Shaded under a cluster of evergreens in the Medicine Bow National Forest, I watch the family of our friend Mark deliver part of him back to Wyoming from where he lived in Missouri, a few months after his death.
About 50 friends and family gathered to witness Mark’s wife and daughter scatter his ashes into a swift and shallow mountain stream. His dust the color of bentonite disappears like fiber powder into the waters of Douglas Creek. Part of
Mark is bound for the Platte River, then will leave Wyoming for the Missouri River, then the Mississippi, then finally, the Gulf of Mexico and the ocean beyond.
During the course of this gathering, I speak to a woman who, like Mark, has lived in Wyoming most of her life. She tells me about an organized bike tour she recently completed and lists a few towns along the route that she had heard of but hadn’t known for sure where they were. Now that she’d been to a certain place and seen it for herself, I assure her, she’d cement its location in her mind. Not so, she said. “Even if I see something on a map I don’t connect it to someplace else I’ve been that is nearby. I don’t have that sort of visual mind. Plus, I’d have to care.”
Perhaps it was the context of the event, but I was astounded to realize that here in this place, where many of us define who we are by where we live, there were probably just as many who can get by just fine without being able to fill in counties on a blank state map. Possibly their experience of place is richer than mine. But for me, it is essential to know the story of how Cokeville, which the bike tour passed, was so named after the coal mining that shaped the history of southwest Wyoming, at least since white settlers arrived. Those white settlers made possible the various immigrant trails through the area, which made necessary military operations such as Ft. Bridger, which stands near the border of Utah, which explains in part the large Mormon population of the area. This Mormon population extends north into the Star Valley but stops just short of decidedly non-Mormon Jackson Hole, which was settled in part by whites who ran around with mountain men like John Colter, who’d been with Lewis and Clark but had stayed on in the west, with the captains’ permission, and stumbled on to an area east of Yellowstone that was full of bubbling mud and egg-stink cauldrons. Some years later Yellowstone so entranced Theodore Roosevelt that he declared it America’s first national park.
And that’s just a bit about western Wyoming, the sort of historical and social storytelling that enticed me to this state 18 years ago. I wanted to know what happened before me, and what would happen next. Desire to learn the story of a place entices tourists with their RVs and their guide books here each summer. These are the folks from what we in the west call “back East” – Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota. They travel in packs like a mule string. They overnight in chain motels with free continental breakfast. They cook U-flip waffles and wonder why construction over mountain passes doesn’t take place in winter, after tourist season is over, the way they do it in sensible places. They talk about “doing” national parks. Over the course of a summer they might “do” Great Smoky National Park, then cut northwest up to Glacier, then wind their way back down to do Mt. Rushmore or over to the Custer Battle Site. Then they’ll do Yellowstone, swing through the Tetons and overnight in Jackson Hole. Last they’ll cut a wide swath through a Wyoming mostly unsanctioned by the Park Service and not stop until they reach Pikes Peak.
There was a time when I scoffed at people who traveled like human pages of a guidebook, flipping from one destination to the next, rarely getting off the main road and out of each other’s way. But at least like my friend whose ashes went into Douglas Creek, they know where the places they visit are, in connection to other places and in connection to themselves. Now I can see myself in those RV travelers. I’m One with tourists toting maps and historical marker checklists. Welcome to the west, visitors, howdy. Stay awhile. If you need a guide, you’ve got plenty. You can start with me.
Julianne Couch is the author of “Jukeboxes & Jackalopes: A Wyoming Bar Journey” and the sequel, “Jukeboxes & Jackalopes: The Photographic Companion.” She ponders history and distance from her home in Laramie.