had the feeling I was being watched, but that was only because I was ignorant. Now that I’m on the West Coast, I know better. This other half of the country has long range, high powered binoculars trained on the unsuspecting population “back East.”

Getting up at 6:00 a.m. as I do, I am aware that the day in the East is already well underway–and the news that I hear at 7:00 was heard three hours earlier by the other side of the country, so can hardly be considered news anymore. The world could have ended and I wouldn’t know about it, and perhaps that would be just as well. I used to think I could never live in the West just because of that, but here I am, and I’m not normally obsessed with the time difference as I’d thought I would be.

People here in the West are acutely, although somewhat nonchalantly, conscious of what time things must be done out here in order to fit the East Coast workday. I never thought at all about what the West was doing as I went about my life in the East. Counter to popular thinking, the East is where it was–and is–happening first.

Actually, everyone out here talks about “back East,” whether they’re from there–or have ever been there–or not; it’s never just “East.” That surprised me. Then I remembered that when I was living “back East,” whenever the West was referred to, it was “out West,” not just “West.”

Now that I’m living out West and thinking of back East, I am also aware that the country seems to have shrunk with my move. Even though I had made many trips to California, as well as the other states on the West Coast, whenever the West Coast was mentioned back East, it seemed to be a nearly unimaginably long way away…practically in another galaxy.

However, since driving myself cross country from East to West, now when I look back East, from my out West post, it doesn’t seem nearly as far as the same distance looked at from the other direction. Why is that, and is it just me?

Maybe it’s because most out West people, at least that I’ve encountered, either moved here from back East, have lived there for a time, or have traveled there frequently. Everyone I’ve met here seems to have some kind of eastern ties, and that wasn’t the case with my friends back East, concerning connections out West. Can familiarity–your own, as well as that of those around you–shrink the distance?

Since driving through Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and an unfortunate and mostly forgotten part of the Texas panhandle where I was the victim of highway robbery at the hands of a small town cowboy posing as a highway patrolman, I somehow feel like they are now all next door to me–just a day or two’s drive away. Why don’t I get that same feeling when I travel by plane, and places are only, at least theoretically, just a few hours away at most?

It must have to do with perception. (Doesn’t everything?) There on the ground, driving by, you see things close up–a comparatively intimate experience with a place, although it may not seem that as you go whizzing by. But when you fly, it’s anything but intimate, and all of those lives you are flying over are reduced to imaginary specks on a far off moonscape that is as unrelated to your reality as Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School.

But wait a minute…out West and back East have their directional counterparts with “up North” and “down South,” although I was more aware of that back East than I am out West, but maybe I just have to pay closer attention.

So were all of these prepositions (out, back, up, down) tacked on as a preface to each compass point to indicate which direction one needs to take in order to arrive at the desired region of the country? Did they originate with the first settlers who were so overwhelmed by the vastness that surrounded them, that they felt the need for giving and getting all the help they could…and then the expressions stuck?

Do most of us still need these prepositional hints in getting our bearings? Judging from what I know of the average American’s geographical awareness, that’s likely the case. Imagine if you were trying to go “up South” or “back West?” Just try it, and you’ll see it would never work. We should be grateful; most of us need all the help we can get.

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