Anyone who has ever driven through Yellowstone, or seen images of the Grand Tetons should know straight off that the rest of the state looks nothing like that mountainous, grand northwest corner. The majority of Wyoming has more in common with Arizona or New Mexico than it does with Colorado or Alaska. Once at the bottom of an ancient seaway, most of Wyoming is a flat, high plains state with red rocks in some places, and scrubby nothingness in others. Antelope here and there, and snow fences everywhere else. In places like Rock River, Sweetwater, and Rawhide Creek, there are more cows than people.
It is not a farmland state. No green crops of endless corn rows, hops, strawberries or broccoli. Trees are scarce, as is most vegetation. No, the state’s claim to fame is being an extraction state, one where coal, oil and gas companies come to drill, dig, and dredge.
It’s the ninth largest state in the union, and the state with the lowest population. Even now the entire state of Wyoming has a population of 560,000 – essentially half of the population of the city of Seattle. The tallest building Wyoming is White Hall, the university’s twelve story dormitory.
And yet, I love and miss Wyoming in ways I never thought I would, especially while I lived there. There are nights now when I see a purple hue in the sky and ache for the impending snowfall that it used to herald. I see a shooting star and I’m instantly transported back to staring up at the night sky when I used to wonder when I’d ever leave that snowy, icy town and be warm again. When the sky thunders and booms, I’m back there experiencing my first summer thunderstorm that came in violently and left peacefully.
I know this now: I didn’t go to Wyoming to go to graduate school. I went there to grow up.
I arrived from Olympia, Washington to Laramie, Wyoming – moving three places down in the alphabetical list of states and 1,200 miles away.
It was supposed to be a we move but was instead a me move. In my twenties, I was married to a soft man, someone who others said had kind eyes. No one ever thought he had a wandering one.
In the spring, we visited Laramie and toured the school. May in Laramie might as well be November or March. The cottonwood trees were bare sticks. The air was thin and cold. Black and white remains of a snowfall littered lawns and sidewalks. The sky was a flat, lifeless gray.
I cried seeing the town. It wasn’t what I thought it would be at all.
It was a town you could fill in a thimble. A downtown with one coffee shop, two restaurants, acres of free parking, and the only four-year university in the entire state. (It is also, not coincidentally, the only blue county in an otherwise red state.)
Laramie sits wedged between the Medicine Bow and Laramie Mountains. But to call them mountains when you are already at an elevation of 7,200 feet confuses the matter. Those “mountains” are more like far off hills that make the barest of blips on the faraway, flat horizon. The pass along the Snowy Range Road to Centennial sits at 10,847 feet – not much lower than where some small planes fly. The interstate slices through the red granite boulders of Vedauwoo, with tumbleweeds and shrubs poking up. Altogether, they give the state a third-world otherness.
By the fall, I drove to Laramie alone. Still full of tears – not for the barrenness and isolation of the town but for the emptiness and hollowness made by someone’s unexpected leaving.
I was 27 years old and I suddenly owned a pink house that had a tombstone under a lilac bush. It read, “I miss you Tootie” (I’m pretty sure Tootie remained in the house as a ghost). When I came back from class, my cats yawned their greetings to me. For the first time in seven years, there was no one else to expect me or check on me.
I threw parties, played poker, and smoked cigars. I read stuffy, academic essays curled up in my overstuffed armchair. I took heady, intellectual classes, wrote terribly pedantic papers, fell on the ice, twisted my ankle, played pool when I should have stayed home to study, stayed out too late almost every night and felt it every time in the morning.
It was my do-over. The previous seven years vanished and along with them, so did the girl I’d been. I arrived as a blank slate and with time, the town drew on me things I could erase or save.
It was self-reliance that I gained from living there: I shoveled snow, paid my bills, made and kept friends, studied, and lived – all under the incomparably beautiful, big, amazing sky of Wyoming.
I have only ever loved two places the way I’ve loved people – with an unmistakable sinking fascination that I hold in my heart and my memory after all this time. It’s just that I never thought for a minute that Laramie would be one of them.
Photo credit: Michael Fajardo