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Looking for Myself in Wyoming

My music career had been knocking since I can’t remember when. So when I was eighteen, I moved to L.A., auditioned for and got in to “hoot night” at the famed Troubador. (Monday nights complete unknowns could get up and sing). They gave me a prime slot: 11pm. I killed it. Michael Sunday from Epic Records followed me out after the show, gave me his card, told me to call. He said he’d book me for six months in places around L.A. If I lasted, they would sign me.

But the following Saturday, I was in Wyoming.

I’d left on a whim to meet up with this Hemingway-esque artist I’d been flirting with since I was sixteen. (My mother had bought his sculptures, and he’d spent a weekend or two at our home.) He was throwing some kind of crazy ‘picnic’ at his place in the middle of nowhere, and he invited my parents. Mom and Dad were flying up from Reno and they convinced me to go with them. “Oh come on. It’s just for the weekend.”

Granted, nobody saw it coming. He was three decades older than me. But he was magnetic, funny, down to earth, fascinating. Later I learned he was also very troubled, destructive, cruel and narcissistic. But this was my eighteenth year of life, and I decided to have an adventure in the high plains of Wyoming. The sweet scent of sage alone, and the endless expanse of land and sky, were well worth the trip.

But I never went back to L. A. The trip turned out to be eighteen years long. Anyway, here are some of the treasures I carry from that time:

Once, I looked out the window from our upstairs bedroom, and a herd of antelope maybe five hundred strong strolled by. I’m not kidding. There are no words for this. Nor for the matter of fact cohabitation of the humans living there. It wasn’t such a big deal for them. I tried to stay upstairs, so I could feel the magic of it, unmarred by their ordinary conversation. I thought we should be on our knees.

Lost Cabin (where we lived) was fifty miles to the nearest Safeway, so you really had to shop carefully. You never left for the store without asking everyone in the other homes if they needed anything. Fifty miles to the nearest movie. The nearest stationery store, hardware store, clothing store. It was all fifty miles away (and, depending on the time of day, five hundred miles back). Only three miles, though to the Lysite Post Office. This was where you could get overpriced tired carrots, floppy celery, bruised apples and potatoes. And your mail. If you wanted gas, you had to go to Moneta (about eleven miles further).

Lysite had a school house where the kids got their education. And where I got mine, of a sort. Everyone from first grade to sixth grade learned together in that schoolhouse. If you were older, you went to junior high in Shoshone, which was thirty miles away.

The Lysite schoolhouse was crucial to the community because that’s where we held our dances. Once every six weeks or so (more often in the summer), there would be a dance. Either Hugh Maller would play his guitar and sing, with a buddy playing fiddle or bass behind him. Or some band would come from outside, by word of mouth. Those guys had mics and everything. These events were epic.

Everyone did their drinking outside. No drinking inside. And there was no age limit. Everyone was welcome, from newborns to ninety-year-olds. So it was an authentic, raucous gathering of the whole community.

The man who became my husband was Harry Jackson. He was insanely gifted and had a reputation for being impossible. He had a cowboy friend named Slim Whitt who looked like Clint Eastwood’s hardtwist, kinder brother. So skinny and tough it was hard to dance with him. He had a sweet kind of awkward, jerky way of bouncing you left to right and back; and it seemed like human touch was a little foreign to him. But he was true as the day is long, and would never leave an animal in peril. Harry created a sculpture called “Safe and Sound,” of a cowboy saving a calf in a snowstorm. That was a portrait of Slim.

I learned to drink at those dances. Brought my six packs of Seagrams Wine Coolers and got just as shitfaced as the rest of them. Harry Nevins (a different Harry) was an infamous dirty old man, and I always steered clear of him. He was eighty, and not all there. Once, on a dare, I climbed the flagpole outside the schoolhouse; but on the way back down, there was Nevins with his creepy hand ready for me, waiting. I warned him. I said, “Don’t make me hurt you, Harry. I will kick you. I will.” He cackled. So I held on tight and swung my legs hard wherever they’d go. Made contact. Broke his nose. The howling of applause and laughter from the crowd was kind of primal and thrilling. That may be one of the only times I ever so clearly stood up for myself. And no hard feelings, but Harry Nevins steered clear of me after that.

One of those hot summer nights, we were driving the three miles home with our windows down, howling at the sky. It was around three in the morning, and my Harry and I were both very drunk and very happy. We were singing at the top of our lungs, “Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys…”. He veered too far to the right, we hit some mud, and in slow motion the whole pickup tipped over until it was upside down in the ditch. As it was happening, I remember we gave it the soundtrack, “Whoooooooooooaaaaaah!” After we landed, there was silence, a beat, and then we continued the song where we’d left off, laughing so hard, hanging from our seat belts. (How was it we thought to wear seat belts? We never did that!) Friends showed up immediately with ashen faces. They thought we were dead. We crawled out of the open window somehow and somebody got us home.

We all hated hunting season. Not because anyone was against hunting, but because of the idiot California “hunters” who had no idea how to behave out here. Once, I was outside with my two-year-old Jesse and a couple of the other children who lived there. Just goofing off, playing hide and seek. A Ford Explorer with California plates came through the ‘town’ (It was seven houses, so, you know…not really a town). A deer had wandered into our front yard. We were trying to be super still, whispering, in awe of our tender visitor. Swear to God, one of the guys in the Explorer opened his window and took aim. Pulled the trigger! Toward our house! If I could have caught up to that car (and believe me I tried) I would have killed him with my bare hands.

There was a winter where we suffered cold that went to 58 below zero (notcounting the wind chill factor). That was when you had to really remember to keep your pickup plugged in or just forget about ever driving it again. I saw a man actually build a fire under his car, to get it started. A pair of high school kids ran out of gas a quarter mile from the station, and lost their lives trying to walk there.

Luckily, we had a wood burning stove; and when the power went out that stove saved our lives. All of our lives. Five families came over to our house, and we all piled in close to the stove and took turns keeping it going. I learned to cook on it. I learned to be in relationship with heat, notice its moods, its preferences, its laws. And that was my way into an almost spiritual relationship with dinner. The house I want to die of old age in will have a wood burning stove.

I learned to sew in Wyoming. It was so far from any form of entertainment that I went and bought myself a sewing machine, read the manual, and made made Harry an enormous bath robe out of rust colored terry cloth. True to form, I had picked the absolute hardest fabric to work with as my first project. And the size of this robe was commensurate with the space Harry took up in my psyche. It thought he was enormous. But the robe was way too big. He graciously wore it anyway.

The sage brush went on for hundred of miles. I would go out in it and sit. Breathe the air and just sit still. Once, a hawk flew a wide, wide circle around me four, five, maybe six times. It felt like a blessing. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe I was near a nest, I don’t know. But for that moment, the natural world and I were one. And I felt seen by something way beyond my little mind, my little words. Something that knew me and held me no matter what.

It would be many decades before I had any idea who I was. But Wyoming was big enough to hold everything I didn’t know about myself. And it was a perfect place to start looking around.


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