Letter from Wyoming
Originally published in Granta (February 2, 2010)
Before I moved to Wyoming in 2005, I was – like a lot of people outside this region, it turns out – not quite sure just where it was. As for its character, no idea. We have our stereotypical notions of better-known states like Montana, Idaho, and Colorado. They exist in our imaginations as real places of this or that kind. I don’t think you can say the same about Wyoming. For a couple of years, almost everyone who called or emailed would ask, ‘How’s Montana?’ They couldn’t ever quite remember that I was in Wyoming. It’s like a state covered with one of those mythical invisibility suits. You look at it, but you don’t see it, you don’t really register that it’s there – or you do, because it’s beautiful, but you think it’s Montana. I’d bet that a lot of people who vacation in Jackson Hole don’t really think of the fact that it’s in Wyoming, most of the time. As soon as they get off the plane and onto a pair of skis, they think they’re at a resort somewhere in western Colorado. They can’t quite fathom, really, that the place is in Wyoming, because no one can quite ever remember that Wyoming exists.
This suits me just fine. It’s why I came here. I was looking for a teaching job in the desert southwest, which seemed to me a great isolation but now that I’m here I believe I overestimated the southwest that way and underestimated Wyoming. This is a state that covers half a million square miles on which live just over half a million people. There aren’t really any ‘cities’, with apologies to Laramie, Cheyenne, and half a dozen other urban centres: there are just a few big towns and one resort. I’m living a happy accident. There were no jobs advertised in the desert southwest that year. This was the only job I applied for. I got lucky. I didn’t really want to go anywhere at the time.
I admit that I’m a misanthrope. Once, standing on a sidewalk in Oxford, Mississippi with my friend Tom Franklin, the brilliant fiction writer who lives there among other brilliant writers (I’m not kidding or being ironic), I was invited by someone to attend a party later that evening. I mumbled something non-committal. Tom grinned and said to the inviter: ‘He doesn’t really like people.’
This isn’t exactly true. I like a lot of individual people, and some couples, and I suppose some groups – but I’m suspicious of groups. I am tired of cocktail parties (although I usually have fun while I’m there) and the small talk, and it’s true maybe that I’m not the most trusting person I know. Much of my misanthropy manifests itself in feeling crowded. Crowded roads, streets, towns, stores, airwaves, telephones, emails, and so on. It all makes me nervous. I was craving some kind of escape.
I think most people who live in Wyoming need a lot of space, or they wouldn’t live here. Unlike Mississippi, where I grew up and where it’s either warm or beastly hot for all but about three months of the year, in Wyoming it is warm only about three months of the year, and the rest of the year it is either cold or very cold. Such a climate tends to repel most people, and that’s fine since I believe that people here want Wyoming to remain wide-open. Southeast Wyoming, while it has beautiful mountains nearby with lots of bike and hiking trails and campgrounds and big game hunting and excellent trout fishing and the only research university in the state, is pretty much an off-the-radar part of an off-the-radar state, and I think everyone but the real estate developers want to keep it that way. Even in the South these days, the interstates are crowded. You can’t find a non-crowded interstate east of Austin or Abilene, Texas; Lincoln, Nebraska; or Galesburg, Illinois. When you cross that imaginary line, driving west, it’s as if someone unwound an overly tight Ace bandage from around your head, unscrewed a clamp from your heart.
Last weekend, we snowshoed the Little Laramie trail in the Snowie Range of the Medicine Bow National Forest, a good long two-hour hike, stopping every hundred yards or so to pick ice balls from the dogs’ paws, dodging the occasional cross-country skier gliding down through the lodgepole pine forest. The sky was overcast and gray, a light snow falling, about eighteen degrees Farenheit. Kind of perfect. Views of the Centennial Valley from the trail at 9,500 feet range for some thirty miles across the prairie back toward Laramie, at 7,200 feet, the eye resting on the Laramie Range to the east. On the way home, the wind was up, and the snow blowing across the road obscured it at times, a brief white-out, but blew on by in a few seconds, out into the rolling grasslands south of the two-lane highway, where small herds of pronghorn picked through the snow for the scarce but most nutritious plants. When they’re really on the move, the pronghorn out here seem more plentiful than the cattle and sheep, and maybe they are.
With the mountains and national forest land within half an hour of town, there’s a lot of good hunting and fishing and a lot of wildlife. We’ve seen moose, elk, more mule deer than whitetail, badgers, fox, coyotes, golden and bald eagles, marmots, jack rabbits. I haven’t come upon a mountain lion, or a black or brown bear, or one of the notoriously solitary wolverines. But there are more than 600 species of wildlife in the state, and I recently read that the insects in a square mile of prairie here outweigh all mammal life by several times. There is a mountain ridge west of town that looks from a distance like a long narrow escarpment, but when you ascend it you enter what seems a vast, hilly, borderless wilderness that is disconnected from the rest of the world. No one is allowed there, legally, for several months in late winter and early spring because it is a sanctuary for the local wildlife. During hunting season, elk and deer hunters pitch large canvas tents with stoves they’ve hauled up with horses, and the camps stand for weeks.
I don’t know how the settlers survived winters here. They were more severe than now just thirty years ago, regularly dipping to forty or fifty below. The people who settled this land are so much tougher than I’ll ever be that I cannot really comprehend it. Even in these milder times, we’ve just gone through a few weeks of waking up to twenty-five or thirty below. The ever-present wind is notorious, gusts often clocking in at fifty miles per hour (with no storm in sight), and the Big Hollow prairie between Laramie and Centennial is said to be the largest valley in the country carved entirely by wind. The snow’s deep.
The old-timers in Laramie call this population control. But I’m here for now and I don’t really want to leave. It was one day a couple of summers ago, driving that same two-lane between Laramie and Centennial, that I looked to the north and saw the long, high, rolling hills there and thought for the first time I understood what Hemingway’s character meant when she said the hills (albeit in Spain, in his story) looked ‘like white elephants’. They do look like some sort of colossal, vast-bodied, mythical dormant beasts.
This is a beautiful place in all seasons, no matter how harsh the winters are, the blessed character-testing winters. The summers are the best I’ve known, and everyone lives for them. The autumns are often longer and milder than you would think, although this past autumn was cut short in early October. People adjusted, after a little grumbling, put away everything but the winter clothing, got out the snowshoes, skis, heavy boots. Spring may not arrive in earnest until July. And then, the farmers’ market finally starts up again, people revel in the mild dry heat (and, yes, big skies full of blue and bright-yellow light), and try not to think about how soon the market and the summer will be gone again for most of the year.