Wyoming is big. So big you could hike for three hours, as I did today, and not see a single house. Or car. Or paved road. Or person.
So big that it has the lowest number of people per square mile than any other state besides Alaska. (New Jersey has the highest, in case you’re curious.)
So big that things seem to expand from you as you walk toward them, and at the same time are not as far away as they seem.
So big that you can de-clutter your mind, almost instantly, and arrive at truths out of what seemed like complications.
So big you could get lost.
I’m here at Brush Creek, an artist’s residency located west of Laramie, in a wide valley at 7500 feet between the Sierra Madre and Snowy Mountain ranges, with National Forest land all over the place. I’m surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of nothing. Of everything.
The state slogan is “Like No Place on Earth.” Got that right.
This morning I saw a golden eagle, heard the croaking of a hundred bullfrogs, gazed at all the pretty horses, scared away a dozen white-tailed deer, and plucked a tick off my neck. Then I wrote for six hours. Yesterday, I wrote for ten. My fellow artists are kindhearted, immensely talented people, and we chat at mealtimes, but mostly we’re in our studios, dropping into (or sometimes cleverly resisting) the emptiness and richness of the landscape around us, connecting with it and seeing what it gives us. And inspiring one another, without even knowing it. It’s only been four days, but already the landscape is working its magic. While on my hike, I thought of a key element missing from the story I’m working on, the subject of a new story I can’t wait to write, and a way to integrate the ten stories in my collection so that it can read like a novel. It all came easily, clearly. At a coffee shop in Denver, by comparison, it’s a struggle.
So big you can find your muse.
Clearly, there’s something about these kinds of places that appeals to me, but at the same time, drops me into a void of sorts. Suddenly, nothing is familiar (except at a primal level), and anything is possible. But anything isn’t always good. The potential to lose oneself is both exhilarating and terrifying; at a certain extended point the life-urge and death-urge seem almost one and the same. So at the very moment at which it draws me out, I find myself pulling back.
So big you can lose yourself.
How far away my job feels right now! Even though I’m taking time every day to grade final essays, to edit manuscripts, to answer student emails, I still feel a wonderful distance from that role I play, from those kinds of chores. But how far away is my wife, too, and my kids, even though there’s a communal telephone we can use, and internet service so we can email and Skype our loved ones. (And post on Facebook. And watch highlights of the Rockies game. And docu-sign inspection reports for the house we’re buying.) “No happiness unless shared,” Chris McCandless wrote just before he died (he was paraphrasing Tolstoy), and I’m finding that to be true myself. I miss my sweet wife. I miss having breakfast at the coffee shop with my daughter. I miss hugging my son. I miss my best friend, too, whom I haven’t seen in ages. So every time I venture outside my studio, I think, “I wish Cynthia could see that mountain peak” or “Cait would love seeing all those horses” or “Steve would be able to climb up that rock” or “Jim would go for a run right here, on this trail along the creek.”
So big you could feel lonely.
It wasn’t always this way. In my previous “desert places” (Utah in 1998, Patagonia in 1999, the hemlock forest of Pennsylvania in 2000) I was so unhappy with my life that as soon as I found myself there, I felt a great sobbing relief at the beauty of the land, a desperate compulsion to fill my lungs with all that available air. But now, I love my life. Things are good. So while I still enjoy these kinds of places, and seek them out, I don’t need them as much. I can appreciate them for the beauty and the space that they offer, but not cling to them for salvation.
Go big or go home.
That’s what it used to be like for me, anyway. I’d have “home” most of the time (which felt, for much of my life, a little stifling) and then I’d escape to “big”—even back to when I was a kid, when every two years we’d leave our house in Harrison, NY, and go to Italy, where everything (the sea, the volcano, the castles, the love) seemed big. Nowadays, I know that what I really need—or, I should say, want—is not that kind of duality (enduring one for most of the time and then escaping to the other), but a blend of the two. I don’t want to endure and then escape; I want to inhabit. I want the bigness, the open air, and freedom promised by the mountains and deserts and forests, as well as the intimacy, the cradled vulnerability, the security, offered by home and family and friends. I want both. And how fortunate that I live in a place where I can have both! Because one thing you realize when you’re in Wyoming (and not, I’m sorry to say, in New Jersey) is that America is a really big country.
So, I’m going big. And I’m going home.
Because home is big. And big feels like home.
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