Reading 1

The following passage is taken from the essay “The Solace of Open Spaces” by Gretel Ehrlich (© 2000 Gretel Ehrlich).

  1. The name Wyoming comes
  2. from an Indian word meaning
  3. “at the great plains,” but the
  4. plains are really valleys, great
  5. arid valleys, sixteen hundred
  6. square miles, with the horizon
  7. bending up on all sides into
  8. mountain ranges. This gives
  9. the vastness a sheltering look.
  10. Winter lasts six months here.
  11. Prevailing winds spill snowdrifts
  12. to the east, and new storms from
  13. the northwest replenish them.
  14. This white bulk is sometimes
  15. dizzying, even nauseating to
  16. look at. At twenty, thirty,
  17. and forty degrees below zero,
  18. not only does your car
  19. not work, but neither do your
  20. mind and body. The landscape
  21. hardens into a dungeon of space.
  22. During the winter, while I
  23. was riding to find a new calf,
  24. my jeans froze to the saddle,
  25. and in the silence that such
  26. cold creates, I felt like the first
  27. person on earth, or the last.
  28. Today the sun is out – only a
  29. few clouds billowing. In the east,
  30. where the sheep have started off
  31. without me, the benchland tilts
  32. up in a series of eroded
  33. red-earthed mesas, planed
  34. flat on top by a million years of
  35. water; behind them, a bold line
  36. of muscular scarps rears up
  37. ten thousand feet to become the
  38. Big Horn Mountains. A tidal
  39. pattern is engraved into the
  40. ground, as if left by the sea
  41. that once covered this state.
  42. Canyons curved down like
  43. galaxies to meet the oncoming
  44. rush of flat land.
  45. To live and work in this kind of
  46. open country, with its
  47. hundred-mile views, is to lose
  48. the distinction between
  49. background and foreground.
  50. When I asked an older ranch hand
  51. to describe Wyoming’s openness,
  52. he said, “It’s all a bunch of nothing
  53. – wind and rattlesnakes –
  54. and so much of it you can’t tell
  55. where you’re going or where
  56. you’ve been and it don’t make
  57. much difference.”
  58. John, a sheepman I know, is tall
  59. and handsome and has an
  60. explosive temperament. He has
  61. a perfect intuition about people
  62. and sheep. They call him
  63. “Highpockets” because he’s so
  64. long-legged; his graceful stride
  65. matches the distances he has
  66. to cover. He says, “Open space
  67. hasn’t affected me at all. It’s
  68. all the people moving on it.”
  69. The huge ranch he was born on
  70. takes up much of one county and
  71. spreads into another state;
  72. to put 100,000 miles on his
  73. pickup in three years and
  74. never leave home is not
  75. unusual. A friend of mine has an
  76. aunt who ranched on Powder
  77. River and didn’t go off her place
  78. for eleven years. When her
  79. husband died, she quickly moved
  80. to town, bought a car, and drove
  81. around the States to see what
  82. she’d been missing.
  83. Most people tell me they’ve
  84. simply driven through Wyoming,
  85. as if there were nothing to
  86. stop for. Or else they’ve skied
  87. in Jackson Hole, a place
  88. Wyomingites acknowledge
  89. uncomfortably because its
  90. green beauty and chic affluence
  91. are mismatched with the
  92. rest of the state. Most of
  93. Wyoming has a “lean-to” look.
  94. Instead of big, roomy barns and
  95. Victorian houses, there are
  96. dugouts, low sheds, log cabins,
  97. sheep camps, and fence lines that
  98. look like driftwood blown
  99. haphazardly into place. People
  100. here still feel pride because they
  101. live in such a harsh place,
  102. part of the glamorous cowboy
  103. past, and they are determined
  104. not to be the victims of a
  105. mining-dominated future.
  106. Most characteristic of the state’s
  107. landscape is what a developer
  108. euphemistically calls
  109. “indigenous growth right up to
  110. your front door” – a reference to
  111. waterless stands of salt sage,
  112. snakes, jack rabbits, deerflies,
  113. red dust, a brief respite of
  114. wildflowers, dry washes, and no
  115. trees. In the Great Plains the
  116. vistas look like music, like Kyries
  117. of grass, but Wyoming seems
  118. to be the doing of a mad
  119. architect– tumbled and twisted,
  120. ribboned with faded, deathbed
  121. colors, thrust up and pulled down
  122. as if the place had been startled
  123. out of a deep sleep and thrown
  124. into a pure light.