I wrote this piece in 2010 for a creative writing class. I begin with this because I'd like to introduce myself to you, and I'd like to begin to explain my relationship to my family and to Wyoming. Starting Monday, the goal is start sharing mostly new work.
When I pull the blue vinyl photo album out of its dusty pile in the back of mom’s spare bedroom, I know that the first five or so pages will consist of photo after photo of our family smiling like tourists among the thousands of cherry blossoms that used to line the capital campus of Olympia, Washington. The photos were taken in March of 1986, in them my sister Laura is only six months old and I am not yet two. Now twenty six, I sit on the floor of my mother’s home in Cheyenne, Wyoming nearly a quarter of a century and a thousand miles later I can still smell the blossoms.
In the photos, Laura is bundled up in layers of pink blankets coats and sleeper jammies. Underneath her fat baby cheeks I can see the fiery blue eyes that she carries to this day as a twenty four year old bombshell. I see that I too am sporting baby fat on my cheeks in the pictures; I recognize the red overalls with Sesame Street patches on the knees. I notice that in one photo, I look as though I could be the twin of my son, Daniel.
My eyes shift to my mother’s image and I realize that in these photos my mother is younger than I am now. How healthy, happy, and care free she looks! It blows me away. Her eyes, like Laura’s, remain the same today, but her hair has long since gone to grey. In the mornings she uses brown lipstick to paint the roots of her hairline, but hair color is not the only thing that has changed about my mother.
Perhaps at another time I will find the words to tell you about her illness, because I simply do not have them today. I suppose that I find it difficult to quantify the affect that being sick has had on her spirit because this must be measured with an exponential scale that I cannot comprehend. A simple glance at her youthful image all those years ago, compared to the woman who stands washing dishes a room away, shows clearly the effect on her body.
On first glance Dad looks the same as he did when he left for the office earlier today. He smiles brightly in each picture at the age of twenty six, much the way his six year old grandson did when I tickled his ribs at bedtime last night. It takes a minute of thought before I recognize how much more hair Dad had back then, and how much darker it is in the picture without the tufts of white sneaking in around the edges. I chuckle as I realize that he wore the same model of frames for his glasses when we joked at breakfast this morning as he does in the photo before me. Some things never change.
Looking at these photos of this young family is a bittersweet moment for me. I realize that of the twenty some images of us among the blossoms, not one shows the four of us together. We had no one else to hold the camera. We are just the four of us. We smile like tourists because we are a thousand miles away from our home in Wyoming. We grin like fools because we are young and we don’t know what the world has in store for us. In that moment we are free to imagine Greatness.
On the floor of my mother’s house in the year 2010, a black and white Lhasa Apso snores on the floor beside me. I ponder the years. I turn the pages and the cherry blossoms fade. They become pumpkin seeds on the floor, crooked birthday candles, bad haircuts, barbequed oysters and sweet sixteen parties. The pages, like the days, fly by.
It is easy to imagine that We are captured within the boundaries of that blue vinyl photo album, that our lives are somehow represented, our stories told. If a picture is truly worth a thousand words, I shudder to think how many words it will take to fill in what’s left out of that album. Like the owl on the tootsie roll pop commercials, who cannot help but bite into the candy before finding out how many licks it takes to get the center, I am curious to find out how many words it takes to tell our story… though it is likely the answer may never be known.
Fear less, hope more, eat less, chew more, whine less, breathe more, talk less, say more, hate less, love more, and all good things will be yours. - Swedish proverb
The places I remember are changed, evolved or simply gone. The people who defined my childhood are dead or grown into people I don’t know anymore. The places that should echo with my history are now home to Walmarts, oil drills and cheap furniture. Along with my childhood, the hardwood floors in the farmhouse and the Papa’s charge account at the grocery store, the wild places are disappearing, the smell of sage is fading, and the desert is shrinking.
Wyoming, like my childhood, is a delicate subject for me, like a snowflake with crisp edges I have learned that I cannot grasp it without muddling it. Wyoming is a harsh place with winter wind that chaps my cheeks, a summer heat that scorches my skin, and a yearlong dryness that splits my cuticles. I’ve spent but one full year here and already I am weathered.
Still, Wyoming is an enchanted place with glimpses of the divine in the white light falling through dark clouds after a thunderstorm, in the piles of boulders that speckle the high plains, in the blue clarity of glacier fed lakes and in the fragile strength of a red tipped summer wildflower.
I can still hear the hum of the fuel injection pump in our old Crown Victoria station wagon as it wheeled my family through the bright green hills of early June on the twisting highway that leads to Yellowstone. My great uncle, once the tourism director for the state, used to put brightly painted yellow rocks along the road to the park. But when we passed by fifty years later the paint was long gone, probably blown to North Dakota, the boulders simply another piece of landscape. I remember watching the roll of the hills and imagining all kinds of dinosaurs sleeping in heaps beneath blankets of prairie grass.
Normally we lived in Washington State, but once each year our small family returned home to visit our relatives. Arrival in Yellowstone was the “vacation” part of our trip, the part where we played tourist before arriving home. In an almost ritualistic way we always made an annual stop at Old Faithful. I always ate strawberry ice cream from the lodge gift shop while watching the loyal and predictable geyser shoot into the sky, the white foam spraying so high - we craned our necks to watch.
As we continued on through the Grand Tetons we soon reached the Stupid Reservoir. I don’t know what it is really called, probably because I blocked the name out with my disdain for it. Laura and I hated that place because every year we would approach it in the evening after a daylong car ride, and even when very young, Laura and I knew that we were less than an hour from our grandparent’s house just when Dad would put the car into park.
In spite of our proximity to the end of the road our parents always stopped at the Stupid Reservoir. They would walk off hand in hand to gaze at the scenery in some kind of sappy reminiscence. Meanwhile Gus, Laura and I sat impatiently on the tailgate of the car waiting for them to come back so we could get moving again.
Once our wagon was finally rolling again, it wasn’t long before we could see the spattering of lights on the horizon that made up the small town of Pinedale. Our dog, Gus, had spent his puppyhood following our father on backpacking trips and at the first wisp of mountain air he would begin pacing and drooling with anticipation in the back of the car. All of our stomachs were rumbling with hunger. Gus was in a near frenzy only exasperated by the scent of wet sagebrush and wild things flowing through the car. In anticipation of home Dad always slowed the car to what seemed like near crawl. Laura and I sat silent, watching for deer, antelope and moose on the side of the road as we rolled, all windows down, into town.
Back in the eighties and early nineties, Pinedale hadn’t any paved streets, except the highway that ran through the center of town. Two gravel roads crossed at Papa’s house but had no name. Back then, Grandma Lola was still alive, the garden still flourished, and the house was still painted Cowboy Brown and Gold. Each evening Papa would put handmade chicken wire cages around his prize winning garden in an attempt to keep deer and moose from nibbling it away as we slept.
Hot dinner, warm hugs and cold drinks were always waiting for us, and rapidly consumed, on our arrival. On the first night we would sit up visiting, basking in the feel of family after a year spent a thousand miles from anyone who shared our blood. Sometimes we stayed a week, sometimes a day, but the visits were always too short.
All too soon we were hugging goodbye, grasping at each other and smiling forced smiles, and promising to see each other again soon. Tears flow now as I write, they burn as hot on my cheeks as those shed each year in the miles past Pinedale, as I am reminded that we didn’t always get to see each other again. My mind drifts to the quiet cemetery in a cove of aspens up on the hill by Fremont Lake.
An America song echoes, (perhaps a radio?) “I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name, it felt good to be out of the rain…”
And after a long hot journey past Hell’s Half Acer, through the Red Desert and amid the high plains peaks we would come to The Farm. Granny and Grampy’s place is about a mile outside of Fort Laramie. Back then it was home to Black Angus cattle and purebred sheep. The fields were neatly lined with corn or wheat. Granny still made her own bread, Grampy was still driving Old Red and Chester still lay at their feet. Home again at last we sat up into the darkness for a second night.
In the afternoon, while Granny napped, Laura and I would sneak down to the barn and feed the horse carrots. Twice each day we donned rubber boots and held tight to Old Red’s truck bed, as we crossed the highway to check the irrigation gates. Often we went riding on our aunt’s old banana seat bike down the lane of cotton wood trees chasing the Killdeers to into the street, and counting the eighty or ninety cars of coal that rolled by on the rail tracks that cut through our land three times each day.
Our visits were always too short, the tears spilled only as we turned and drove down the lane. And always, it seemed as though the first few miles heading away from home were nearly impossible to bear. The months of loneliness to come were far more daunting for my parents I suppose, but still - not lost on Laura and I, whose grandparents never came to a school play, whose aunt never babysat us and whose classmates didn’t recognize the names of our hometowns. The four of us sat silently for the first miles, pondering the bitter sweet visit home
You could not step twice into the same river- Heraclitus
Two decades after my first visit home, I moved home to pursue my education at the University of Wyoming. My mother came to get us in some foreign car with silent fuel injection and together we weaved our way through the roads we’d traveled so many times before, this time with my two sons in the backseat.
For lack of time and funds, we skipped Yellowstone, but not the Stupid Reservoir. This time my children slept in the backseat as my mother and I paused to dip our feet in the water. Next we stopped a night in Pinedale at Papa’s house, now painted blue, with the addition of a Jacuzzi room sticking out the west end. I introduced to Papa and his second wife, Pam, to my children paying special attention when I introduced my son Daniel Thomas, to my grandfather, Daniel Peter, hoping that each of them would recognize the significance in their names. Pam ordered food in, and we went to bed early.
On the way out of town, I was disheartened to notice that the giant plastic fish that once stood on top of the local grocery was gone and the store was renamed for a national chain. I saw that the ice cream shop once called Moose Creek was now a Chinese restaurant with an out of place moose in the front lawn.
We made it to the farm late in the evening, and had to wait at the rail crossing as a train loaded with a hundred and forty-six cars full of coal passed through for what was reported to be fifth time that day. Even in the dusky light I could see that the once unimposing cottonwoods now dominated the lane, their trunks thick with age, and their limbs grabbing at each other to form a tunnel over the road.
The fields are simply planted, perhaps with some alfalfa and grass. Sunflowers stand tall along the fence. The irrigation pipes whose gates had needed adjusting several times a day are gone, replaced by a rolling solar powered system. Chester, now buried under the cedar in the yard, doesn’t run to greet us and no cattle bellow in the corral. Granny and Grampy, now nearly eighty, shuffle out to greet us. We pull each other close and I introduce my family, including my son Daniel Thomas, to my Granny and of course my grandfather, Thomas Lee.
The next morning we leave after a simple breakfast of store bought cereal. I notice the swollen arthritic knuckles on Granny’s hands, and I do not ask why there is no homemade wheat bread. Our goodbyes are slightly less heartbreaking, knowing that the miles that separate us are far shorter, hoping that less distance lends to less time spent apart.
Only an hour and a half later we are in Laramie. For the first time since we left it in 1986 I see the “city” and my new home. I am struck with a feeling of coming full circle. I am awed at the sight of so many things I’d only known through story and faded memory… the trailer house where I learned to walk, the agriculture college of which I am a third generation student, and the hospital that Laura and I were born in. A full 360 degrees, and I should be right back where I started, but it is clear that this is not the same place.
In my heart I know that the prairie wind will always blow, but in my soul I know that it will never again smell as sweet as it did when it filled that station wagon so many years ago on our journeys home. In an effort to quantify that which is missing I turn my memories over in my mind.
Perhaps it is my cousin Christy who should’ve been twenty yesterday. So short seem the summers that I carried her on my hip, swung her on swings and taught her to swim. Forever sixteen, twenty is just another age she will never see, instead she lies resting under a CareBears gravestone next to Grandma Lola, in a field of aspen.
Perhaps what is missing is the ignorant innocence of my childhood, as if that which dirties this place in my mind’s eye was always there but remained unseen by eyes that searched only for that which is clean. Perhaps it is the moose that used to stroll down Main Street in Pinedale and stop the traffic. Perhaps it’s the albino deer that someone killed because it was different, or a boy named Mathew Sheppard who suffered the same fate.
I have come to believe that perhaps it is some muddling of all these things. In the end I suppose that trying to pin it down with specificity would be like trying to put one of the multifaceted snowflakes that fall in January under a microscope lens for observation. But one glance at a watery slide and it is known - some things simply cannot be captured. The delicate edges of that particular snow flake are forever lost, known in truth perhaps only by the divine hand that created it.