I really don’t understand the rush to return to the moon when you can easily visit a more more convenient alien world. Russia’s spacecraft crashed on the lunar surface last week a few days before India successfully landed on the satellite’s south pole.
I’m referring to the American West. My belief that places like the Grand Canyon, Arches National Park, Joshua Tree and the Badlands are just as bizarre and exotic as the far side of the moon or the rings of Saturn was reinforced last week after several days in Wyoming visiting my brother and sister-in-law on their ranch in, well, kind of the middle of nowhere.
While still a teenager I realized that I’m often happiest in nature, the more remote the better. I doubt I’d want to live in eastern Wyoming full time. But if awe is your thing – lately I’ve been hearing that awe is as critical to our wellbeing as love and contentment – than an easy way to access the experience is to retreat somewhere vast and spectacular.
The goal, at least one of them, is to place yourself in a larger context. To see the world and the universe beyond as it actually is, free of the noise and drama of human interference. I should probably also mention that it helps to confront the bleakness, beauty and the affectionate indifference of nature if you’re supplied with amenities.
I suppose that’s what camping’s all about. Even better is a guesthouse equipped with hot showers, comfortable beds with flannel sheets, good books, art, a refrigerator and a porch swing that looks out over the sagebrush hills of the huge, sparsely populated Centennial Valley. I still don’t fully understand how my brother and sister-in-law found their way there but after spending five days last week and this I understand why.
It would be hard to find fresher air or higher quality silence. The main source of sound is the wind jostling the golden leaves of the aspen trees behind the house, the rasp of crickets, and the buzz of honeybees and hummingbirds sipping from the hollyhocks that border the porch. If your idea of heaven is the opportunity to read good books without interruption it would be a challenge to find a more hospitable landscape.
And what makes it so hospitable is its inhospitality. That’s also why people seem to be so friendly. They’re under no illusion that someone or something is going to drop from the sky and entertain them. By early morning the summer sun is unforgiving. Cowboy hats don’t seem a contrivance, even in the 21st century, but a logical wardrobe choice when there’s little or no shade.
We flew into Denver, rented a car and drove three hours north, stopping in Laramie for lunch. I’m indebted to my wife for dissuading me from buying a cowboy hat – the saying “all hat and no cattle” would seem to apply to me. I compromised by purchasing a shot glass decorated with the Wyoming logo, a cowboy riding Steamboat, the bucking bronco. I also bought a bright yellow University of Wyoming t-shirt. If I got lost in the high desert I’d be easier to spot from the air.
The best tacos I ever had was decades ago at a roadside shack outside the state penitentiary in Florence, Arizona. I was working on a story, not doing time. Perhaps the parched setting, the desert populated with tall saguaro cactus, had something to do with it. If a prisoner considered escape they’d have nowhere to go. But the spicy beef tenderloin cowboy tacos with pico de gallo, pepperjack cheese, and poblano sauce at Altitude Chophouse and Brewery in dusty downtown Laramie (I’m not sure if there is an uptown) came in a close second.
If the landscape, while beautiful in its vastness, wasn’t desolate enough 2020’s Mullen Fire burned 177,000 acres in Medicine Bow National Forest, stopping a thousand feet from my brother’s house. I didn’t appreciate the significance when a merchant I spoke with in Laramie exulted about how green the landscape is this summer – it wasn’t green at all by East Coast/Hudson Valley standards – until I realized that wildfires, fueled by climate change, constitute a continuous existential threat. Rain – there were several afternoon storms with accompanying rainbows during our visit – is a godsend.
We took a few day trips – to the Snowy Range Mountains with its glacial lakes and snow-covered 12,000 foot peaks, and to University of Wyoming’s Infrared Observatory chosen for the dark night sky and the dryness of the air – but the best times we had was coming home, finding shade, and doing nothing at all. It was roughly equivalent to that highly underrated experience of removing stiff ski boots at the end of a strenuous day on the slopes.
Occasionally a UTV – one of the nearby ranches’ utility terrain vehicles — would rumble past on the dirt road in the distance. They were on their way to attend to large cattle herds that got all but lost in the grandeur of the landscape. But there were few airplanes in the sky. That added to the serenity. Even transcontinental jets seemed to circumvent the region on the way to the coasts.
There are certain places on Earth whose majesty possesses a spiritual quality. Stonehenge is one of them. Visit and it’s self-evident why that prehistoric monument was placed where it was. Wyoming’s Centennial Valley is another. It might not possess the pizzazz of Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons in the northern corner of the state but it’s still sufficiently undiscovered seclusion is part of what makes it so special.