A&E Columns

This must be the place: ‘I’m wondering where you are tonight and I’m wondering if you are all right’

Wyoming is the least-populated state in America. Garret K. Woodward photo Wyoming is the least-populated state in America. Garret K. Woodward photo

Hello from Room 209 at the Super 8 on the outskirts of Rawlins, Wyoming. Late morning and taking my time to get my bags packed and tossed into the back of the rental car.

En route to Denver, Colorado, onward via flight to Asheville (aka: “Home”). 

Rawlins. Population: 8,298. Elevation: 6,834. A small outpost city in the heart of the high desert of south-central Wyoming. Desolate prairie. Hot days. Cold nights. Checking in late last night, the only lights beyond the city limits were headlights and taillights of a constant stream of tractor-trailers passing by on Interstate 80 buffering the southern stretch of the community.

Pitch black for endless miles standing at the edge of the parking lot of the Super 8 looking west. All of that immense desert prairie. All of those countless silent, ancient mountains now hidden in the darkness, silhouettes soon to appear in the wee hours of tomorrow. For now, heavy eyelids and late-night TV to pass the time.

Open up the window curtains in the morning to a vast lands cape resembling the surface of the moon. The only difference aesthetically being a couple dozen RVs parked across the street at the Western Hill Campground. Folks walking their dogs in the early dry  heat of the day, lunch plans already made within the RV realms by 10:30 a.m. whereas we journalists are still trying to track down a cup of coffee and what’s left in the waffle maker in the Super 8 lobby.

Sipping the coffee and staring out the window at the RV park and the surrounding moon surface landscape, it dawned on me that the last time I stayed in Rawlins (the only other time, actually) was Jan. 2, 2008. I was 22 years old and just accepted my first reporting gig post-college. The Teton Valley News in Driggs, Idaho. Pack up the old GMC Sonoma pick-up truck and leave one’s native Upstate New York.

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That road trip with an old friend, Ricky, took us from New York through Buffalo, Cincinnati, Kentucky, St. Louis, Kansas, Colorado, Rawlins, Driggs. I haven’t spoken to him in several years. The last I heard, he was somewhere in the North Country once again. And I hope he’s doing well in his current endeavors, wherever he may be roaming nowadays.

And I remember us being this ragtag duo crossing the country. Seeing new faces and places. Collecting moments and memories, for good or ill. Just, well, simply living our lives in real time. Young kids testing out the world and its lessons via trial and error, via dots on a map crammed between the truck seats.

From my 2008 road journals:

Jan. 2. Left Rawlins, Wyoming, bright and early. The sun was blinding when it hit the desolate, windswept ground bordering Route 287. The barren landscape unfolding before us was at times, oddly enough, claustrophobic. I had never felt so alone, so small at any previous point in my existence.

Hearty winds howled and aggressively pursued the old GMC pickup. One false move and we’d be stuck in the deep ditch for possibly hours until help arrived. I noticed we were starting to run low on fuel. I knew we should have filled up before we left town this morning.

“We got about 40 or so miles left in the tank,” I cautioned Ricky.

“Shit, well, if we run out, we run out. Worry about it when the time comes. Just drive the speed limit and I’ll keep my fingers crossed,” he replied.

Pulling into Muddy Gap, it seemed an outpost amid the frontier. Dusty mobile homes and abandoned buildings encompassed the community, which took only a few moments to pass through. A gas station finally appeared.

“Sorry, we’re all outta regular. The delivery guy should be here within the hour,” the elderly attendant said.

The inner walls of the structure were covered with signatures and quotes from hundreds of strangers entering the station for supplies, only to head back into the madness of mankind. Ricky grabbed a marker and scribbled in one of the few remaining spaces.

I wrote my name and a saying that has stayed with me since I first read it in college — “Some may never live, but the crazy never die.” Eventually the big rig eased into the parking lot and replenished the parched establishment.

It was a steady run through Lander and the Arapahoe & Shoshone Tribe reservation. Native children played in quiet front yards, holding their ragged jackets against the crisp winds rolling along the valley floor. Deep canyons and steep buttes exposed the natural history of the land. The ancient rock, colored in bright red, pink, and brown, resembled juicy steaks piled high and far into the distance.

The truck huffed and puffed through the mountains. Ascending the Togwotee Pass and sliding towards Moran, the immense peaks of the Teton Range came into view.

Rays of sunshine seemed to collide with the range, sprinkling down upon the ruffled blanket of dirt that surrounded Jackson, Wyoming, like a welcoming doormat to the gates of heaven. They were as breathtaking as I remembered. Ricky was speechless. I pulled over.

“Man, would you look at that,” he said. “You were right, you were right. It is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what to say.”

“Say ‘cheers’,” I replied, handing him the bottle of bourbon from the back of the truck. 

We sat on the tailgate and saluted the Tetons, the unknown strangers in the valley below who will soon make our acquaintance, someday become friends, perhaps even soulmates. The world was our oyster and we were eager to crack it wide open.

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

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