Freedom and Openness in the American West
A few years ago, Brooklyn-based writer Glynnis MacNicol crossed the United States in a tiny yellow car with a very large dog. On a random pit stop at the oldest dude ranch in the United States, something unexpected happened: She fell in love with Wyoming — with its wide open spaces, with the horses trotting past her cabin at daybreak, with the intensity of being around so few people. In an episode of Fathom's A Way to Go podcast, Glynnis explains to Jeralyn and Pavia how Wyoming gives her the freedom to live by her own rules — happily, and without children or a husband — as she defines the terms of her own odyssey.
Here's an excerpt from MacNicol's memoir, No One Tells You This.
The following afternoon, we crossed into Wyoming. forever West, said the sign.
We’d driven across the Buffalo Gap Grasslands the day before, spent the night in Wall. That morning we’d driven through the Badlands National Park and visited Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, where a woman had asked me if her curly-haired daughter could touch my hair “so she can understand how cool it is.”
The emptiness in Wyoming felt like another language. There were no houses. No hint of them, even. Every five or ten minutes we’d pass a pickup truck coming in the opposite direction, but that was the only evidence we were not alone. Both our phones had lost their signals shortly after we’d crossed the state line. It was a different sort of emptiness than South Dakota: uncivilized emptiness. If something happened to us we’d have to drive hours to reach a hospital or airport. It was as if the vastness of the ocean had rippled into land, undulating away in greens and golds as far as the eye could see. We were now in a place of no options. Even if we wanted to pull over and drop this whole thing, for whatever reason, we couldn’t. It felt practically exotic. How many places was that even possible, after all?
We drove on in silence. Every ten minutes or so one of us would say, “It’s just so empty,” or “It looks like the moon.” Lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” flitted through my head: Through to the badlands of Wyoming. I’d been here once before, in 2008, when I’d driven with two fellow journalists from the Democratic National Convention in Denver to the Republican one in Saint Paul. The news about Sarah Palin had been announced shortly after we’d crossed the state line. I used the fact that Wyoming was both the first state to grant women the vote and to elect a female governor, Nellie Tayloe Ross in 1925, as the lede on a story I later filed.
A half hour later the empty land gave way to rows and rows of abandoned trailer parks. I picked up my phone intending to search “Wyoming and meth,” reminded of the cautionary posters featuring people with rotting teeth that I’d seen at gas stations in Arizona, but I still had no signal.
Mountains appeared on the horizon. Mountains or a storm cloud, I wasn’t sure. No, definitely mountains and possibly a storm cloud. A half hour later we pulled off the interstate into a place called Buffalo. It was quiet and the streets were empty. The large houses, on spacious yards with gracious sweeping trees, had lights on inside. The football stadium attached to the high school announced a rodeo for Saturday. I got that sense you can sometimes get passing through small towns in America, that time had collapsed. As if instead of across the country, we had driven back five or six decades. All it took was a trip into a gas station and a kid behind the counter playing games on his iPhone to dispel this, but from inside the car it was easy to get swept up in the nostalgia. As we drove through the center of town, my phone buzzed. I had a signal again. As we drove through the center of town, my phone buzzed. I had a signal again.
“Look up the place we’re going, before you lose it,” said Jo.
I furiously typed it in. Jo had booked us into a dude ranch for the night, and it was located ahead of us somewhere in the Bighorn Mountains. Behind me Lady growled. I looked up. “Watch out!”
Ahead of us on the road three deer were calmly crossing. Bolts of lightning were illuminating the sky behind the mountains we were headed into.
“It’s a half-hour drive from here. You’re sure they know we’re coming?” I said to Jo, thinking in my head that the little motel we’d just driven past didn’t look half bad.
“I guess we’ll find out.”
This mantra had attached itself to our trip like a slogan since our first day on the road, when we’d plunged into a series of lengthy Pennsylvania tunnels on I-76 with the gas gauge on empty. Jo accelerated as the road began to climb. I looked back down at my phone, hoping that if I zoomed in I’d see there was a road connecting the one we were on with the red pin that marked where we were headed, but it had lost the signal again.
Up we went into the Bighorns, the sky darkening, the flashes of lightning growing brighter, the road sharply curving as we zigzagged higher and higher. Even though I couldn’t get a signal, the GPS on my phone was still working, and I could see our glowing blue dot moving along the map I had open, but it showed no road between us and the location of the ranch in the middle of a great green expanse. Finally, in the dying light, we saw a hand-painted sign directing us to take the next turn. Jo pulled off. We rolled over metal bars I would later learn were guards to keep the cattle from wandering off the property, and the paved road promptly turned to gravel. In the back seat, Lady was rigid and her hackles up. The road, if that’s what you could call it, narrowed and twisted through tall pine trees that blocked out the sky. It started to rain.
On and on we wound, the ground beneath us becoming rockier as we went. The car jolted back and forth as though we were at sea and made alarming scraping noises when the rocks jutted up and caught its belly. Suddenly, the trees parted and a huge shadow rose up ahead of us. I gasped and Jo slammed on the brakes. Lady whined. I leaned forward; we had come face-to-face with an enormous rock face protruding out in the road like a sentinel. We crept around it. The thunder sounded like someone was beating an enormous drum in the distance. On we went. Back out into the open, the lines of the hills were outlined in the lightning flashes. As the road climbed on and on, with no sign of human life, I did begin to wonder whether we’d be spending the night in the car. But finally, after winding up a steep hillside and then twisting back down an even rougher gravel road that took us back into the woods, we spotted lights in the distance. Ten minutes later we drove through a gate, past a paddock of horses, and into a cluster of what appeared to be small houses. From the largest one, closest to us, emanated the muted sounds of music, and I could make out moving figures through the glow of the windows. We stopped. It was pouring out.
Before we’d made up our minds what to do, someone pounded on the window and we both jumped. Lady launched into a series of deep growls. Jo rolled down the window and a thin, angular, grinning cowboy wearing an enormous hat stuck his head in.
“You guys the writers?”
“Welcome! Sit tight, I’ll get someone to show you where to go. Or you can just come straight into the saloon; that’s where everyone is.”
He disappeared back into the dark.
For Your Bedside Table
No One Tells You This, by Glynnis MacNicol
This excerpt was printed with permission from the author.