Last week, the teenagers among our dinner companions started talking about "bling." An older man at the end of the table asked, "What is this bleen stuff?" "No," the kids said, giggling. "You know, bling." Well, no, he didn't know. "Really?" Hilarious laughter; then definitions: "It's like, shiny. Glittery. Sparkly. Jewelry. Like, fancy stuff. Rhinestones. Like belts and chokers and pins and hatbands and stuff." More laughs when the definitions made it clear that these expensive, popular belts and things are for appearance only, and "don't even hold your pants up or your hat down," according to the older guy, new to this vocabulary.
Last winter, I traveled home from Salt Lake City to Cody, Wyo., on the nighttime flight. I had a window seat, and I could see the ground almost all the way along the route. I thought it would be easy to follow the map of lights, dot-to-dot, from Salt Lake City to Evanston, Kemmerer and farther north over little towns and a few familiar ranch outposts until I reached my destination in the Bighorn Basin. Not so.
The once-empty wide-open spaces of Wyoming are filled with lights. The state's floor as I looked from the ceiling of sky is spread with a glittering carpet, clustered in some places and scattered in others. Lights, though, nearly everywhere. Bling.
From above, I could tell that some of Wyoming's lights distinguish oil and gas wells, developments related to the energy boom in the state. Otherwise, highways and interstates are easily visible from the sky -- gaudy strings of rhinestones creeping out across the land. Towns and sparkling subdivisions spill sideways for miles from the center, easy to see with streetlights and flashing-light intersections. Too many lights for less than a million people, in a nation that supposedly has concerns about its energy consumption.
Dozing intermittently, I fantasized that things were upside down, and I could look beneath the plane to find the Milky Way, Orion, the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia. I remembered how those constellations used to show so plainly in our dark night skies, and how dim they seem nowadays.
I thought of recent magazine articles about light pollution and growing energy demands. I recalled my surprise last fall when I looked north from the ranch house window and counted the obscene number of all-night lights in the small patch of our rural valley. Houses, sheds and driveways gleam and glitter, an absolute regurgitation of bling. Looking west, a pale yellow glow reflects from towns like Cody, Lovell and Powell, 50 or 60 miles away, and even beyond, all the way to Billings, Mont.
Recently, I participated in a study group with our county planning and zoning board. As we tried to determine what's appropriate for our area, I read statistics showing that much of Big Horn County's residential growth has occurred outside of incorporated towns or cities. The trend is similar throughout Wyoming. Residents miles outside of towns frequently demand road maintenance, ambulance service, sheriff calls, fire department, school-bus service, domestic water, waste disposal and power-line transmission. They want all the conveniences of town but not the density. Property values change quickly since some of the homes and properties reflect extravagant taste -- a far cry from a farmhouse or a little cafe. Bling in every style and size fills our landscape, cheapening what was once open space and rural culture.
Nighttime country lights used to mean lambing or calving sheds, and lights in the distance might have signaled a destination -- a gas station, maybe refuge for someone out in a storm. Nowadays, the lights are random and everywhere, one more thing we have because we can, even in remote Wyoming valleys.
A modest porch light makes sense, perhaps a motion-triggered security light, the kind you can switch on or off. But I question whether rural residences need outdoor lights blazing all night, and I dislike this intrusion into our countryside. I can't help but think that people who need the security of yard lights and garage lights and 24-hour driveway lighting would be better off inside the city limits where they can see all the lights they want.
It's time to turn off unnecessary lights and quit wasting energy. We might then rediscover a country life that offers privacy and peace in a very slow lane. We might glance up and once more see our dramatic Western night skies. And let's not forget: Sparkly things won't even hold your pants up or your hat down.
Mary Flitner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News