My life in Utah really began in Wyoming. As I’d driven across the country from Vermont westward, I passed through a lot of familiar territory. The densely forested mountains of New England, the flat lakes and streams of the Great Lakes states, and the endless farm fields of the Plains.
I was headed west toward a new kind of adventure: to make a life with a man I’d been dating. I’d moved across the country before, made my home in towns across oceans, spoken foreign languages, and started new jobs. That kind of change I was used to. Cohabitation was a new sort of challenge.
Around 10am on my third day on the road, I crossed the border from Nebraska into Wyoming, and the fog lifted, literally. (I’d been driving through dense fog on I-90 for going on two hours).
Something was different. The green fields had disappeared and given way to browns and oranges, dust and rock. There was space, but also dimension. Jagged patterns zigzagged up cliff sides. Meandering washes ran in opposition to the horizontal power lines marching clear across the land; man trying to make order among chaotic wildness.
I had no prior experience with Wyoming except what I’d read in Gretel Ehrlich’s “The Solace of Open Spaces” in my junior year AP Language class. Even then, 13 years earlier, the landscape had spoken to me. Hazy memories of passages I’d admired as a teenager rose to the surface as I rolled along at 80 miles per hour.
“Wyoming seems to be the doing of a mad architect—tumbled and twisted, ribboned with faded, deathbed colors, thrust up and pulled down as if the place had been startled out of a deep sleep and thrown into a pure light.” – Gretel Ehrlich
These words had imprinted themselves inside of me over the years; the images that they conjured became sacred. Wyoming felt like familiar territory before I ever arrived.
After stopping for gas at a rest stop, a curious urge made me check the deep pocket behind my passenger seat. By something I can only call fate, the book was there, every dog-eared, highlighted, and notated page. I’d loaned it to my boyfriend a year earlier and must have never gotten around to re-shelving it. The fact that it happened to be in my car as I was moving all of my belongings across the country felt like a small miracle.
I sat in the car and thumbed through the slim volume, my eyes landing on passages I’d highlighted simply for the elegance of the prose. I perused descriptions of the Wyoming landscape and confirmed with my own eyes that they were, indeed, exactly as portrayed. I re-read cultural criticisms, contemplating them while looking out onto the biggest blue sky I’d ever seen.
“We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial, but, being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We have only to look at the houses we build to see how we build against space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there.” – Gretel Ehrlich
After a time, I knew I had to get moving. As much as I wanted to sit and read all morning, the gas station parking lot was neither the time nor the place. I had a destination, and a man was waiting for me in Utah that evening.
I made my way across the state, past oil rigs and soaring cliffs and miles of sagebrush. I entered Utah and continued over mountain passes, past pines and reservoirs and open ranch land. This wild west was to be my new home. I wasn’t sure what I’d discover there, but with all of the open space laid out before me, I had an inkling it’d be good.
Photo: Ranch outside of Kamas, Utah.