Gone to Sheridan, Wyoming in My Mind
My love affair with the American West has spanned more than a decade – roughly one-third of my life – and it started as many torrid affairs do, a combination of disinterest and loathing.
I grew up in New England. My family took vacations to Florida, California and up and down the Eastern seaboard. We liked Mickey and Minnie, Knott’s Berry Farm and Hershey, Pennsylvania. Actually, my mother, brother and I liked those characters and places; my father, on the other hand, liked places where he could hunt, places where wild animal sightings outnumbered human sightings.
It wasn’t terribly shocking, then, when he moved to Sheridan, Wyoming after he and my mom got divorced. With a population just under 16,000, Sheridan is cosmopolitan enough to boast a bustling downtown, regional airport and college, but rural enough that a local park has resident elk and numerous people have to drive into town to buy water.
I had no idea what to expect when I first visited Wyoming in 1999. I pictured horses, dirty cowhands and “Dances with Wolves,” a movie I had hated since my dad made me sit through it in the theater at age 13. Coupled with the fact that my relationship with my dad was a bit spotty at that point in time, I was a bundle of nerves and dread.
Nearly all of those emotions were washed away when I exited the puddle-jumper I’d flown in on from Denver. I walked out on the tarmac and was blown away – first, by the intense heat and then by all the beautiful hills surrounding the airport. The grass on the hills was a greenish-yellow, dried out from the unforgiving sun, and the dirt underneath was a beautiful red, earthy tone.
As we drove from the airport to my dad’s house, located at the end of a dusty, 3-mile dirt road, I simply couldn’t get over how amazing Wyoming was. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, but I wanted to see more of it – all of it. On that trip, and every trip thereafter before my dad moved to Tennessee a few years ago, we spent hours in the car, driving everywhere, seeing what there was to see. We drove through the Big Horn Mountains and got eaten alive by mosquitoes; we dropped by the (now-closed) Waldorf A’Story to check out the grocery selection; we crossed the Montana border and marveled at how small the Little Bighorn Casino was compared to the casinos in Connecticut; we beheld the amazing rock formation that is Devils Tower National Monument; and we discovered exactly how brilliant the Lakota and Cheyenne Indians were who defeated Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
When I look back in my memory bank to that place and time, I find it hard to believe I wrote off a huge chunk of these beautiful United States as boring and unworthy of my interest. There is so much beauty, so much history, so much sky, so much peace and so much quiet not too far west of the Mississippi. (There are also strange and weird things, too, like butt dart competitions and the Cosmos Mystery Area.) I got married a few years ago and while our wedding was not traditional – my husband and I took 17 days off and road-tripped it, getting hitched by ourselves in Vegas – driving through the American West felt so right to both of us. Now we can’t wait to get back. With any luck, Brian and I will have a major bonding session with the Dakotas in just a few months. I’ll be dreaming of buffalo and the Badlands until then.