This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Tamara Linse discusses her home state of Wyoming.
The Square State
by Tamara Linse
One of Wyoming’s politicians once said that Wyoming is a small town with very long streets, and that is certainly true on many levels. It has such a small population—just over 500,000—and no town larger than 60,000.
We are rural. The state is made up of a few spots of beautiful mountains separated by very long distances comprised of boring sagebrush flats. We joke that that’s why Wyoming has the smallest population of any state—the interstate goes through the most god-awful parts, and people driving through think, who would live here? I actually think it’s quite beautiful even there, but I would, wouldn’t I, being a native? And the weather. It’s high plains desert, mostly, so it’s cold winters, dry hot summers, and lots of wind. Oh, the wind.
It’s small-town friendly. When you drive down any road that’s not an interstate, you’ll often get the finger-off-the-steering-wheel wave. If you are broken down beside the side of the road, someone will stop for you. Even back when I was a single young woman, I’d stop for people—though I would be cautious about stopping for a man by himself if I was in a part of the state I hadn’t been before. But even then I didn’t much worry. Wyoming is very safe, and doors are most often unlocked, and purses are left on car seats with the windows rolled down.
The steering wheel finger wave is symbolic of the way Wyoming people are. Understated and stoic and laconic, with a dry sense of humor. One popular joke goes like this: Wyoming—where the men are men and the women are too. Or another: Wyoming—where the men are men and the sheep are nervous.
They’re understated in a lot that they do. Another joke goes like this: A rich man from the East who’d just bought a ranch advertised for a cowboy to work for him. In came a brand-new duely pickup with a guy looking the part—a shiny black cowboy hat and new jeans tucked into his boots. The guy hired him on the spot. The guy turned out to not know a thing about ranching, so he had to be fired. Again the owner advertised and again he got a spiffy-looking guy. Again, the guy didn’t know what he was doing. The third time around, a guy came up in an old beater truck and hopped out wearing carhart coveralls, old tennis shoes, and a sweat-stained ball cap. “What are you doing here?” the owner asked. “I was looking for a cowboy.” The guy took off his cap, scratched his head, and said, “What does a cowboy look like?” The owner described the first two guys. The guy nodded his head and said, “Oh, well, if you wanted a trucker, you should have said so.”
This is typical. A lot of residents are suspicious of appearances. People regularly attend formal occasions in new clean jeans and a dress shirt, sometimes with a bolo tie added. Part of the reason for this is that there isn’t much money in the state. Sure, there are roughneck and mining jobs, but that’s about it. A lot of people are barely getting by working two or three service jobs, but you can make it comfortably as a teacher or in a government job, which can be rare. It’s hard though. So people put a lot less emphasis on money.
The story about the ball-cap points up something else—a ball cap, carhart overalls, and tennis shoes are practical for much of what a rancher does, and people from Wyoming tend to be very practical, whether or not they have much money. You’ve got to figure out how to get things done on less. I’ve interviewed people who grew up in Wyoming and are now in the foreign service or high up in the military or world-renowned heart surgeons, and they all point to their Wyoming upbringing as uniquely preparing them for what they do. You figure out what the problem is and you fix it.
Example from my life. When I was 18 and coming down to college—from the northern part of the state to the southern part of the state, which is 400 miles—I had an old hatchback car that had a short in the dome light. I was so tired, I stopped at a truck pull-out on Interstate 80 at 2 in the morning and slept. When I woke up, trucks rumbling around me as their drivers slept, my car would not start because the battery was dead. I did not want to knock on truckers doors at 3 a.m., and so I thought for a bit. Luckily, I was driving a stick shift and I was parked on an incline. Unfortunately, it was backwards. So I waited until no cars were coming for miles, I got the car rolling backwards, I jumped in and let the momentum carry me back and then around, so I was headed the wrong way down the interstate. Then I let it roll forward, put it in gear, popped the clutch, and then it started. I flipped a quick u-turn and I was on my way. A practical solution to a sticky problem.
Another thing about this story. Wyoming people tend to be self-reliant. They never shook that pioneer ethic of doing for yourself because you had to. You change your own tires and you don’t ask for help unless you really really need it.
Live and let live pretty much sums things up. I’ll do what I want to do on my property and you do what you want on yours. That’s why the impression that Wyoming is homophobic is wrong (originating from the sad murder of Matthew Shepard). People generally don’t care what you do, as long as you don’t make it their business. Throughout its history, people have been much more likely to be hanged or give offense for property crimes than for moral ones. I would extend that to race as well. I’m sure we have bigots and homophobes like the rest of the population, but generally that’s not the case. Hence, the joke about the sheep.
I’ve made this sound pretty homey, but there’s a dark side to all this independence. First of all, people are fanatically conservative and antigovernment, sometimes at the expense of their own best interests. The Republican Party can count on the Wyoming vote, with only Albany County (Laramie, where the state’s only university resides) and Teton County (Jackson, where the rich come in from around the country) the only counties whose majority voted for President Obama in the last election. But votes are sometimes less about towing the party line as voting to keep perceived rights and about keeping the federal government out of people’s business. There’s a lot of people who are rabid about gun-rights because there are a lot of hunters in Wyoming. I mean, we have drive-thru bars/liquor stores. (Full disclosure: I am Democrat and liberal.)
Square is more than the shape of the state.
Another dark side is the gender gap. Wyoming has the largest wage gap in the nation, with women earning 64 cents to every dollar a man earns, on average. This is emblematic of a larger patriarchal bent, and it’s not just the men. I know a lot of women who try to be men. They wear men’s clothes, they value themselves on what they accomplish, they have all men friends and no women friends, they often hunt and drink beer and watch football, and they hate themselves. Anything female is thought to be weak and frivolous and not worth a hill of beans. Strength is valued above all.
Not having much else, Wyoming is pretty wedded to its cowboy past, even though trailer parks and rough necks might be closer to the truth nowadays. Our university sports teams are the Cowboys and Cowgirls, and Cowboy Ethics, based on a book by James P. Owen (http://www.amazon.com/Cowboy-Ethics-What-Street-Learn/dp/1931153957), have swept the state. The idealist in me chokes up at videos like The Code of the West (http://vimeo.com/7931683), which portrays all that is good in that ideal of the cowboy, but then the cynic in me knows that the West was settled on the principle of Might Makes Right, as evidenced by the Johnson County War and the Indian “Wars.” As a female raised on a ranch, I’ve always had a double consciousness about it all, like a naturalized prisoner-of-war—because I was that cowboy on the ranch yet never felt a part of it. (I say “cowboy” because the term “cowgirl”—pronounced cuh-gerl—in that context is often used derogatorily, like tourist—pronounced toor-eest.)
And some outsiders who have come to Wyoming have found it to be closed-minded and cliquish. Sure, people are friendly but distant, and if you weren’t born here, you’re never considered native. A good example is the book by James Galvin called The Meadow (which was actually set just south into Colorado). It gives a picture of harsh weather but a comforting feeling of close-knit independent people. After reading the book, some people have come to this part of the world looking for that welcoming, only to be told in no uncertain terms to get the hell off the property. This isn’t everyone’s experience, though.
People drink a lot in Wyoming, and meth and huffing have become quite a problem. We have pockets of dire poverty, such as the Wind River Reservation, where there is a lot of violence and rape and other things. I have friends in Wyoming who weren’t from the Res but still were surprised they survived childhood. We have our problems, just like everywhere.
The State ran an ad campaign a while back with the slogan: Wyoming Is What America Was. That brings to mind some glorious ideals, but as we all know there were parts of America that weren’t so grand in those halcyon days. I am proud to be from the state and it sets me apart when I go on trips and to writers’ conferences, but the feeling is not without ambivalence.
If you want to know what it’s like, read James Galvin’s The Meadow. Read Alyson Hagy’s Ghosts of Wyoming. Read Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories (but know that it’s not often that dark). Read Mark Spragg’s Where Rivers Change Direction. Read Gretel Erlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces. Read Craig Johnson and C.J. Box mysteries.
And come visit.
Tamara Linse lives in Wyoming, where she writes short stories and novels. To support her writing habit, she also edits, freelances, and occasionally teaches. The novel she’s working on is about love, death, and socks. Well, not socks exactly. She can be found at www.tamaralinse.com.