The first time I see pronghorn, it’s like we’ve been blasted to another continent. Space more enormous than Texas ever looked, scrubby mountains covered in willows, with these golden hinds running for what could be miles without seeing a human. It makes my cells sing, and so my mouth does, as we blaze through at a clip the East Coast roads couldn’t fathom. We cross the Continental Divide more times than I can remember, and sometimes we even see hikers, backpacks like tortoise shells perched high on their shoulders, hugging the shoulder of the road.
I’m not sure I’d want to walk here, though. So many people gunning it through, headed for the other side, a means to an end – like us. We were desperate to experience Wyoming via Sheepwagon, and by this I mean sleeping in a Sheepwagon we’d rent on Airbnb, but our dreams of eccentric luxury are dashed by muddy roads and a new flock of sheep needing to be acclimated. So instead, we stay in a normal house, where the upstairs has been converted to a little hotel with two rooms. Our hosts are both effusive and reserved – we can’t tell if they want us to talk to them or leave them alone. Our neighbors are two Mormon men who have been staying in their room for over a month. They greet us with smiles that look like they hurt, and laughs far too loud for the lazy socializing we offer. We take this night as another opportunity to pretend we aren’t nomads for 12 hours. We walk to a grocery store and walk back, cooking up a meal, and watching reality TV before falling asleep.
In the morning one of the hosts tells us his partner had had the idea for the solar eclipse last year — renting out space to visitors — and they hadn’t stopped taking people in. He’d been in a car accident and wasn’t going back to work again. Oil fields, he says. It had damaged his brain. They could use the money. His bald head is shiny and he tells us we are good guests, as if we’ve been there longer than a single night. He asks us to sign the guest book; asks where we are going, where we’ve been. “It’s amazing, what they did. Political stuff aside, and all that,” he says when we mention Mt. Rushmore. I want to unpack every part of this sentence, to discover what he thinks of the land theft and the patriotic tourism, but he insists that it stay back. Like the three-legged cat, pushing the door open to the space-heated room, it sneaks in but doesn’t linger.
This is the first place we really see cowboys all over. Actual cowboys. Also city people in cowboy hats. Also a sports team, with t-shirts all over the Goodwill racks in brown and gold. The aesthetic is cowboys. In Jackson, shops that could be in SoHo or Aspen are dressed up like cowboys. It feels like a set from an old-timey musical about cowboys made bougie. Our small act of rebellion is making a salad out of the trunk of our car in a crowded square, chopping vegetables on the bumper and washing dishes in the gutter. We go to a coffee shop, full of students and European families, and buy coffee that comes with a recipe for cowboy coffee — dropping an eggshell into coffee grounds in boiling water to carry the sediment down. We joke about buying a house here, in this valley of wealth nestled into the harsh mountains.
We drive out, shooting across the space toward the snowiest peaks I’ve ever seen, the Grand Tetons, and I feel like I’ve been rendered small and humble, like what could we really do to a place this imposing. Climate change rendered invisible, still aching in some corner of my chest. I almost can’t believe the Grand Tetons. We camp outside of the park, where a man with a collie and a huge generator washes freshly caught fish in the water station. We run into the road to watch the sunset over the beaks of the mountains’ summits, giggling and making s’mores. Our campsite host gruffly tells us to make sure to clear up our food, looking hazily past us as he says “I still remember the Glacier maulings of 1967”. We know, we say, even though we later Google the mauling he’s talking about. We are tired of men warning us. It still makes me nervous to pee in the middle of the night, sprinting to and from the tent and only quickly sneaking a look at the star spattered sky.
I was skeptical. Yellowstone is, as our Atlas will tell you, the most iconic and the first National Park. It is an American Treasure. And it is so hyped that I was bracing myself for disappointment. But Yellowstone is everything we have heard it will be. Given a rigorous, handwritten list of things to do in 24 hours there, we have our work cut out for us. We see thermal features, we see a vast, crystalline lake, we see Old Faithful rimmed by families in shorts and Columbia jackets. We see herds of buffalo emerging from the 6am mist, and we see a mama bear with two downy cubs by the side of the road. We do not see a wolf. We see so many other things, but we do not see them. And this is how it is to see Wyoming: we see sight after sight, but there are things hidden. As if to say, I won’t be known. Maybe places have their own interiority, their own layers hidden from those who haven’t earned the right to know them.
On the morning of our departure we wake up before the sun, make Cowboy Coffee, and rush out to try to see wolves. We do not see wolves, but we do see the people that saw the wolves. And we meet members of a society of people that watch the wolves every single day, writing reports on them, communicating via radio, knowledgeable about the wolves’ history. Yellowstone really is another world. Fully a country in its own right, governed by the animals, and stewarded by humans trying to do right by them. Of course the tourists make things difficult, but these little pockets of dedication and obsession and magic ripple through the park.
We don’t have time, and we repeat this over and over when people ask us about places we didn’t go. There wasn’t time. There weren’t years. We did not watch the wolves make packs, live for weeks on a carcass, grow a complex family tree, and wander that unmarked edge of park and ranch land. The edge that marks the difference between being protected and being fair game. These borders are never clearly marked for them.