True portentousness on a Wyoming highway

  • Highway

    Wyoming Highway Department
  • Gas pump

    Dale Schicketanz

A few months back I was heading along U.S. 30 east of Kemmerer. It was one of those amazing Wyoming spring evenings, a panorama of sky, sage and sun which encompassed me totally, so totally that it took me a few moments to realize I had pulled off the highway and was standing in a field.

The air was so clear that I could see the profile of sagebrush 100 miles away. It was like being in the middle of some funky laser etching, but there wasn't any high-tech jazz going on; this was real.

I regained the highway in an introspective mood. For me, introspection usually consists of "that was cool," but this evening was different. Maybe it was because I was on the last leg of a long trip, with home just over the horizon, or maybe that last can of chili warmed on the manifold was getting to me.

A few miles later, I stopped at Granger to watch the parade of Union Pacific freight trains. A line of storms was replacing the last traces of dusk, so that the trains moved not through a void, but rather across a stage. The far mutterings of the storm front would slowly concede to the roar of steel, while the approaching headlights seemed to grow and gobble up the world, at least until the next flash of lightning reminded me how truly tiny those big trains were.

By the time I got to Little America, I was ready to celebrate, but what I wasn't sure yet. I just knew I needed a big old truck-stop banana split and some coffee before heading back out into the blackness to find a camping spot.

It was dark out there. Once out of sight of I-80, the only lights besides my headlights were blasts of purple from the rapidly nearing storms.

Bunny rabbits, coyotes and dust devils blew across my vision, adding to the weirdness, significance, profundity, or whatever was happening. Suddenly I crested a rise and was again transfixed.

Reflected in an amazingly still lake was the imposing bulk of a soda ash plant. Gay plumes of steam billowed in the glow of sodium vapor, while the storm front added its light to the proceedings. Up until this moment, I had never imagined that a soda ash plant could be beautiful, but here it was.

If you think this all too strange, imagine how I felt, alone in the Wyoming boonies. There I was, having a Portentous Moment. I thought one needed illicit substances and a magic bus for true portentousness. The effects of that afternoon and evening have lingered. Of course, I remember the fantastic light show. But I also wonder if I "saw" something else.

Maybe I saw the real West. Sure, the panorama east of Kemmerer approaches the wild West archetype outdoor writers ramble about. But what about the trains, the truck stop in the middle of nowhere, and the ash plant? To me, those scenes were no less incredible than other, "pure" vistas.

Many would attack the idea that a truck stop is part of the true West, but I wouldn't want to denigrate the waitress from Lyman who served me my sugar and caffeine. I wouldn't want to tell the sons and grandsons of railroad men that their employer is a blot on the landscape. And I wouldn't want to be within 100 miles of a dirty, tired ash plant worker accused of aiding and abetting pillage of the land.

I can't understand people who only see the West through the keyhole of their own self-interests. Be it the plunderous money-grubbing of Louisiana-Pacific or the righteous moralizing of those who would turn the entire region into an ecotourism park, both perspectives ignore the reality of the West. It's not parts. It's the whole damned thing. It's trains and coal and coyotes and snow and rock and wheat and guns and pot and steel and beef. It's lying on a bed of pine needles admiring the Milky Way, but it's also getting up at 4:30 a.m. to fire up a chainsaw at 10í below.

Is either use of the woods more valuable? More moral? Which is to be second to the other?

Those who would advance their agenda by sacrificing another's don't understand what makes the West special. This is the last place on earth where there really is a time and a place for everything, where, if we can't co-exist, we can at least live parallel lives and chase parallel dreams.

I saw an unedited version of the West that evening, and I realize now that I would only have cut down on the total experience had I edited reality to fit my view of a perfect evening in Wyoming.

Maybe that's what's wrong these days. Everyone is trying to shape reality to fit their Utopia, to edit the West into a fairy tale. But all of us are in the unedited version, and it's the best story around. I know one thing: I like being in the book and nobody can edit me out.

Dave Skinner, who writes in Whitefish, Montana, says, "I'm an Old Westerner and fully intend to stay that way."

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