Wyoming: The last tough place

  • Malcolm Wells

There's a Wyoming hunter I know who lucked out one year. He's a big man, well over six feet, who commands a room without even opening his mouth. He's also a mule man. I've never seen him ride anything else. He likes wild country where grizzlies outnumber men and that's where he likes to hunt with his mules.

This particular year, he had a coveted bighorn sheep license, an opportunity that comes along only once in a lifetime. At sixty-something, he knew he wouldn't ever get another chance to hunt bighorn sheep. His son came along for the ride and to be camp cook. One evening after hunting, he rode down a steep pass toward camp on a new mule. He was just getting used to its quirks. Mules have quirks.

Maybe the saddle slipped or the mule spooked at something, but one moment he was riding and the next he was on the ground getting stomped. He rolled out from beneath the mule, groaned to his feet, clobbered the wretched beast and climbed back on. He hurt. He couldn't get his wind. He rode on to camp, though, mad at himself for letting the mule throw him. He refused dinner and went to bed. Sometime in the night, he woke, sure he was dying. He couldn't breathe. They made a mad ride down off the mountain to a remote lake deep in Yellowstone. A helicopter flew him to a hospital.

The doctors found a punctured lung, busted ribs and a broken collarbone. They told him he was out of commission for the year and could kiss the sheep license goodbye. He was lucky to be alive.

The doctors didn't know the man they were talking to. Instead of recuperating in bed, he exercised; instead of watching television and dreaming about the hunt that never was, he took walks.

One month later, he was on the mountain with his mules and his rifle.

I think about this Wyoming mule man whenever I hear people complaining about the lack of services and jobs in this wild, lonely state. While most of the Rocky Mountain states have boomed in recent years, buoyed by an influx of jobs and newcomers, Wyoming is still Wyoming, the emptiest, loneliest place in the country. If you are the average person in Wyoming, you make less money than the average person in almost any other state.

Wyoming has a doctor-to-resident ratio that ranks well below the national average, approximately 125 physicians to every 100,000 residents. Big airlines shun the state because there are so few customers. Wyoming ranks dead last - 50th among the states - in employment growth. Wages haven't even kept up with inflation. If you live here, it's difficult to stay.

There are those who would change Wyoming, who would make it grow and support a large population. They claim that Wyoming lacks culture and sophistication, so it needs more people to bring the world to us. But Wyoming has "culture," and while it may not be a culture of coffee houses and symphonies, it is a culture of people - 480,000 of them - with strong opinions.

I get frustrated sometimes by the staunch conservatives in this state who hate wolves, yet love industrial development. At the same time, I value them as part of this rugged, out-of-the-way place. I stood toe-to-toe with two men late one night, arguing the virtues of predators, from coyotes to grizzlies. The next morning we were still friends. We just had different opinions.

Those of us who have toughed it out through hard times, making do with less, are a unique lot. Here, you can be served a beer at the local watering hole by a state senator between legislative sessions. It's possible that the man who hammers shoes on your horses' feet might also double as the bank president. You can still pass a personal check in a town on the other side of the state (often without even showing identification), or stop to help someone on a lonely highway.

Former Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan used to call Wyoming a small town with extremely long streets.

There are plenty of places in this country where one can get a taste of that other definition of culture. But there's only one Wyoming. It's worth preserving this place, this kind of culture. You want the other kind of culture? Take a vacation in New York City. Or Denver. Or Salt Lake.

I like the fact that there are no decent commercial airports and damn few trendy malls here. I like the fact that you can walk or ride into the high country or desert for days without seeing anyone else. I like knowing that in those places, man isn't the toughest creature in the woods ... the grizzly fills that role.

Wyoming is truly the last good place left. It shouldn't be easy to live here. If it were easy, anybody could do it.

Tom Reed toughs it out in Lander, Wyoming.

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