Maps show Wyoming beginning in the western Black Hills at its northeastern corner and east of the Laramie Mountains at the southeastern one. Yet the beginning of a thing (or, for that matter, its end) is rarely so simple. To me, it is obvious that Wyoming begins on the western slope of the Snowy Range in the Medicine Bow Mountains, just west of the Continental Divide and 120 miles from the Wyoming-Nebraska line. Coasting down Highway 130 from Libby Flats and Lake Marie, you can see, feel, and smell the transition as the road curves past Ryan Park and breaks out into sagebrush foothills with a view to the broad mesas beyond the wide valley of the North Platte River. Here, the high desert country commences, and with it the blue sky and white sun, cumulus clouds, clay bluffs, and sage smell that mean western Wyoming, vintage Wyoming—the real Wyoming—for me. It is no mystery why Saratoga should please me: I lived 20 years, among the best of my life, in western Wyoming. Why my wife, a cosmopolitan girl from Pelham, New York, should be eager to move from metropolitan Laramie to a hamlet of 1,500 people is another story.
“I like Saratoga,” Maureen insisted. “It feels good to me, and the country’s the most beautiful I’ve seen anywhere in Wyoming.”
“But there’s only one good restaurant. And two fair ones.”
“That’s really what we have in Laramie.”
“And St. Anne’s doesn’t have a full-time priest these days.”
“But the bishop will have to send one eventually, won’t he?”
“Where do you plan on having your nails done?”
“There’s a manicure and pedicure salon on Bridge Street, across from the Wolf Hotel. I checked when we were here in October, and you were out hunting.”
Plans for a removal to Saratoga had advanced further than I had suspected, it seemed.
“It would make you happy to live again in the kind of place you love, wouldn’t it?”
Yes, actually. It would.
“I could be content living here, too,” Maureen finished. “I can be content living any place, once I’m settled there.”
The town of Saratoga has been in economic depression for years as the Forest Service plays cat-and-mouse with Louisiana Pacific, switching on and off the supply of timber to the company’s lumber mill. The wealthy outsiders with their luxurious estates in the surrounding area seem to be doing just fine, however. We passed the airport at the edge of town (admiring someone’s elegant Lear jet parked on the tarmac), slowed for a deer family ambling across the main drag between a package store and a gas station, and checked in to the Saratoga Inn. I swam laps in the steaming outdoor pool fed by the hot mineral springs while Maureen showered and changed, and we went on to the bar at the Wolf for a drink. The Wolf Hotel, built in 1893, has been owned since 1974 by Doug Campbell, a native of my old hometown of Kemmerer, and his wife, Kathleen. We ordered martinis from the barman, and Doug came from the kitchen to chat about the old days, hunting elk along Commissary Ridge and fishing for trout in Spring Creek and the Hamsfork with Don Kominsky, Al Lenati, and Arch Antilla. Don and Arch are both dead, but Al, so far as either of us had heard, was still going strong at 80. (Wyoming is a big small town spread over 97,000 square miles, allowing all 460,000 of us room to breathe while staying in touch with one another, more or less.) In the comfortable restaurant done in golden oak and a dark print wallpaper, seated near the gas fire beside the tall window, we ate lamb chops with baked potato and drank a good red wine while observing the other diners, in wintertime a mostly local clientele.
“They have a fairly limited menu here,” Maureen remarked. “That’s one reason the food is so good.”
“It is good. Doug could make a killing with this place in Laramie.”
“It might be too sophisticated for them—you know, in the sense of being not ‘sophisticated’ enough for the university crowd.”
At the center of the bridge over the North Platte, I stopped the car to view the perennial flocks of resident mallard ducks huddled darkly on ice sheets shining white in the light of a silver moon.
“Good night, ducks,” I said as I let the brake out.
“They look so peaceful. But I thought ducks flew south in the fall. Don’t they get cold in wintertime in Wyoming?”
“They stay warm in the mineral springs, like everyone else. I had a dozen or more of them in the pool with me this afternoon.”
“Oh, you did not. Did you really?”
Wearing only my swimsuit and carrying a towel on my arm, I walked the 30 yards from the hotel room to the pool in the zero-plus cold and swam a few laps on my back, looking up through clouds of sulphurous steam at the stars, for a nightcap.
“I’m sure, if we lived here, you could make arrangements with the Inn to use their pool every day,” Maureen suggested when I got back to the room. It’s wonderful how women’s minds work when they are enthusiastic about something.
In the morning, we drove west out of town on Bridge Street to Jack Creek Road, carrying with us a picnic lunch, a realtor’s catalogue, and my .22-250 rifle loaded and muzzle-down on the floorboard. Beyond the Platte Valley, the high desert began, rolling westward under a thin cover of tiny lichenous sage bushes. The sky was milky blue overhead, but a strong wind rocked Maureen’s little Camry, and snow devils hundreds of feet high spun across the dazzling white parks tall in the Sierra Madre in the southwest. The thin snowpack thickened as the mountains drew closer, and snowsnakes wriggled across the washboard road. At the Jack Creek crossing, a golden eagle straddled a deer carcass beside the borrow pit, his wings half spread, his round golden eye fixed defiantly on the approaching car. I slowed for a closer look, but he extended to full spread before I could stop and lifted away in slow motion, insolently, his talons hanging below his dark underbody, and alighted 50 yards away on a post sticking up from the rancher’s junk pile at a short distance from his mate. An eagle may know that he is a federally protected species, or he may not. Whichever, his attitude toward man is not dependent on his knowing or not knowing. He is Eagle, and he fears no one, his sole natural enemies being the infrequent poacher and the religious Indian (another protected species). Years ago, Fred Chambers, driving between Kemmerer and Green River, collided with a bird as tall as a fence post that had assumed, apparently, that the oncoming pickup was prepared to yield the right-of-way across his intended flight path. The eagle crashed through the windshield onto the passenger seat, stood up, and spread his wings, bringing the truck to a rapid halt with the bird in undisputed possession of it. Had the game warden been summoned, unquestionably Fred—not the eagle—would have been arrested.
It was quiet in the creek bottom, away from the wind and the blowing snow. The simple frame ranch house, built in the shelter of the bluff but high enough above the creek to escape the spring freshets, was hardly more than a cabin, apparently of territorial vintage. A twist of smoke streamed out flat from the chimney, but no one, excepting the eagle couple, seemed to be in residence. There are just nine working ranches left in the vicinity of Saratoga, while corporate ranchers from Denver, Phoenix, and elsewhere continue to buy up the best spreads. The old Willford Ranch, near Encampment, was purchased for a tax write-off ten or fifteen years ago by TCI in Denver, headed in those days by John Malone, whose rumored ambition is to own an uninterrupted land corridor running from New Mexico to Canada. (So what do you know about cows, John?) Not long ago, one corporate cowboy around here bought himself a herd of cattle and then let it starve to death over the winter, after neglecting to put up a haycrop himself or buy feed for his cows from a neighbor. The rich are different from you and me. (They’re crazy.)
I drove Jack Creek Road as far as two four-wheel-drive rigs parked in the snow with the ramps down and the snow machines missing from the trailers.
“Have you ever had to dig out on a back road in the snow?” I asked my wife.
“When I worked in the oil patch, Jack Mootz and I used to stick our truck in the middle of nowhere every days-off. We always had a lot of fun doing it. Today, I think I’d just as soon open a bottle of champagne and eat lunch.”
The Veuve Clicquot tasted dry and light and crisp with the turkey sandwiches the hotel had put up for us. We ate with the real-estate book open across the console, poring over the incongruous, nearly unbelievable summertime pictures.
“So much land in the West, such little houses,” Maureen marveled.
“No wood close at hand, to speak of. And no money, either. The West was settled by little people—miners, homesteaders, small ranchers, railroaders. They won it, and they made it. Now they’re losing it.”
“A hundred and fifty thousand dollars—even two hundred and fifty thousand dollars—doesn’t buy you much in Saratoga.”
“Only the big sky. And a few thousand square miles of public land. That’s the reality of the modern West.” Reverse Distributism, Belloc might have called it. (So much for the Homestead Act.)
We ate at the Wolf again that evening and met next day with the realtor in her downtown office. Viewing property with realtors is almost always a depressing business. This morning, I was reminded of my experience 30 years ago, looking for a Manhattan apartment to lease on an $8,000-per-year salary. I’m much better off financially nowadays, of course; then again, my expectations are greater, too. What confronted us now was what, in the Rocky Mountain West, has become a familiar choice. The “old” houses (dating from between about 1900 and 1930), mostly bungalows with their period charm and finished detail, hardwood floors, and brick s–t-house construction, though typically not kept up, are priced as if they were architectural gems in mint condition, despite their small size and scarcely larger lots. The new houses (built since the 1970’s) are more overpriced still, owing to Westerners’ nearly insurmountable prejudice in favor of jerry-built, prefab, and modular “homes” over older houses. Many of these, furthermore, are built outside of town, on a parcel of several acres—and land is at a premium today in a region where the majority of it is owned by the federal and state governments or privately leased and where white flight from the East and West coasts has put added pressure on what private land remains available.
Accompanied by the agent, we looked over a Boise-Cascade job, 30 to 40 years old, sitting on four acres in a pleasant meadow just above the floodplain of the North Platte River at Riverside and surrounded by groves of ancient cottonwood trees. The asking price was obviously all in the land, the house itself requiring at least $50,000 worth of renovation. Worse, the property was part of a subdivision and encumbered by “covenants.” (Despite my best efforts not to appear un-American, undemocratic, and sniffish, real-estate people never seem to cotton to me, much.) From Riverside, we drove on to view a three-story log pile on the southeast edge of Encampment, neatly removed from town by a screen of aspen trees and with a fine view of Encampment Creek descending through a steep-sided canyon. The asking price was negotiable, the agent explained; and Maureen, after closely inspecting all three floors, was charmed. Having taken a closer look at the weathered exterior walls on the south and west sides, checked the window frames, and investigated the construction of the porch roof, I was less enthusiastic. “Well enough built for a secondary residence,” I told Maureen, “but not for a primary one. It isn’t half the house our old dump in Laramie is.” The real-estate woman tried hard to look as if I hadn’t said that.
We talked the thing over back at the Wolf that night, my wife and I. I should have known better, of course. People who come West looking to find everything ought to stay where they are, in Studio City or Locust Valley. They do not belong out here. Because the American West, basically, is still a frontier society. If you have a few million dollars to spend, it can be anything you want it to be—almost. If not, then living in the West is a trade-off between living graciously and living free: You can have one or the other; you cannot have both. We made the decision to postpone a decision until we got back to 700 E. Brady in Laramie, and had another drink.