I’d worked in the oil patch for several weeks already when I bought a T-shirt at the J.C. Penney Mother Store in Kemmerer.  The shirt was fire-engine red with black lettering across the chest.  The letters said, “IF YOU HAVE ONLY SIX MONTHS TO LIVE MOVE TO KEMMERER WYOMING.  IT’LL SEEM LIKE A LIFETIME.”  Since then, 24 years have come and gone without my having ever really left the place, though I haven’t lived there since 1997. I wasn’t reared there, but it’s where I grew up.  Maureen sat forward on the bench seat and craned her neck for a first look as the pickup rounded the curve in the banked highway on the south edge of town.  

“It’s pretty!” she exclaimed, in a pleased voice.  “I was afraid I wasn’t going to like it.  I didn’t care for the country we came through around Rock Springs and Green River, at all.”

I felt slightly shocked, though, of course, I agreed with her.  After nearly a quarter of a century, it wasn’t the reaction I was used to hearing.  The last Easterner I could recall whose response to the locale had been appreciative was the late Francis Russell, the historian from Massachusetts, and that was two decades ago.  Ordinarily, my response to the philistine’s inability to recognize the ethereal when it slaps him in the face is relief (he won’t be moving here with his family anytime soon); this, however, was my wife speaking. Two years after the occasion of my godmother’s funeral Mass at St. Patrick Church, the town (three towns, actually: Diamondville, Kemmerer, and Frontier, totaling some 3,500 residents) looked as I always remember it:  a spill of frame houses at the bottom of a steep valley and climbing the rounding hills to the west, the tin roofs glinting among black fir spires touched by the evening light, under the whale-backed bulk of Oyster Ridge and nearly in the blue shadow of Sheep Mountain rising sheerly to the north. 

“I’m glad you think it’s pretty,” I told Maureen.

“I do!  Much prettier than Laramie.”

“You know, if it weren’t for those lunches at Billy Budd’s twenty-seven years ago, I’d never believe you were really a New Yorker.”

I drove on past the Energy Inn in Diamondville where we had a room reserved for the night, not bothering to drop off the trailer with the mare in it, and on to the Triangle downtown, where the original Penney’s store faces off against what in golden days was the Star Bar—formerly renowned in disreputable taverns as far away as Salt Lake City—where Jack Mootz used to pick up a replacement hand on the way out to the drill rig when one of the crew failed to report for Morning Tour.  I showed Maureen the Stock Exchange (an alternate drinking hole, which she, being an Easterner, found oddly named) and the Liquor Locker around the corner (shockingly closed since my last visit), the house at 1025 Beech Street on the courthouse square, Lincoln Heights overlooking the splendid landforms around, and St. Patrick, where, 11 years before, I was baptized and confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church by the late Fr. William Espenshade.  “This town has charm,” Maureen decided.

“You amaze me—as usual.  Do you want to stop and look in on the old place?”

“No,” she said decidedly.  “It’s the past, and the past is . . . the past.” 

“You’re right,” I agreed.  “Let’s get our room at the motel, and the horse a drink.  A couple for us, too.”

The motel manager said she and her husband didn’t know anyone in town: They’d lived here only four years, she explained.  We carried the luggage in, and I watered the horse.  When I returned to the room, Maureen had our supper laid out and two bottles of wine, one red and one white, ready to be poured. 

“If it weren’t for Kemmerer, we might have been married 27 years ago,” I said.  “Only I wouldn’t have been any use to you then.  When I moved out here from the East in ’79, I’d never fired a gun in my life, or killed a deer.  I didn’t know how to get on with anyone but a college graduate or the upper crust.  I did understand something about horses, though.  To understand what happened after that, you need to read Roughnecking It.  It’s not really a girl’s book, of course.  Friends who bought copies to give as Christmas presents ended up returning them to the publisher or donating them to Goodwill.  Even people who’d been in the Army couldn’t take the language.  Which is funny, since so many of those oil patch guys had served in the Army.  Anyway, they were drafted into it.” 

“We each had things we were meant to do first, you and I.”

“I know it,” I agreed.  “In my case, it was Kemmerer.  Anyway—a toast to the old dump!  God, it’s good to be home.”

When the truck wouldn’t fire right away in the morning, I took it in to the Wagner brothers’ service station, with the horse and trailer still attached.  Mark determined the trouble was the starter and sent me up Pine Street to Eric’s shop to replace it.  Maureen and I went for breakfast at the Busy Bee café, where Brad Willford stopped in when we were halfway through the meal. The four-year drought had strapped the ranchers financially, while he himself was working 72 hours a day to keep his company’s creditors in business.  Afterward, I took Maureen into Sawaya’s clothing store next door to the Bee, where we found Mary Sawaya on the floor.  She and John had opened a second store in Evanston and appeared to be prospering in business.  Mary invited us to Sunday dinner when we returned from the mountains, and I’d have encouraged Maureen to buy a little something from the store if it weren’t a break in discipline.  Buying supplies at the Safeway (whiskey, beer, ice, a little fresh fruit), I was kept busy introducing my bride to friends from church, all of whom had news of our marriage through the diocesan grapevine.

Late spring rains that could not relieve the drought still had greened Pomeroy Basin north of town and the Fontenelle country above it.  Fat antelope grazed the drainage, belly-high in waving grass under a white-hot sun, beside the heavy whiteface cattle chewing the cud along the feeder creeks.  The elk were gone from their calving grounds on the flank of Absaroka Ridge, moved up from the fresh green parks lying under a thick cover of egg-yellow arrowleaf balsam into the high country beyond. At a cattle guard surmounting a rise of ground, I stopped the truck and pointed ahead to a far blue triangle, snow-streaked, pointing against the paler horizon. “Wyoming Peak,” I said.  “Eleven thousand, three hundred and sixty-three feet elevation.  I haven’t laid eyes on it for nearly six years.”

Two miles on, twists of blackened sagebrush stood among the lavender and green.  “Amazing how quickly the country recovers from fire,” I remarked.  “The Forest Service ran a controlled burn here, only eight years or so ago.”  The dirt track curved ahead, rounding a tongue of aspen pushing out to the creek, and I saw it, then: the burnt-off frontal ridge running north to the Fontenelle gap, beneath a stark skyline of black skeletal trees.  The Minnie Holden Fire had been ignited by lightning in 1998, the year after my move to New Mexico, where I read about it in the Kemmerer Gazette.  Most forest fires ought to be permitted to burn themselves out.  Even so, the sight was a terrible one.  The atmosphere, moistened by an early-afternoon thunder squall, seemed still to carry the scent of char.

I parked the rig at a bend in the road above the floodplain, saddled the mare, and rode down the switchbacks to the creek for a look at the ford.  In mid-June, the water was well past spring runoff, running swiftly green over a golden bottom.  I kicked the mare into a trot and rode back to the truck, where Maureen sat reading a mystery novel.  “The crossing’s no problem,” I reported, “but there’s a damn camper trailer parked right where John Kovach, Scotty Roberts, and I used to put our elk camp.”

We made camp on the other side of the creek in a meadow scattered with wildflowers and bordered by a grove of young aspen for a windbreak.  Across the stream, the rounded shoulder of mountain where Absaroka Ridge commenced again beyond the gap cut by the river loomed green above the camp, untouched by the inferno the creek had checked.  We raised the tent, and I built a fire in the damp grass, after failing to dig a pit in the hardened clay below.  Snubbed to one of the slender trees, the mare grazed peaceably while Maureen and I drank wine from tin cups.  Behind Fontenelle gap, Indian Ridge formed a distant headwall above Bear Trap and Roaring Fork Creeks, a dam holding back the western sky. 

“I like this place better than anywhere you’ve taken me yet,” Maureen said.  “I can see why you love it the way you do.”

“It’s six years since I saw it last, and it feels like six days.  Even with the burn.”

“I think I felt a drop of rain,” she added, frowning.

The rain commenced again around 11:00 and fell all through the night.  It continued through the dawn and past daybreak, a soft multitudinous tapping on the nylon fly, keeping us in our bags until 9:30, drowning the fire pit, and soaking the dry tinder around.  I got a fire started at last, using dead pine boughs for kindling, and brewed a pot of coffee for our breakfast.

“Too bad we couldn’t have made an earlier start this morning,” I told Maureen.  “I can lead you on the horse when you get tired, if you like.”

“That’s OK,” she said.  “I’d rather walk, for the exercise.”

If only my wife would learn to ride a horse, she could win what remains of the Golden West.

In the circumstances, the only way to get both us and the horse over Fontenelle Creek was to drive across the ford.  I parked the truck and trailer at the trailhead on the opposite bank, and we started into the mountains at last, I on horseback and Maureen following behind on foot, experienced-looking in her new hiking boots and carrying a daypack on her shoulders.  At the Bear Trap crossing, I dismounted and boosted her into the saddle, under protest.

“I can’t do this,” Maureen said, closing her eyes tight and grabbing the saddle horn.

“Honey,” I told her, “you can do anything you set your mind on doing.  Open your eyes now and take hold of the reins the way I showed you last summer.  It’s the horse’s job to get her feet wet, not yours.”

From the elevated clearing above the creek, we had a view of the canyon upstream as far as the bend to the west, where the fire had jumped the eastern ridge from the Minnie Holden drainage.  Almost the entire west-facing slope had gone up, leaving a forest of blackened branchless trees tapering like masts above more trees stretched prone against the steeps.  After going a mile or so, we came to a place where the fire had leaped the stream and burned itself out in a stand of fir at the foot of an open sidehill rising steeply to the hogback where, 15 years before, John Kovach and I had hunted the biggest bulls and discovered an active bear den.  The trees were blackened and dead, precariously balanced on their fire-chewed bases—what fire-fighters call widowmakers.  We hurried among them on the trail, grateful for the still air, and reached the bottom of the steep climb up and away from Bear Trap toward the higher parks and the stark red face of Indian Ridge above them.  Here, I dismounted again from the horse and waited for Maureen to catch up.

“My turn to walk,” I told her.  “And uphill’s always the safest way to ride.”

Maureen looked at the horse drooping under the vacated saddle.  Then she looked at the trail, rising toward the sky ahead.

“All right,” she agreed. 

I took the mare back when we reached the sagebrush swale, short of the forest stretched along the base of Indian Ridge where, in the old days, I’d put in a spike camp every October.  Involuntarily, I raised my right hand and touched the brim of my hat.  Then I reined the horse around to face downhill toward the green parallel ridges through which we’d climbed and, beyond them, the basin of the Green River shelving in patterns of sunlight and shadow away to the east.

Maureen came up, gamely tramping over the lichenous rock scattered with elk droppings, and turned with me to face the view. 

“What would it cost us to buy an old bungalow in Kemmerer?” she wanted to know.

From where I sat the horse, the burn area below looked much better, green grass and bright yellow balsam bravely reviving the desolated forest.

In old K-Town, not a whole lot, I was thinking.