Well, this is awkward.
I left when I was young and full of dreams to major in literary studies in Montana—and, a handful of years later, here we are again. I don't mean to write as if I'm addressing a lover, because I don't love you. It's impossible to avoid sounding melodramatic, so I'll just go for it: I don't even know who you are.
The Cowboy State, Red State, whatever you're calling yourself these days—are you Crowheart, where I grew up? Or Laramie, where I'm getting my MFA, and where, at the beginning of the year, when people say how it feels to be back in Wyoming, I'm like, no, this is Laramie, the mini-state between Wyoming and Nebraska?
When I studied abroad, some Japanese students thought I was from Miami. I kept saying Wyoming, they kept saying Miami, so I was finally like, yeah, Miami.
Parts of you look like southern California to me.
Did you know that you, Wyoming, had a birthday? If the you I am addressing is you The State, you may be displeased to know that some of us have ancestors who lived in this general assemblage of plains and mountains before you got here. Which means, in a way, you were already here before you were here. And which makes you, I don't know, a self-invader? Wyoming, you nasty.
So again, I ask, who are you? With your thirty-below winters, cowboys, trains, and other symbols of ruggedness, people might associate you solely with the flesh-and-blood equivalent of the bronco-bustin' cowboy on your welcome signs. But I can't even think of you as a cohesive place, let alone a specific type of person. It'd be like if I held up a "Welcome to Tasha" sign and poured everything I am over 97,000 square miles, so you could walk among my monuments and battlefields, volleyball courts, space stations, highways, churches, ect, and figure me out. You don't have many people, but their personal states stretch farther than your lines can hold. I don't know. I think you're them. They say what you are—what they are—and maybe that's an act of love, of empowerment, as much as it can lead to, if we're not careful, the kind of inflexible definitions that hurt us in the end.
Also, you're basically Montana.
Best to you and yours,
Dear Wyoming (1),
Tonight I'll tell you how beautiful you are. Here in the silent snow hut, my daughter sleeps, her hair fallen across her face, and her wool hat pulled down over her forehead. Earlier in the day, she stopped while crossing a long swale of snow and bent to look at snow fleas—tiny black spots on the expanse of white.
When we'd crossed the swale, we climbed a ridge line and looked down into two drainages. We felt dizzy, realizing that when we're in the bottom of one drainage, we can't prove the other one exists.
There was a fan shape in the snow—wing beat of a grouse dancing to pull a predator in some other direction. I smiled thinking of the unlikely intelligence of these fat birds. Then I saw spots of red--a trail of blood leading away from the wing marks--and I thought of sacrifice.
I bent over to investigate a scar on a pine—porcupine eating the bark, how they make it through the winter, their ease, how being slow becomes fast--and I remembered an odd fact a friend told me—that the leading cause of death for porcupines is falling out of trees.
We're inside the snow hut and, as I said, my daughter's sleeping. One of her friends, also here to be with you at your harshest most lovely time, is sleeping beside her. Between the girls is our dog, yet another happy sleeper. He's twitching in dream and farting.
I crawl out of my sleeping bag and slither along the snow to the doorway we dug a few hours before. Outside, I stand and stare up at the stars, at the drifting clouds, and the moon. There's almost no wind. Half buried in a pit of snow, coals from our fire still glow. I lean forward and open my hands to warm them. It's five below zero but I can feel you turning in your sleep, drifting toward summer. We turn with you, preparing ourselves. I know this, but can't believe that one day all of us will leave you behind.
- David Romtvedt
Dear Wyoming (2),
Some days I am weary of the cowboy mask we put on and offer to the world. We're more than that Hollywood dream of money and forgetting. Even as cowboys, we were more likely to be struggling ranch hands hoping to make a living in a place we loved but reduced to clearing the Indians away—first on behalf of large ranchers, then of railroad owners, and now of minerals exploiters.
But the Indians have remained and perhaps we can join them--the Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Crow, Shoshone, Lakota and other people whose home this was. We, who were Chinese and New Mexican Hispanic laborers who built your railroads; Yugoslavian, Chinese, Greek, Irish and Scandinavian miners who dug your coal for those railroads; Japanese Americans who were interned here at Heart Mountain during World War II; and now Salvadoran immigrants who clear tables and make beds in Jackson but can't afford to live there.
We are not least of all the Basques who came here to work sheep and who, in the first thirty years of the twentieth century, were the creators of the largest wool industry on the planet. Every August the local Basque dance troupe does one of the Carnival parade dances down Buffalo's Main Street as part of the yearly Fair and Rodeo week. I have often been in the parade to represent you. I'm an euskaldun berria—a person who by learning the language is becoming a new Basque person. I play the trikitixa style button accordion to accompany the dancers as they move down the street. We stop at the bridge over Clear Creek and do a fandango followed by an arin.
There we are in white cotton pants with red cross-hatched satin piping, white shirts with more satin—sometimes red and green, sometimes red and gold—streaming down our backs. Red and green sashes are tied around our waists. We wear rope-soled canvas shoes, red neckerchiefs, and berets. The neckerchiefs are decorated with the laburu, a four-armed symbol that looks a bit like a windmill fan and that some say represents the four heads of a dragon or the four directions. Dragons or directions, the laburu is also a sun symbol and represents the ancient pagan lives of the Basques. The berets are powerful markers of Basqueness. The Basque word for beret is txapel. Txapel is also Basque slang for condom.
Pagan condom wearers—that's us, Wyoming--antidotes to a west that if it were a pair of cowboy boots, would be too small to wear without giving rise to blisters.
- David Romtvedt
We are friends now, Wyoming, so I feel I can be honest. I thought you were a loser when we first met. You were lonely and vengeful with your wind, your plains like cold, empty bed sheets tucked into snow covered mountains, polka-dotted with ungulates and dead towns.
But then on that coldest day – do you remember? - we boiled water and threw it in the crisp air and it turned to snowflakes and I started to fall for you.
In the dead towns, I met cowboys with their throats wrapped in silk wild rags and on roads where you can drive fast I found steely skies that stretched out into impossible horizons. At the Hobo hot springs I met a man that looked like a Viking, and in the forest I prospected for gold in the glacial streams, and on a ranch I fished snakes out of a canal, and in the mountains I traced petroglyphs with my finger, and everywhere I watched trains trudge across landscapes in endless caravans, and I met people with faces open as the land, soft-spoken as the ready snow, with belt buckles big as the sky.
I ran my hands against your thick seems of coal in the Basin, too, and I have not forgotten your white outs that made it seem like the world was made of cold cotton candy. Also, I'm still not sure about these loud souped-up trucks, dear, and I remember Mathew Shepard and my landlord, who thought I had an attitude problem because she couldn't pronounce my name. Sometimes, too, the loneliness and the starkness still reign.
This isn't goodbye, Wyoming. This isn't a proposition of any sort. I sunned yesterday on granite slabs in a field of blue columbines and now it is September, which means snow, and I feel alright about that. I thought I would let you know just that. That you're alright, dear.
- Irini Zhorov
Happy 41st anniversary. I wasn't sure we'd stay together this long. I can't say it's always been easy. You can be a tease. You smile your ravishing mid-June smile, suggesting a picnic. I fall for it, pulling off wool socks and flannel-lined jeans. I call a friend. We stretch our winter-white legs out on the grass and you start pitching hail stones. I've seen you blow lettuce right off the plate. Maybe you can't help it, but it feels like toying.
And mean. Living with you during what other people call spring is no joke. I call it your wind- like-a-knife, plastic-bags-in-the-tree-tops, Styrofoam-trash-in-the-ice season.
And red. Depending on the data, you are either the reddest state in the union or runner up. And proud of it. As a lefty born and reared in California, I find your politics heart-breaking.
Too, you have a tendency to sell yourself cheap. You offer yourself up to any sweet-talking coal, oil, gas, wind, or uranium tycoon for a song. And when they leave you flat – party over, aquifer fractured, sagebrush uprooted, wildlife dead, barren, or scattered -- you say "That's life" and wait for the next round.
But I've stayed, haven't I? Truth is, I fell in love with you sixty years ago. Chalk it up to a family vacation in the Tetons: log cabin, wood stove, tributary of the Snake gurgling by, wild flowers whose names I now know. Irresistible to an 8-year-old girl from LA. I love the coordinates you staked out for yourself. Winter solstice brings a sun that hugs the horizon, radiating heat into every south-facing room of the house. Your aridity makes everything clear: moon, stars, the shadow of a stalk of grass on snow, every shade of hollyhock.
Indeed, clarity is your forte. Living here, I see things I might have missed elsewhere. Your sparse population makes it hard to demonize my conservative neighbors. I know them well; I like them. Being so dependent on the energy industry, you force me to recognize that negotiating the claims of ecosystems, economies, and the human demand for energy is an ancient dance with complicated moves. Above all, watching the national and local struggle to articulate what Matthew Shepard's murder indicated about a small college town in the Equality State made me keenly aware that representations are tricky. No place can be captured in a sound bite.
I want to thank you for saving my marriage. In 1981, you entered the lives of my husband, myself, and our two sons, ages 8 and 10. You became our new home. You brought sunlight to raise the spirit, mountains to climb up in the summer and ski down in the winter, and an academic environment focusing on challenge without competition. I watched my husband's depression lift with each day spent with you.
We love that your population is just half a million; you have more antelope than people! Your wind, frequent and strong, and your winters, cold and long, discourage more people from choosing you.
For those who stay, there are rewards and adventures to be had. Your mountains, with breathtaking vistas, are glorious in summer and winter. My husband climbed most of them. He ascended Medicine Bow Peak in the south, Gannett Peak in the middle, the Grand Teton in the northwest, and Cloud Peak to the northeast. Of those mountains, our favorite is Medicine Bow Peak. It rises to 12,000 feet above sea level and provides us with views of the lakes scattered throughout the Snowy Range. On a clear day, we can see all the way down to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. A hike up to the peak in July takes just two hours switch backing beside elephant head, lupine, spring beauty, and penstemon. Usually there is a snowfield to cross, carefully so as not to slip, and then rocks to negotiate on the approach to the peak. Once, a bald eagle soared back and forth above us as we enjoyed a picnic lunch there.
You have two spectacular spaces that are so remarkable they have been set aside as national parks. Yellowstone was the first in the world to have its wildlife and wilderness protected; The Grand Tetons followed later. Yellowstone contains thermals and geysers and back country hiking found nowhere else in the world. It is possible to view a pack of wolves feeding on a dead carcass, walk a boardwalk to see colorful thermals and geysers, and take a hike into a fresh water lake where osprey nested high in a tree feed their babies and fly across the lake calling to their mate.
Thank you, Wyoming, for offering our family a land and a life that allows us to thrive.