Good friends recently sold their home in Wyoming, packed up and moved to Florida. Even though they’d met in Wyoming and married in view of the Wind River Mountains, where they loved to hike and ski, and even though they often spoke of their affection for the West’s open spaces, within months they were gone.
High-altitude living was becoming a health issue, they explained, and besides, Florida’s depressed real estate values made life in a new condo in a beachside community look like an attractive option. Pretty good reasons to move, I had to admit.
But when my friends asked me, “Why don’t you come, too?” my first instinct was to think of excuses why not, however flimsy they might seem to others. After all, my husband and I are also retired and not bound by necessity to Wyoming. Trading the constant needs of a 100-year-old house, outbuildings and acreage for the freedom of something with less upkeep was tempting. Still, I felt like shouting: “I don’t want to leave Wyoming.” Even after a refreshing visit to Florida, my husband and I had to admit that we have no desire to replace mountains with beaches, to trade Western spaces for Eastern amenities.
How did I come to feel so attached to the rural high desert of Wyoming, a place some see only as a wasteland? I wonder if we live where we do because we’ve been shaped by the landscape, or whether the landscape draws us to it. The environmental writer Barry Lopez believes that the West’s geography is a “shaping force.” But Daniel Kemmis, writer and past director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, says that he “has long believed that places select people.”
As a college girl from Oklahoma, working in Yellowstone National Park one summer, I didn’t need shaping -- it was love at first sight. Unlike the Eastern bride I knew who cried in fear when her husband first drove her into the high desert he loved, I felt liberated by landscapes where fences, phone lines, buildings and people were scarce. As Wallace Stegner, the elder statesman of Western literature, put it, in all of this space, Westerners feel “the dignity of rareness.”
it is also true that people chosen by Wyoming need tolerance for the claustrophobia of cabin fever. They need to enjoying doing things that make staying inside on a winter day feel like a gift. They also need to be the kind of people who couldn’t care less about the lack of big shopping malls or gourmet restaurants. Wyoming chooses people who can be satisfied by seeing a play at the local college instead of a Broadway production, who can appreciate the high school band concert in lieu of the opera or symphony. For such people, just an occasional trip to the nearest big city can satisfy the desire for shopping, high culture and fine dining.
If the Spartan lifestyle fits them, whether native or newcomer, these are the people who settle in. Put them in a place without winter and they’d miss winter sports as well as the coziness of reading a good book in front of a crackling fire. Without winter, they’d probably dread mowing the yard nearly year-round. Put them in a city with multiple shopping malls and more than two lanes of traffic, and they’re liable to feel overwhelmed. Wyoming chooses people -- and I’ve long been one of them -- who look at a vast expanse of desert distances and see beauty, not loneliness.
So, no, Florida wouldn’t fit us. Some might blame our reluctance to move on simple inertia, compounded by the daunting prospect of culling through the accumulated stuff of several decades -- plus all that junk in the barn. But the truth is that in spite of short summers, the challenges of spending winters shoveling snow, thawing frozen pipes and chopping wood, this place suits us.
And what are some of the rewards of a life spent close to nature? Golden cottonwood leaves shimmering in the fall, frost sparkling on bare branches on a sunny winter morning, orange and pink skies at sunset, alpenglow transforming the Wind River’s peaks into a painting by Bierstadt, the nearby mountains and public lands open for every kind of outdoor activity.
Forget Florida: For the chosen few, Wyoming is a long-term relationship. In fact, it’s the kind of marriage that lasts until death, and maybe even after.
Marcia Hensley is a contributor toWriters on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is a writer in Wyoming’s Eden Valley
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