Cowboy State

wyoming highway winterJust as they came to the end of the cutoff, a monster they had not known was gaining on them caught up, a tractor-trailer like the one they’d met earlier. A loud, decelerative, machine-gun popping was the only startling indication of its approach. The speeds of the larger and smaller must have nearly matched because the impact was gentle—more a push than a crash. They hung, suspended, between the contact and its consequences. The Chevette was thrust across the T, off the road—Jamie bellowed something, a cry of protestation—into a great pillow of snow, where it stuck, partially buried.

The rig turned south and went on its way. The whole incident took no more than a few seconds and concluded with the subsiding roar of the diesel engine. Then, they were alone again.

A harrowing road trip across the wintry plains of Wyoming has lasting consequences for best friends whose lives drastically diverge in the weekend’s troubled wake. Set in Wyoming in the post-Watergate era of second-wave feminism and spanning four subsequent decades, Cowboy State is about two remarkable, very different women and their complicated relationship; about family deceptions, and the natural and cultural forces that shape our lives.

Cowboy State is unpublished; I am seeking representation.

Excerpt from Chapter 1 (1976)

If they’d known how bad it was going to get, they might have turned around. The signs were there, but they didn’t care. They were having a good time. They were immortal.

Not twenty-five miles out, when they were still passing the seventy-thousand-acre Benedict Ranch, the first flurries appeared in an ashen sky. Bo Hendrickson and her best friend, Greer McAlister, were seventeen; Greer’s brother, Jamie, just fifteen. They should have started off hours ago but hadn’t, out of inexperience and a distorted sense of capacious time. An entire weekend lay ahead: road trip to Laramie without adult interference, motel room to themselves, and the most indeterminate of agendas. Forget about winning the state basketball championship; Carey High hadn’t made it beyond quarterfinals. A drag, but there remained the undefeated possibility of crashing a kegger or two tonight. They would spend tomorrow at the University of Wyoming field house, taking part in the intrigues, scandals and rites of passage that, according to upperclassmen, would predictably play out in the bleachers and at the parties. Sunday, they’d sleep in and drive the two-and-a-half hours back home.

Earlier, they’d frittered away the better part of the day in no hurry to pack, gas up or initiate any purposeful activity whatsoever, even though Bo’s dad, Warren (whom she called Warren, not Dad) had phoned to express concern about the forecast. She’d reassured him—We’re leaving before noon, don’t worry—without a twinge of conscience. She saw no reason to alarm her trusting parents. Three teenagers on their first unchaperoned adventure could not be bound by promises or expected to make or adhere to plans.

Last night, they’d gorged on Jiffy Pop, critiqued a marathon of Bonanza reruns, and fallen asleep strewn across the thick, shag carpet in the McAlisters’ basement family room. This morning, with the adults both off to work, they’d had the house to themselves. They listened to LPs while Greer made Denver sandwiches: eggs, peppers and onions on toast with ketchup, Bo’s favorite. Jamie then entertained the girls with his new trick, vaulting onto Diablo directly from the ground, no pail required—he’d grown that much in a year—and staying astride, bareback, all around the pasture at a brisk canter, rider, horse and spectators hollering forth clouds in a reverberant midday chill. He was a competent equestrian—had been since the fourth grade—and now, with those long limbs and a graceful bearing, he was especially agreeable to watch.

Yeeha! Bo had effused, irony masking genuine delight. Giddyup, Hoss! At some point in their Bonanza saturation, they’d assumed appropriate aliases. Female characters on the show were limited to saloon owners, swindlers, mothers, schoolmarms, damsels in distress and hookers with hearts of gold, so Bo—for whom none of the above roles was acceptable—had wrangled with Jamie over who got to be Little Joe. She’d won by personifying magnetically rugged without coming across as cocky, which he’d been unable to successfully execute. Besides, Hoss (true fans of the Ponderosa knew) supposedly meant something like “big in stature and spirit,” which Jamie said he didn’t mind. Without consulting Greer, they’d cast her as Ben Cartwright’s thoughtful, eldest son, Adam, which suited her perfectly.

“Mighty nice riding,” Little Joe commended Hoss. He modestly shuffled his boots and murmured what sounded like Shucks, which Bo deemed out of character given the pretense, so she spat in the dust to remind him she was no little lady. Later, while Greer packed and Jamie washed up, Bo scrounged for snacks in the pantry, intrigued as always by things other families stock and eat. Finding Triscuits instead of saltines, pickled tomatoes instead of pickled cucumbers, and olive-pimento cheese, she put all three into a sack and stowed it—along with a striped turtleneck (on loan from Greer) and a flour sack dish towel, grabbed from a kitchen drawer—in the hatch of her turquoise Chevette, because you never know.

At last, they’d been ready. Greer had called shotgun, and her brother accepted the cramped back without sulking. They’d made it all the way to Bitterroot Crossing before it hit Greer that she’d forgotten to feed old Bart—not that he’d have starved, but it was her assigned chore, and she was conscientious to a fault. Back they went. It was nearly four. With March sunsets still impending on the early side of evening, night was sure to accompany them part of the way now, but this was of no importance because Bo was at the wheel, Dan McCafferty was wailing—Ooh, love hurts!— and they were finally on their way.

* * *

Tucking a thick curl of cropped brunette hair behind one ear, Greer hummed along with the music, erupting into lyrics at the apex of the third verse: I know it isn’t true! I know it isn’t true! Around them, land spread in swells, the nearest horizon about six miles to the northeast where the low mountain sloped gently skyward, darkly stippled with timber.

At the Shirley Basin cutoff, there arose a dispute. Bo pulled to the side of the road. Wind rocked the car as they sat. She was disposed to stay on the old highway, 487, since the cutoff would add distance, but Greer—acquainted with the options, as this was the road to her grandparents’ house—insisted that Bo’s proposed shorter route would, in fact, take longer. The asphalt was known to be in poor repair and the elevation made travel on it in winter a gamble. The longer, so-called Shirley Basin alternative crested just as high, but that road was wider and in better shape. While one might encounter black ice and disorienting spindrift on either, avoiding the known cracks and crumbling shoulders of 487 was common sense, or so went Greer’s argument.

“I’d like to point out that this is my car and I’m the driver, so I get to make the decisions, but that might sound obnoxious,” complained Bo, whose pretty, Scandinavian features and compact frame belied a strong-willed, complicated and disorderly self.

“Or churlish,” submitted Jamie. He owned a Word-of-the-Day desktop calendar and was not afraid to use it, expanding his lexicon upon waking and deploying it thereafter at every opportunity. “Maybe you should just think it.”

Rebellious against what had been a conventional, uneventful and temperately Lutheran upbringing, Bo could be impetuous. Greer, more cautious, was also more persuasive. “This isn’t a debate—” she began.

“That’s the truth!” Jamie had recently joined the CHS debate team, a fact about himself that nobody was allowed to forget. “More of a power struggle, I’d call it.”

His sister disregarded him. To Bo, she commanded, “It’s coming down hard now. Just turn left.”

“So bossy,” Bo said, but she turned. Eddies of fine, white powder whirled over the surface of the highway as the Chevette ascended to seven thousand feet, then curved gently southward, in the direction of the entrance to the uranium mining operation. “Didn’t we come here on a field trip once in sixth grade?”

“There was a ginormous excavation,” remembered Greer. “Ramps of circles cut like terraces with big trucks going in and down, up and out, and all those tiny men in hardhats.”

“Just how tiny do you mean?” came from the back seat.

“Far away. Down in the crater. I don’t know what their actual size was. Most likely, they were normal, man-sized men, up close.”

“But, what if they weren’t?” Jamie took pleasure in absurd speculation, which could be fun or annoying. “What if the whole thing was, like, three feet across, and you just thought it was ginormous?”

For a while, Greer lazily entertained an image of Lilliputian miners and optical illusions.

“Uranium,” Jamie quizzed at length.

“U,” she replied without thinking, as they’d played the game forever. “Atomic number 92. The only naturally-occurring fissile isotope.” Elements, rocks and minerals were how she best understood the world. Even before she’d learned to read, back when Granddad—the eminent geologist John “Mac” McAlister—had pulled samples, one at a time, from the steamer trunk in his garage, she could identify geodes, quartz, turquoise, malachite and azurite, pumice, shale, obsidian. In his trademark, gravelly burr that brought to mind trees bending in a storm, waves on a beach, boulders clattering down a couloir, Granddad had told her about the universe, insisting she grasp how the bits of it she held in her hand were expressions of its origins. On family vacations her father, Jim, also a geologist, often stopped the car at road cuts to point out layers, explaining how to read them. Greer associated stratigraphy with unselfconscious absorption, familial warmth and a sense of belonging. Her brothers had never been similarly stirred, the elder preferring throwing to all other rock-related activities; the younger, hunting for arrowheads, knapping flint and learning to make sparks for fire.

She gazed out at the passing world. Clumped beneath old snow and dusted with new, a blur of Western wheatgrass, squirreltail bottlebrush, sand dropseed and sage flew by, growing increasingly ill-defined, the limits of visibility confused by a sky that faded, dreamlike, into plains in all directions.

“Can we listen to something else?” asked Bo. “What you got back there?” Jamie was curating the shoebox of eight-track tapes. Three Dog Night. Jim Croce. Lynyrd Skynyrd. He pulled out a worn cartridge and passed it to Greer’s waiting hand.

“Just put it in. Don’t look at it.”

Objections from the front-seaters were truncated by a jolt to the right as Bo—crying Critter!—swerved. This was an in-joke. Jamie was known to juxtapose, against his cultivated eloquence, droll colloquialisms for effect. Just as they had started across the steppe, he’d remarked, in otherwise standard English, that the probability of making it from one Wyoming town to another without flattening a critter was nearly zero. He had bet Bo a buck she couldn’t do it. Now, he handed it forward, pressing it into her upper back until she reached for it.

“What’s this? We’re not even halfway.”

“You win. Don’t veer like that again.”

Bo wadded the bill and tossed it over her shoulder. Greer loaded the cartridge. In the absence of censorious peers, she and Bo allowed themselves to twang at the top of their lungs along with the youngest McAlister who, it turned out, knew not only the words to Good Hearted Woman, but also to Honky Tonk Heroes, You Mean to Say, and Suspicious Minds.

* * *

 Jamie’s mind wandered until a wild squall buffeted them—Jesus! shouted Bo—and he suddenly appreciated their circumstances. It must have been snowing and blowing out here for hours. Tongues of snow licked across their lane. What might be an eighteen-wheeler could be discerned, approaching from a half mile away, topping one of two rolling hills up ahead. Other than this, they hadn’t encountered a soul in ages. The truck disappeared into a dip then rose back into sight, closer, stirring up a dense billow through which they would imminently pass.

A boy who, far more than most, appreciated language—its shapes, sounds and nuances, as well as the ends it could accomplish—he drew a line at blasphemy. “Tsk, Bodil!” he admonished, making her name sound redneck: Boodle. This was not the first time her swearing had earned his disapproval and would not be the last. “Lord’s name and all.”

“So,” she clarified, “The Almighty is up there, documenting my verbal offenses.” Bo slowed the car. Flakes thickly bombarded them. “He’s got nothing better to do. War, rape, cancer, drug addiction—”

“It’s not respectful.”

“—all kinds of—of—”

“Mayhem?” Jamie supplied.

“Mayhem! But in your mind, he gets his britches in a twist about inconsiderable me, way out here in a snowstorm, saying his name aloud for the wrong reason. That’s what ticks him off. Have I got that right?”

“It’s Jamie’s mortal britches that are in a twist,” pointed out Greer, who claimed to be a Christian but didn’t seem to take it that seriously. “He wants you to know that he doesn’t appreciate how you talk sometimes.”

“That’s too damned bad.”

“I regret,” said Jamie unregretfully, “that you took offense at my taking offense.”

“Don’t do that,” admonished his sister. “If you’re going be judgmental—and you are—then own it.”

The big rig passed, its turbulence effecting a hair-raising lurch. In the blinding, claustrophobic white wake they might have been flying or heading over an embankment. The road had no shoulder. While in most places going off it would normally mean no more than a hard bump, in this weather a hidden trough could pull the tires in and the car with it, making extrication difficult.

“Why don’t I drive?” he suggested with a nonchalance he couldn’t pull off. Ignoring the offer, Bo noted instead that her defroster was worthless and the wipers weren’t working—they were encrusted with ice and made a hollow sound, thumping and rasping against but not clearing the glass. Before Jamie could ask, pointlessly, When was the last time you got new blades? she directed him to locate the scraper. Conditions had rapidly changed, as if precipitated from worsening to terrible by the truck. The storm was now all fine, pummeling grit and brutal force, scouring the surface of what appeared to be more than a foot of previous accumulation in places, generating a ground blizzard. “Right, well, then you should—what are you doing?”

Bo had slowed the car to a near-crawl and cranked down the driver’s side window. Reaching out, she groped at the windshield with an unprotected hand, trying to reach the base of the wiper to shake it. Frigid air filled the cabin. Her effort was futile, and she sealed them in again. Jamie vaulted forward, interposing his upper torso between Bo and Greer, his eyes fastened to the worrying scene in front of them: a rapidly-diminishing view, a haze of infinitesimal crystals, circulating obscurity. “Sure hope nobody’s coming up back of us.”

“Oh, thank you. I forgot to hope that,” answered Bo.

“Here.” He’d finally found the scraper on the floor under the passenger seat and handed it up. Bo now wanted gloves.

“Wear mine,” Greer said, but was unalible to locate them. Jamie didn’t have a pair, either. Insults and accusations were followed by grudging mea culpas and agreements—how cavalierly they had dressed and packed; how ill-prepared they were, how stupid—then quieted to collaborative focus.

“Help me steer,” Bo ordered Greer. Jamie reached out, but his sister blocked him, skewing herself left so she could better grip. He remained looming in able-bodied readiness to serve or better yet, to take charge. Bo was able to stretch farther outside this time, steadying herself with her right hand on the wheel. Together, she and her co-pilot maintained a steady course. For nearly a minute as they continued to roll forward, Bo dislodged ice from the driver’s side wiper. Ducking back inside, she rolled up the window.

“Bad idea.” Now resembling a thawing chicken, she could scarcely form words through shudders. Her pixie had matted to a frozen cap that rapidly melted. Water ran in rivulets down the back of her seat. Jamie reached out a finger and caught a drip.

“I can take over, if you’re tired,” he offered again. He’d just got his learner’s permit a month ago. He would be careful and responsible but, like most people, Bo was adamant about her competence as a driver, and the more he persisted, insensible to her sovereignty, the less she seemed inclined to yield. She said nothing, but emitted a nasal huff.

“I’ve never been in an accident,” he pressed.

“Except for that one time you ran over Z with the Dodge,” Greer reminded him.

“That wasn’t an accident.”

At this Bo, who, it was no secret, didn’t much like the oldest McAlister—Eric, a.k.a. Zipper, a.k.a. Z—chortled. Uncomfortable at having been misunderstood, Jamie snipped the words of an oft-repeated defense: “He deliberately ran in front of me. Hey, you can’t stop.”

But, she had, in the middle of their lane, and shut off the ignition, popping the hatch lid.

“Getting something.” When she left, wrestling with the door, a mighty blast of arctic air assailed them. Greer sat stiffly, looking forward, no doubt anxious but unreadable. Jamie closed his eyes. Next, the hatch should have opened, but didn’t, and nor did Bo return.

Greer flipped her handle but the passenger side was stuck, fixed in place by ice. Jamie pushed the driver’s seat over itself and contorted his way out. As with Bo, the door was wrenched from his grip, flying open, straining the hinges. Closing it was impossible, until the wind did it for him with an abrupt reversal of direction. He wriggled his digits, all of which, miraculously, he still possessed. He fell, his legs slipping partway beneath the chassis, then almost rose but slid off his feet again. Bo was clean across the road, clawing her way out of a drift where, having been propelled across the slick pavement into a ditch, she’d come to rest. Blown backwards again and again, she yowled.

Jamie’s precious cowboy boots—brand new two months ago, practically never removed since then: two-tone, goatskin, leather soles, subtle quarter stitching, Cuban heels, high shaft, snip toes, and already well on their way to perfectly softened, creased and scuffed—provided no traction. He couldn’t stand, but continued to try, arms flapping, legs splaying. Bo, her feet as good as bare in thin, cotton socks and canvas Keds, made her way back to the car. Ludicrously they clutched at and clung to one another for stability. Unlatched, the hatch lid flew up, hard. Jamie held it while Bo yanked out the dish towel and held it up triumphantly. He was bewildered but asked no questions. They lost their footing again and went down on the shoulder. It was the ice, and the gale, and the unexpectedly steep camber of the road conspiring to kill them.

Greer passed the scraper out a window. Bo grabbed it then, towel wrapped around one hand in lieu of a glove, chipped away at the wipers. Jamie tried take over and they argued. Eventually, both flung themselves back in, squealing in frustration, hilarity and agony. Bo mopped at herself with the snow-encrusted towel.

“Thank God I brought this along,” she deadpanned, then: “Get my moccasins out of my duffel—the slippers, yes.” There followed an interminable changing of footwear followed by an awful moment when the car wouldn’t start back up, but then it did.

“Go, go, go!” urged Greer. There was no telling, through the glazed rear window, what might be approaching from behind. An access route to the Shirley Basin mine, the cutoff was frequented by dump trucks and tractor-trailers bearing heavy equipment for digging, drilling, blasting and moving—loaders, graders, excavators, dozers and forklifts. Also, as the expedient way to get from Carey, in the easterly center of the state, to Laramie, at the southern edge, it hosted local ranch traffic as well as casual area travel. While on some days, at some times of year, one could practically go a hundred miles without seeing another automobile, the illusion of being alone on a deserted, two-lane road was dangerous. Collisions out here were not uncommon, the Oil City Sentinel reporting a death or two every year along this stretch. Panoramas in much of Wyoming could be so vast and undifferentiated, populated places so distant from one another that posted speed limits did not much affect drivers’ tendencies to press the pedal. Among them all, the wish to simply arrive—at a wide spot in the road, a truck stop, a town—was overwhelming. Even in snowstorms people—particularly those who came this way on a regular basis—went too fast, taking little joy in the journey itself because there was little to be derived from it.

Which is not to say that the scenery was not breathtaking—but, to experience its grandeur meant stopping, on a clear morning in early summer between dry, brown seasons; walking into it, kipped at by plovers and prairie dogs, inhaling warm sage, stepping among scrub plants and grasses, scanning for blue barite, quartzite, petrified wood and, if luck would have it, spotting a horned lizard—a palm-sized, fat, flattish reptile fiercely arrayed in spikes and scaly armor and, in spite of its tendency to shoot blood from its eyes when threatened, irresistibly cute. Looking up from the ground to take in the expanse: distances, scope, scale, one’s self redefined. Appreciating all that Wyoming had to offer was not best done from inside a vehicle any time, but especially not now, at dusk, in a whiteout.