Critical Mass

On the Road in Laramie

By Jane Ciabattari

Still on the road, my antidote to 2009 so far, I’m driving I-80 from Sonoma County to New York City, stopping when I feel like it overnight, reading whatever strikes me or making a “to read” list as I go. 

Tonight I’m in Laramie, Wyoming. Between Rock Springs and Laramie the Rocky Mountain light is sharp this time of year, the high plains windy, clouds settling in to soften the blazing sun. At Point of Rocks, migratory mineral extraction workers have set up clusters of trailers alongside a billboard for Fireworks World. Here and there are black strands of trucker road kill—-tires shredded by heat and high speed—and carcasses of road stops and filling stations long gone broke. The snow fences seem odd this time of year, evoking the humungous drifts of winter at 7000 feet, and stretches of road where high winds are possible for the next 100 miles. Rawlins, Wyoming boasts a saloon/laundromat and a Grizzly wildlife habitat management center. 

What to read? Owen Wister, whose “The Virginian,” written in 1902, was the prototype for the great American western with the cowboy-hero of few words. The novel is set in Medicine Bow, near Laramie. (A free download via Project Gutenberg here.)

And of course 1993 NBCC fiction finalist Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories—“Close Range” (1999), the collection with her remarkable love story “Brokeback Mountain,” “Bad Dirt” (2004), and “Fine Just the Way It Is” (2008), due out in paperback shortly. Lowered expectations are part of the landscape in these stories. Driving through the “hammered red landscape of Wyoming,” Iraqi war veteran Dakotah Lister thinks, “Every ranch…had lost a boy—boys smiling, sure in their risks, healthy, tipped out of the current of life by liquor and acceleration, rodeo smashups, bad horses, deep irrigation ditches, high trestles, tractor rollovers and ‘unloaded’ guns. Her boy, too…The trip along this road was a roll call of grief.”

And finally, I’m reminded of spending time last summer in the Catskills at The Orchard Project, watching a collaborative work in progress by the innovative Tectonic Theatre Project. Their Laramie Project, based on interviews with some 200 Laramie townspeople, is a chronicle of the life of the town of Laramie in the year after the murder of Matthew Shepard. It is one of the most performed plays in America today, and the basis for an award-winning HBO film.