The last time I was in Wyoming I arrived in the middle of the night, having driven straight from Portland, Oregon on a compressed, cross country trip. To get there we drove through the Beartooth Mountains of Montana in August darkness, watching meteors streak down through the clear western air. I’ve joke that I am the penultimate East Coaster – that I walk and talk too fast and am too attached to the ocean to live anywhere else. However, chunks of my childhood summers were spent on the range and in the mountains of Northeastern Wyoming, visiting my Aunt, Uncle and two cousins in near Sheridan. I’d like to think that somehow, in some small way, that experience stays with me.
As a child and early teenager going to Wyoming was a dream come true. It is awash in wide open spaces to explore on horseback and was of pre-dawn mornings helping (however ineffectively) my uncle and aunt with the cattle they raise. Wyoming was freight trains, rattle snakes, sage brush, wild landscapes, and hours with my cousins playing Legos and reading Calving and Hobbes comics.
My grandmother lives in Wyoming now and so last weekend I caught (just barely) an early flight to Denver and then a propeller plane to Sheridan to visit her and the rest of my family. While the endless barbed wire fences, train tracks, range and sparse population are the polar opposite of where I live now, I felt a rush of familiarity and welcome when I arrived Wyoming. I love that place. I am a total outsider, but I feel a sense of awe and respect for the country there and the people who call it their home.
Maybe because we’ve just had a huge national election and the idea of what is “America” and who is “American” has been debated and thrown about ad nauseum I couldn’t help but think, “This is what people are talking about when they talk about America.” Here are hard working people who make a living from the land and another job to make ends meet. They drive sturdy American made trucks and cultivate a sense of Western independence. Native American history and contemporary culture is woven into the fabric of this place. This is where stories about the American West were made. And, yet. Wyoming cannot be reduced to a caricature. It is not a rustic idyll or a rural backwater. It’s a place as complex as “America” itself.
Wyoming is where I can have long conversations about the dangers of fracking with my Uncle, who is one of the toughest cowboys I’ve ever met. I remember he told me about what a bad idea it was 10 years ago, before anyone on the East Coast had really begun to talk about it. I wish New York State would take a cue from the experience of people in the west and see the havoc it wreaked on the environment there and how little benefit local people actually derived from it. It’s where I have out and proud gay family members, even though gay rights still has a long way to go there (and everywhere!). It’s where I can go out to lunch with my cousin I haven’t seen in 10 years and we can chat like we just saw each other yesterday. It’s a place I’m proud to know a little bit and proud to hold as part of my past and, hopefully, part of my future.
Below is a little look into my Wyoming past: wearing shorts, riding bareback on my Aunt’s Welsh pony, with awkwardly cut curly hair and in 12-year-old heaven