At the kickoff of fall semester last year, the University of Wyoming hosted a conference attended by James Watt, Pete Simpson (the brother of former Senator Alan Simpson), and Kathy Karpan (an unsuccessful candidate for both governor and U.S. senator), among other notables and celebrities, to discuss the state’s supposedly dismal economic and social future. Having five tons of hay from Elk Mountain to offload and stack in West Laramie, I failed to attend, while observing a skinhead in a pinstripe suit and paisley tie who looked suspiciously like former indicted Cabinet Secretary Watt waiting on the corner of Grand Avenue and Thirteenth Street (if bureaucrats were distinctive, easily recognizable individuals, they wouldn’t be bureaucrats). However, David Broder flew all the way from Washington, D.C., to be present and write up his impressions of the meeting, to which he devoted the column I read next morning in the Denver Post.
As conveyed by Broder, at least, the mood of the meeting was one of frustrated optimism on the surface and pessimistic frustration beneath: a string of dissonant notes sounding as outmoded as the 12-tone scale, as jarring in the era of the Clinton Prosperity as a razzing editorial by Mencken during the Coolidge one. Wyoming in 1999 is not (in certain ways) the Wyoming of 1979 when I arrived at the height of the energy boom and went to work in the oil patch, sure enough. Twenty years ago, the population had risen to 575,000 from 240,000 only a decade or so before; today, it is somewhere between 460,000 and 480,000. The boom has been over for 15 years, though energy extraction by the big international corporations proceeds apace, and towns that had —or thought they had—an easy shot at the Big Time long ago lowered their sights and resigned themselves to Main Street. Beef prices are down, wool is lower than the President’s pants, ranchers are going broke and selling out to fabulously wealthy non-Westerners who don’t know one end of a cow from the other and expect roosters to lay eggs, while in Jackson, Sheridan, and Saratoga, people show themselves in public in Land’s End, L.L. Bean, Patagonia, and Izod without a trace of shame. About half of graduating seniors, high school and college, leave the state to find work, for the reason (the conference assumed) that there are no jobs in Wyoming for young people who do not wish to be miners or oilfield roughnecks and who were not born on a ranch. Often, they migrate no farther than adjacent Colorado or Utah, both of which have booming economies, while others move as far away as Arizona and California. (Montana, a haven for movie stars and militiamen, isn’t seen as much of an improvement.)
To judge from Broder’s account, the university’ meeting was sourly preoccupied by the economic success of Wyoming’s neighbors, especially in comparison with the flatness of its own economy. To account for this differential, speakers advanced several explanations, among them the relative ineffectuality of Wyoming’s state politicians and its congressional delegation, the superiority of Utah’s and Colorado’s educational systems, and the hostility of the state’s business establishment to new industry and the penetration of outside economic influence. Wyoming’s nickname (“The Cowboy State”) and its official logo, the bronc rider emblazoned on Wyoming license plates and elsewhere, received special attention for allegedly reinforcing “stereotypes” of the state as the land of rednecks, horses’ asses, and homophobia. (Matthew Shepard loomed large in the university’s collective consciousness last fall, as the anniversary of the killing in Laramie approached.) If anyone thought to mention inhospitable climate as a handicap in the competition for industry, jobs, and population, Broder didn’t report the fact. It’s a peculiar omission, Wyoming being more notorious even for its weather than for its armed beefeaters, its lack of economic “infrastructure,” and its restricted pool of docile industrial slaves. For 150 years, beginning with the opening of the Oregon Trail, people have been coming into Wyoming on one side of the territory or state, and exiting it at the other. The reason for this is basic, and it has nothing to do with the caliber of Wyoming’s political establishment.
When people, whether residents or nonresidents of the state, talk about bringing Wyoming into the More Abundant Life surrounding it through “economic development” and “building infrastructure,” what they really have in mind is replacing rural Western values, habits, and experience with urban, postindustrial ones. At the bottom of the day, the end of the line is that pep rallies cheering for a more dynamic and prosperous Wyoming amount to calls for a socially reconstructed one where people like Matthew Shepard are cosseted and admired as they are in Manhattan and L.A. and which does not embarrass absentee native sons like James Watt and Kathy Karpan (recently hostess with the mostest at a Washington dinner honoring lesbian and homosexual employees of the federal bureaucracy) when they get pistol-whipped with .357 Magnums instead. The campaign, though, isn’t getting anywhere—not so far, at least—which is why this particular conference, like so many preceding ones, reeked of that pessimistic frustration characteristic of the Brahmin class whenever it finds itself stonewalled by the Untouchables, whose unappetizing existence is redeemable only to the extent that it is willing to Accept Change without back talk or stakhanovite resistance.
My return to Kemmerer after an absence of two years and one month was to attend the funeral of my godfather, William Peternal, caught by his baling machine while haying on the Hamsfork and pulled into the receiver. Outwardly, the town hadn’t changed much—if anything it was spiffier than when I left, more flowers and newly planted trees, fresh coats of paint—but there had been other recent subtractions besides Bill; among them Scott McPhee (whom I remember as a Western Falstaff decanting scotch half a fifth at a time on the Commissary Commandos’ annual foray into the wilderness), Chetty Buck (dead at 35 from the hantavirus “experts” claimed couldn’t survive as far north as Wyoming), and Bill Thoman (struck by an oilfield worker’s truck as he stood beside his pickup on a rig road, viewing a band of sheep out on the sagebrush flat through binoculars). I stayed over the weekend at Thoman Ranch, waiting for Don’s Chevron to open up Monday morning and realign the front end of my truck after it had chewed two brand-new tires down to the steel belting on the 290-mile drive from Laramie, and catching up on the news with Mary, her mother Mickey (Bill’s widow), Laurie, and Dick, one of several sons who lives with his family a few miles away across the Green River. Except for Bill’s absence, nothing much seemed to have changed: The Thoman family was still pulling together to turn a profit in cattle and sheep in spite of depredations by bears, weather, the market, and the EPA. Mary and I ate out together Saturday night in Rock Springs; Sunday evening we had supper in Mickey’s kitchen and went down to the sheep pens afterward to vaccinate the bucks. Bob Thoman, in Kemmerer with his family and in-laws for the funeral and wake, took the time before driving home to Riverton to show Laurie how to adjust the clutch on the Peterbilt truck she’d bought the year before and was using now to haul asphalt for the widening job on Highway 189 north from town. Dressed in old jeans and a torn plaid shirt, Miss Rodeo Wyoming 1994 joined her brother on her back under the chassis to see how the job was done. “You’ll have to do this every ten or twelve thousand miles,” Bob told her, “so be sure you understand exactly what it is I’m doing here.”
Wyoming weather and geology—the cold, the aridity—are the principal reasons why business and a sizable labor force are in no hurry to gratify the state’s postmodern boosters by moving here. And the reason the natives, and the transplants who feel like natives, don’t want to see them come is their attachment to a deeper, better grounded, more human existence than what the New Westerners from Colorado and California would impose on them. Number One, the postmodern, high-tech, suburban life is impractical: In fact, it’s deadly, a fishtrap for human beings. “We have all these people,” Carolyn Chute says,
who can’t do anything who would have been farmers. They’d be surviving. They can’t anymore: They’re living in slums, trailer parks. . . . How many survival skills do your children have? How many kids today can provide for themselves food, tools, clothing, warmth?
Number Two, it doesn’t satisfy—morally, spiritually, or even physically. Susan Faludi, in her new book Stiffed, analyzes what she calls “ornamental culture” (the culture of the last 30 years or more) which, being “[c]onstructed around celebrity and image, glamour and entertainment, marketing and consumerism, is a ceremonial gateway to nowhere.” If women in the 1950’s were significantly shaped by the male view of what a woman should be, more recently the transformation of a utilitarian culture into an ornamental one has feminized men by insisting on success through display rather than demonstration, surface instead of resource, the marketplace, not the workplace.
A society of utility, for all the indisputable ways that it exploited men’s health and labor, and in an industrial context broke the backs and spirits of factory workers and destroyed the lungs of miners, had one saving grace: it defined manhood by character, by the inner qualities of stoicism, integrity, reliability, the ability to shoulder burdens, the willingness to put others first, the desire to protect and provide and sacrifice.
In the new economy and the culture it is creating, men—and women—are often not certain what their job (“managing,” “facilitating,” “expediting,” “coordinating,”) is, let alone what use it has, what good it really does. What Susan Faludi does not appear to grasp is that the misdirection of the modern technostructure is not the problem, but its fundamental inhumanity. Most people are made to work with their hands, to work with tools that operate directly upon the natural world or on machinery: to pick clods of clotted earth from the turned fields, to sense the mouth of a bitted horse through the leather reins, to feel the warm blood of a freshly killed bear or elk on their hands, to cut down a living tree. For these experiences there is simply no substitute, and when the world has become a place where the large majority of the population knows nothing of them, while fearing and hating the minority who do, it will be a world running to Bedlam—and Columbine.
It’s a pity, I guess, that some of the youth of Wyoming have to leave the state —or feel they do, perhaps encouraged by conferences like the recent one at UW—to find what politicians call “good-paying” jobs offering, besides money, “security” and “a future.” Truth is, few if any jobs today offer either security or future (as Miss Faludi demonstrates). And, if that is so, why not, like the Thoman family, live where you like and do what you love doing? Is there any greater benefit or joy to be got from life? As for those native sons and daughters who can neither find a place in the local life and economy nor really wish to—well, Wyoming isn’t going anywhere, the road they left by is still there, and Christmas and Thanksgiving make good excuses to visit home. Finally, there’s retirement to look forward to (if the golf courses of Phoenix and the condominiums of Los Lunas, New Mexico, are not irresistible by then).
In the meantime, Wyoming remains the last best place for an American remnant knowing exactly who they are and what they want—and don’t want—from life: a sort of reservation for leftover frontiersmen more than happy to share it with the disinherited tribes—the Arapahoe and Shoshone—whose society they prefer to that of the suburban swarm and the global mall-trotters. People who like living otherwise have already succeeded in taking over most of the rest of the country, so why begrudge us our measly 97,000 square miles of sagebrush and bentonite, ice and cold?
North of Durango, a cattle drive on Colorado 550 last fall ran into trouble at both ends when a southbound car topped a rise and plowed into the herd at 50 mph. Minutes later, an enraged motorist, encountering the drive from the rear, cursed the horsebackers from the open window of his car while repeatedly bumping the cows with its front end. If this man really is the face of the New West, then who needs him—and it?