An Asterisk Over All 

The juiced-up Rocky Mountains

I wrote this column in 2 minutes and 17 seconds.

I typed more than 300 words per minute, including the time spent getting the ideas out of thin air and editing myself, running the spell-check, and the ultimate writer's reward, patting myself on the back.

It's a new world record for column writing. How can I, a mere mortal, do it?

Let's just say, if the San Francisco Chronicle investigates me for possible abuse of performance-enhancing steroids—expanding on its case against the new superhuman home-run king, Barry Bonds—I have no comment, at least not until I talk to my lawyer.

You see, thick-necked sluggers—including some who've confessed and more who've fallen under suspicion—are not the only beneficiaries. Steroids, whatever their nefarious side effects, can juice up anyone. I see many suspects. And it seems to be a Western thing, more than in other regions. Our rootin' tootin' society, characterized by the two-pistoled cartoon Yosemite Sam—whose boots rarely touch ground as he blasts in all directions—seems addicted to performance boosters.

Check out California's bulging megagovernor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The former bodybuilder and action-movie star must be setting the record as the strongest governor ever. Arnold could whip all the other 49 current state leaders at once, with one hand, while pressing a Hummer upward with the other hand. Does Arnold look like natural evolution culminating in the 2007 modern man? Only if you include manmade chemistry.

Atop our politics, how do you think Wyoming-rooted Dick Cheney—66, mechanical-hearted, clogged-veined—keeps on running the most powerful nation with a ruthless grip? Cheney is surely setting a record as the most powerful vice president ever, though his lawyer would probably also fend off the steroids question with a "no comment."

Really, it goes way beyond steroids. For popularity of illicit drugs such as marijuana and cocaine, compared to national averages, the people of Colorado, Montana and Oregon rank very high, and those in Washington, California, New Mexico and Nevada are noticeably above average. Utah has the biggest percentage of people taking pain relievers for nonmedical purposes, according to an authoritative 2005 federal survey. Arizona, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming rank very high for alcoholism.

Millions of people get their heartbeats and respiration cranked up by Starbucks, the Seattle-based caffeine cartel. The whole construction industry in boomtowns from Phoenix to Bozeman, Mont., runs on Red Bull energy drink. Chaws of tobacco power the rodeo circuit. A lot of Rocky Mountain oil and gas drillers, working their 24/7 shifts of dangerous labor in all weather, are said to run on meth.

How great would Hollywood be, without silicone implants and wrinkle-erasing botox injections? Ditto for Las Vegas.

All that high-priced Western art—the paintings and sculptures of cowboys and Indians, bears and landscapes? The artists often consume mind-altering substances they imagine enhance their creative acts. That rainbow-hued Santa Fe-carved coyote you bought for a loved one? Do you think the carver was sober the whole time?

How about the famous festival called Burning Man, during which every year crowds get high on anything and everything to party amid flames in the Nevada desert? Telluride, Colo., hosts the somewhat more sedate annual mushroom festival, which celebrates some of the hallucinogens, masquerading as science. Some Southwesterners openly blast off on more hallucinogens by chewing or smoking a wacky cactus, peyote, claiming it's a religious rite.

What's the official state snack declared by residents of Utah? Jell-O. A subregion called the "Jell-O Belt" extends outward from Utah into parts of Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, corresponding to the predominance of the West's most noticeable religion, Mormonism, whose followers prefer sweets like cinnamon buns to pump up their energy levels. Anyone imagine that Jell-O's million flavors and colors are all pure and chemical-free?

It extends to how we treat the land and other species. Almost all our crop and meat production, from California's Central Valley to Idaho's dairies and cattle, is based on an evil synergy of weed-and-pest-killing chemicals, stimulants and manufactured hormones. Those long plumes of orange powder the planes and helicopters drop on wildfires, trying to retard the flames on millions of acres—does that look natural?

So it seems a bit hypocritical for any Westerners to tsk-tsk Barry Bonds or put an asterisk by his name in the home-run record book. Who are we kidding? Our whole region rates an asterisk.

Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the paper's Northern Rockies editor in Bozeman, Mont.

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