Continued (May 2 – 29)
Vehicles move at the rate of conversation along Torrington’s main street, due to citizens who visit from their trucks and cars. Like the cowboy of old who rarely got off his horse, I avoid leaving my truck except to take photographs. The woman who drives a blue and white Bronco idling behind me at a fast food drive-thru wears white lipstick and silver cowboy boot earrings, details courtesy of my rearview mirror. An American flag decal is stuck to her back window and a blue plastic bug screen is attached to the hood. A farmer in a faded station wagon takes his order from the girl at the window. His license plate reads 7 LAMB. Cowboys, Lamb-boys, Hogboys, Soyboys. A Holly Sugar logo overlooks town from a metal building. Where can those Sugarboys be?
Route 85 returns to Cheyenne, but I turn west at Hawk Springs, then pull onto the shoulder at the top of a long grade to view the valley, which from here is the color of dried yellow peas. Oz-green fields embedded in the expanse look like throw rugs, like flags waving to airplanes. A dark vehicle winds up the hill just as the dogs decide that the road is a good place to run. An armored vehicle, two red tanks strapped to the front like oversize fire extinguishers, stops.
“You need help?” a man in fatigues calls from where he reclines inside the door, the barrel of his weapon pointed at the roof.
“No,” I say irritably and the silly-looking thing pulls away. Cowboys. They buy fatigues and an armored car, automatic rifles and a couple of rockets, and think they’re gunboys.
The sandy soil of the hill, formed as the bluffs erode into chimneys and buttes, is the same color as my putty boots. Sage and grasses live on the slopes below and trees follow the gulley bottoms. Cliffs miles to the east are composed of the same rock, but shimmer pink in the afternoon light. Cows that look like they have been inflated with an air pump, share the abundance.
Three miles to the west we pass a metal structure surmounted by high tech gadgets on poles. The man from the armored car paces inside the gate and I remember the MX missile like a character out of book I once read, but had forgotten. A mile beyond the compound stands an abandoned homestead and I imagine that the site we just passed is a decoy – that the ranch house has the real weapon hidden beneath it: the missile blows out of its silo, the buildings incinerated in its wake.
In this two-part universe of earth and sky, manmade structures seem to be stuck to the land by a force greater than gravity. I admire people who sink all they have into a place, but I’m too much in awe of the land to stay on it. By the time the road drops into the valley of the Chugwater I’m crying because I don’t know who I am. The feeling passes like a rain shower, and the hamlet of Chugwater enters my memory as a grain elevator, a bounding colt, a shut-down hotel and a windmill made from giant tongue depressors.
The road crosses the interstate to ascend quiet meadows where willow trees, with too many little branches for my taste, grow in the abandoned channels of a wide creek bottom. A sturdy cow turns to face the truck and her thick-kneed calf scoots behind her big, safe hips. Invisible someones own a very large piece of paradise. Their presence is attested to by the blue, red, and yellow tags stapled to the animals’ ears and the feeling I get that I’m being watched.
Three, five and twelve: the number of days each of us who have resigned must endure. My number is twelve, working days that is, so I can’t get excited, yet. I re-packed the truck and trailer two nights ago, so there’s nothing to do but wait. When I was a kid I never doubted the importance of ‘going somewhere. I looked forward to our family vacations, not because we were out of school, which came with summer, but because I learned from traveling that in the west there was a physical match to my yearnings, that the being no one noticed at home was somehow noticed by nature itself. Whether this was by coincidence or design, I didn’t know.
Clouds to the west took two hours to get here but saved a slashing curtain of rain for us. A yellow and white Chevy pickup in the parking lot, equipped with dual antennas that whip around like feelers, appears to run like it’s made of sugar icing. The wind drives rain drops into the asphalt that explode into fragments of silver spray. Ten minutes, and the rain relaxes. A few, final drops make rings on the surface of the black water stranded in the parking lot.
“It was a good rain,” I hear someone say.
The sky lightens as the storm blows easterly, its thick white clouds piled high like plowed snow, the tops blown into peaked scallops that lean steeply to the north. If I were traveling I’d settle in for the night, let the dogs run, eat a sandwich and read.
One of the men at work, a goofy sort to start with, found a stray Siberian Husky. He didn’t want to bring it into his house for the night, so he locked it in the cab of his truck. There’s a field trip organizing to see the results: we cross the parking lot to the far row, where he parked it to avoid just such a public viewing. It’s a good thing that it’s an old truck; the roof liner is nothing more than a few shreds of backing that stuck to the glue, the door panels are missing, a piece of the dash is gone, the headrests are chewed to pieces, and the bench seat is shredded into foam rubber bits. It’s hopelessly funny and he gets sympathy from no one.
It’s tough to write down thoughts that run like an underground river, especially on a prairie road that bucks the truck like this one does. The climb into grazing land from irrigated fields is subtle, but accomplished by the time the road wraps around a water-rich crease that shelters abandoned ranch buildings of the type that watercolor artists like to romanticize. The privy is only a few strides from the two-story clapboard house, but it would be a damn uncomfortable journey in winter. An ancient lone oil pamper is so rusted that its presence is barely noticeable on the big stretch of hillside above and behind the ranch.
The truck hits the top of a rise and floats over into land so beautiful that nothing that has happened before this moment matters. Little yellow wildflowers, if viewed at forty miles per hour, suffer from a likeness to dandelions. When bobbing in the wind at my feet, in the company of blue hyacinths, they are charming. The dogs take a stretch: four pronghorn does jump a fence to slip across the road.
The critters to be found in the alkali expanse northwest of Laramie are few and mostly extinct. When I stop to examine a well-known roadside cabin constructed from dinosaur bones, a dozen jackrabbits approach me like house dogs. The Medicine Bow River, running full with snow water from its origin in mountains to the south, produces cool meanders in the grasslands east of Medicine Bow. In town, a mustard colored building accommodates the town hall and police station, which is closed. Scattered businesses, many boarded up, trailer houses, and the four-story Virginian Hotel, a reminder that many cowboys were young Southerners displaced by Reconstruction, constitute the hometown of 953 persons.
The former train station holds the town museum. I’d visit, but it’s closed on Sundays. As we cross the tracks going south, five boys walk the other way, toward town. They split up at the intersection and head for home, presumably. It seems like a lonely place in which to grow up.
A metal Champlin/Union Pacific Railroad lease sign sprawls on the ground, dead from gunshot wounds. I may have posted this well when it was my job to update the master map of Wyomimg oil and gas activity when I was in college and worked as a technician at an oil company in Denver. The legend is barely readable and I wouldn’t remember anyway. Still, it’s a bit like stumbling onto the tombstone of someone you once met. Most of the pumpers in the vicinity are active and fair-sized oil storage tanks stand on a rise above the stream. Indigo blue wild iris unfold in low spots where water stands from the spring runoff. A buried pipeline is mapped by yellow and orange posts which leap the road and continue up and over the hill.
As we descend miles later into the upper Medicine Bow Valley I feel like a kid whose roller coaster ride is over too soon, but a brown calf obliges me with a bit of fun: he places his feet as if to run away, but twirls and bounds into the road instead. I hit the brakes, but his brown rump gets bigger and bigger. In fact, I never knew calves were this big. Gravel rolls, and the truck skids to a stop just as the scared baby kicks at the right headlight.
“Not my new truck,” I beg out loud and he misses, still kicking as he heads for the brush.
Two creeks that source the Medicine Bow River are marked by old splintered cottonwoods and the gift of green fields. Rock River oil field, in places a swamp noisy with bullfrogs, is pincushioned by antique oil pumpers and a jumble of deserted white buildings from which fly clouds of black birds through broken windows. A fire truck and other vintage oil field vehicles are gathered alongside a derrick that currently supports a cluster of antennas. Pieces of junked equipment stand like statues in a park. Through the gloom of dusk a silver pickup approaches, and as we pass each other the driver gives me the Wyoming Wave. Likewise.
Last night workmates helped a couple departing for new jobs in Lander load life’s detritus into a rented truck. As we dragged to the curb the last wretched stuff that one should part with, but cannot, I felt lucky to have crammed my domestic existence into storage before leaving Arizona.
This morning, the mountains to the west, toward Laramie, are as thin as ghosts, their cubic miles of rock turned weightless and transparent by the power of light. The wind, as ever, bounces the branches of small trees, which jerk and rebound as if dancing with clumsy partners.
Seven days and counting: I withdraw behind a polite persona and wait for the bell to ring. The dogs dream a dream of waiting, a timeless habit that will be interrupted when they hear my step. Their true master is the flow of time, an ancient poem that can be distracted into prose temporarily. I join them in dream state, not wishing time away, but riding it like gravity down a hill of temporary obligation.
My friend’s belongings are packed in cardboard boxes and the furniture is pushed against the walls of his apartment. Last night I brought in two blankets from the trailer, threw one over him where he slumbered on the couch and took mine to the bedroom. After spreading my raincoat on a bare mattress, I rolled up in the blanket and laid down. I woke up later, cold.
The movers show up before I can get out of the shower. There are four of them and they complain that there are too many people in the apartment. I take my bags and coat out to the truck so they won’t get packed. Back inside, I discover that I locked my purse in the truck. I conclude that my keys must be in it after a search in the usual places fails to turn them up.
“Call a locksmith,” my friend says, and we sit in the midst of the movers and drink coffee.
The locksmith takes my twenty bucks and runs to her truck. I stand under the dripping sky, and search my purse for the keys: not there. I return to the apartment, swearing. One of the movers blocks the kitchen door with a dolly, but beyond him, on the counter next to the sink, my keys have appeared out of nowhere.
“How did Cheyenne get its start?” I overhear the new woman at work ask one of the guys.
“At first all it was, was seventeen saloons and bordellos across from the train station. You know, the one that’s closed downtown,” and he recommends that she visit the museum for proof.
“Railroads and bordellos,” she repeats as if it’s an equation.
“One-fifth the country’s nukes are here too,” he adds.
“Can I go see them?” she asks.
“You can tour the Air Force base. They don’t show you much, though.”
Back at the motel, water drips from the eaves. An all night drizzle has Cheyenne closed in like a big, cold, shower stall. Cars and trucks, aiming cones of light through the mist, stop at Taco Bell. My friend leaves in the morning for Kansas City and his new job. He stops to say good-bye and eternity opens between us in the dark parking lot.
Tomorrow is the last day I’ll work and the business of the place goes on around me very quietly. Sleep threatens, so I rest my head against the computer monitor, which has been disconnected. I dream that I’m in my motel room, asleep. The stuck second hand on my watch is functioning again: it ticks comfortably, inches from my left ear. Music would help keep me alert, but the company forbids it in any form, even with the use of headphones.
The offices of the oil company I worked for in Denver lined the outside of the building; each office had a window, which was a nice thing, but all the desks faced the hall. One day I turned my desk around so that I could view a gravel roof three floors below and the sky above it. The next morning I found the desk reoriented to the hall.
I escape my sinecure at 3:40 p.m. The eccentric couple whom I intend to visit in Denver isn’t home when I arrive, and I’m half glad. I slip over to my favorite restaurant and order falling-apart roasted pork shoulder drenched in green chile gravy with a side of guacamole and a slurry of beans, for five bucks. Oops, the price has gone up to five seventy-five and, also new, there’s no smoking at the four corner tables.