Despite only living in Wyoming full-time for three years, it’s where I say I’m from. After 15 years in Iowa, Wyoming is where I really came to life. My first summer in Wyoming before school started saw me climb my first mountain on a bike and compete in my first (and last) criterium bicycle race. That summer I ran cross-country for the first time and really loved it. Every athletic event in Wyoming involved a long bus trip, and that first autumn on those trips two things happened: I made my first lasting friendships, and I fell in love with Wyoming. I loved the way the day’s late light slanted off the mountains and the mesas and framed the plains and hills with a fiery light. We traveled hundreds of miles on those trips, and we had hours to get to know each other and for me to get past most of my early life’s hang ups.
I may have been born in Iowa, but I grew up in Wyoming.
I went back to Iowa for my undergraduate studies, but I was a Wyomingite by that point. At Grinnell, I missed the mountains and the emptiness and the people’s laid-back, pragmatic, laissez-faire attitudes. My classmates liked hearing the stories I told about Wyoming. Stories about ranchers who were bitten by rattlesnakes which they brought to the E.R. in a pillowcase but only after finishing their fence-mending. Memories of being chased around our neighborhood in my friend’s car by drunken cowboys driving enormous diesel pickup trucks. Mostly true tales about militia folks and their decidedly crazy beliefs. True crime stories that most people in Wyoming know but are too horrible to retell in all their detail. The complicated histories of waves of people moving through in the mid-19th century, dispossessing other people, making a place to live, going bust, and having to decide whether to succumb to Wyoming’s inertia or flee forever.
I’ve been in Wyoming more over the last few years than any other point in the previous decade and a half. Last year we visited in the summer, and I remembered all of the things I missed about Wyoming: the mountains, the distance, the easy pace of life, the ability to do your own thing and just get away from everything and everyone and then come back into town and be in a place both ever-changing and static at the same time. A few weeks ago we were in Wyoming, and I experienced again how Wyoming is really just one state-sized small town, where so many people are willing to help a friend or neighbor out. I wish it were easier to get back to Wyoming and just be there more often. But such is the life of an ex-pat, always thinking about where you came from but liking where you are too much to want to move back.
Last night Wyoming came to me.
My good friend Nina McConigley came to Boston to read from her recently published book, Cowboys and East Indians (available from Five Chapters). Wyoming has a pull, and Nina seems magnetically drawn to Wyoming, always finding her way back there. She embodies the spirit of the place more than anyone else I know. She’s also about the least typical Wyomingite you can imagine. Her father is an Irish petroleum geologist. Her mother, from southern India, was a television journalist and then a state legislator.
This sense of differentness pervades all of the stories in her book, but there’s so much tenderness and humor there, too. During the Q & A session after the readings, someone asked Nina and Laura Van den Berg, who had also recently published a collection of short stories, how it’s possible that Wyoming (or any place) could be a character, could be more than just a setting. The answer—that Wyoming is a sparsely populated place of such vast enormity and visual power that it’s a force of narrative action—really resonated with me. Friends and family notwithstanding, that’s possibly what I’ve been missing most about Wyoming: just being there is in many ways transformative . . . or, at least, it reminds me of my transformation when I was there.
I had read a couple of the short stories beforehand, and Nina’s voice was the narrator’s voice in my head. It was so delightful to hear this same voice actually reading the same words aloud. Beyond being a wonderful person, Nina is tremendously talented, and her stories are little treasures.
Y’all should go get her book.