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Know the West

Of buffalo thoughts and amethysts


I've grown up and moved away. I live in a city now instead of a little town. My grammar is better, my table manners hardly offend at all and I've been seen at art galleries and concerts. Yet still there are people who patronize me when they find out where I grew up. That was Cody, an austere little town in northwest Wyoming, about 50 miles on a winding two-lane canyon road from the East Gate of Yellowstone Park. The nearest city is 100 miles away. When I was a kid, the lag between when a new movie came out and when it was screened in Cody was about a year. McDonald's didn't invade until I was in college.

Once, by a fluke of truly cosmic proportions, Allen Ginsberg gave a reading in Cody. He wasn't invited back. Even Buffalo Bill, after whom the town is named, preferred to be buried in Colorado.

Growing up, though, I never realized that things were supposed to be better, brighter somewhere with a population of more than 6,000. I was too unsophisticated to realize that a hillside covered with sagebrush and rocks is worthless, and so I made it my playground. Once, turning over rocks looking for fossils, I found a mass of purple quartz crystals and took it home: "Look, Dad - an amethyst!"

Across the street from my house, what should have been a well-groomed city park with play areas scientifically designed to augment cognitive development was a vacant half block bounded on two sides by an irrigation canal. I had a secret bike path past the haunted shack to the neighborhood grocery store, which was dark and cool in the summer. Behind the front counter glowed a huge selection of penny candy that really cost a penny. For 50 cents I could get a comic book and handfuls of gumballs, licorice whips, and jawbreakers.

In November, when the wind was blowing and the sky threatened snow, I'd go out to the very back of the yard where the grass grew long and make a nest down by the ground, underneath the wind. I'd pretend I was a buffalo out on the plains, and I'd watch the sky and think buffalo thoughts about where I should go if it started to snow. And then I'd decide to stay right there in my buffalo nest where the ground still felt a little warm and wind was almost still.

In the summer I hunted fossils in a basin outside of town. One miserably hot July day, when the gnats kept buzzing into my ears looking for shade, I found an opalized baculite - pearly blue and green, with movements of red. I pulled that beauty out of the side of a wash as dry and bleached and ugly as the endless Wyoming plain.

It's easy for people to dismiss my childhood as deprived, isolated, barren. Some places, naturally lush or fertilized into green garden spots, are easy to love, I suppose.

But loving Wyoming? It's like finding an uncut geode: unprepossessing, ugly, perhaps, on the outside. But once you discover its inner nature, you keep it the rest of your life.

Nancy Banks lives and writes in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin.