Wyoming is Haunted
The population of Ucross, Wyoming, is 25. New arrivals are noticed. Karen Russell and I showed up on the same day. We were both there as guests of the Ucross Foundation, an artists in residency program on a 22,000 acre ranch in the in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains. At Ucross, the Big Red Barn is an art gallery. The 1880s ranch house houses a library and three Yellow Lab dogs. There are only ever eight residents at a time. We eat in a schoolhouse and sleep in a train depot and everyday at noon the chef brings lunch to our studio doors.
I awoke the first morning awash in Venetian blind sunlight-lines and wondered if any of it was real. Outside, a herd of wild turkeys foraged in the cottonwoods. Downstairs, Karen foraged in the kitchen.
"Perhaps we've died and gone to heaven," I said.
"Only, there must be some mistake …" Karen said. "This appears to be the heaven for wild turkeys."
Friends at first quip!
Karen and I are both fiction writers. We had many adventures together during our six weeks in Wyoming. All of them started out more-or-less true but due to our constant editorializing a few were pure fiction by dinnertime. Every few days we'd head for hills. Our goal: to see what we could see. It helped that we didn't know where we were going. We really had to look around: Do you think this counts as a road? This could totally be a road. Are these tepee rings? If I had a tepee I'd put it right here. We noticed things: Two prairie hawks dipping and diving around the Coal Creek's dry bends, "Look, there's bird us," Karen said. We tried to blend in. When in Wyoming… We learned to wave at passing cars. Most cars that passed were trucks. Once a pickup truck slowed up and a high-cheeked man in a flat brimmed hat and a handlebar moustache leaned over his shotgun and shell case to ask us: "You walking cause you want to?" We were. But if we had been broken down somewhere he would have been our saviour.
On our walks we wore hunting orange, it being deer season. And we talked non-stop, it being adjective season. We could never find enough words to describe where we were. Every now and then Karen would point out to me that I was cursing Mother Nature again: This is crazy. This is ridiculous. Can you believe this? It's disgusting. It's frightening. Completely sick. "Those are all complements in French," I assured her. As we walked we invented fictional colour-names for things, with Flannery O'Connor's rat-coloured car as our model, though, as Karen noted, makeup colour-names would also be a great source of inspiration. The road was a rawhide strap. The fauns were faun coloured! The Angus cows were so black they looked hollow. We also enjoyed thinking up potentially ominous first sentences, after which anything could happen: Is that a deer in the road ahead? The girls turned off onto a smaller road… The road was slick with muck …
We'd turn off onto any truck path that trailed up into the sway-backed hills. We scanned the ridgelines for easy passes, eyes out always for a wave of distant black dots to crest and gallop forward. We walked old warpaths, blood trails. We followed deer tracks, fence lines, wind tunnels and draws. Wait. On the high plains, still so empty and yet so changed, it isn't hard to hear hoof-clatter and the thud of bison falling.
"Isn't it amazing how we can change the size of stuff just by moving our feet!" Karen said, as, spryly climbing fences, we pushed up into the high wind world. The colder it got, the more the doomed Donner Party of 1846 came up in conversation. 487 miles of the old Oregon Trail passed through what is now Wyoming; much of it still intact, though all of it well south of the Ucross ranch. Even in the sun the late November wind froze our cheeks, giving us foreign accents, and numbed our lips, giving us Novocain-lisps. No matter how cold it got I usually had to stop to take a picture. From a distance the hills begged a telephoto lens. Up close the high world forced a wide angle. And still there was too much view for one viewfinder. A polarizing filter helped rein in the massive blue. The sun slanting one way and the hills slopping another, our shadows spilled out ahead of us so long that we had to lie down on the ground to keep them out of more than one east-facing photograph. "There's our super-model shadows," Karen said.
Happily, neither of us suffered from the disease of needing to be right. Theories abounded: Are those bones from a bird? The Indians must have been so cold up here. Maybe these are fossils. They look like magnolia leaves. Is that deer shit or cow shit? It's pretty big. I guess we shouldn't be stepping on these gazillion year old lichens. I swear that log-shaped rock is a petrified tree. No way. Well it looks like a tree, concentric rings and everything. Wait, yeah, this could totally be a tree. Did you hear a shotgun? Uh-oh.
There's bentonite in Wyoming's black soil. It swells, when wet, into what the locals call gumbo—muck so slippery that roughnecks use it to lubricate mining drill bits. Gumbo glomming onto our sneakers, Karen and I passed through prairie dog kingdoms, eerie plains pockmarked by pyramidal mounds of dug up earth. "Inland gator holes," said the alligator savvy Miami native Karen. An oddly perspicacious remark as through the Paleozoic and most of the Mesozoic Wyoming lay on the east coast of a broad sea. During the Eocene, palms, fig trees, cypress and magnolias grew in abundance and primitive mammals flourished in the tropical climate. Long before deer and antelope, flamingos and crocodiles roamed this range.
On our last weekend in Wyoming we set out late in the day for what we both knew might be our last long hill walk. Shortcutting through a Ucross ranch hand's yard, we said soft hellos to yet another a Yellow Lab—some guard dog—asleep in the sunroom window. We didn't mind trespassing, so long as we made sure to close the gate behind us. By then even we knew that one of the seven deadly sins in Wyoming is leaving a closed gate open. If there's a closed gate in this wide-open place, it's closed for a reason.
We set our path up a twisted sage bush hill, set our hearts on the clinker red top. Feet sinking into the Mesozoic, we combed the volcano-ash-soft soil for seashells, and found plenty. Not yet agatized, not yet fossilized, the epochs old shells left curlicue recesses in the sedimentary rock. "I'm already planning my defence," Karen said, her fists full of stone shells. Some Christmas presents are difficult to explain.
We slipped and slid up the steep slope: Be careful! You be careful too. Okay. Ack. Perhaps this isn't the best route. Switchback! Once at the top we saw the easy route up, and that we hadn't taken it. This hill instantly became our newest most favourite hill, with our newest best vista ever. Karen said, "I like how every new thing we see makes all the other stuff we've seen look like crap."
The sun was setting in every direction. I was changing film fast, squeezing off iffy, high-contrast shots. We knew better than to linger. We'd been reading Donna Tartt's novel The Secret History and were all too well aware of what happens when time speeds up during late-night backwoods bacchanals. I don't think it's giving too much of The Secret History away to say that, although neither Karen nor I are ancient Greek scholars, neither one of us wanted to wind up accidentally killing a Vermont farmer on our way back to the ranch.
We decided to forgo the road and follow the ridgeline home. Our sightline ran right down Big Red Lane to the Big Red Barn. There was a faint trail. "That'll be our excuse," I said. "When some rancher comes out of nowhere with a shotgun … we'll say: But there was a trail!" Karen had been reading Hemingway's safari stories. She warned me not to sleep with the white hunter guide: "Like in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber … I kill you way out here, there are no witnesses, and I pretend it was an accident." She said this in a singsong little kid voice which made it sound all that much more sinister. "Remind me to take that Hemingway away from you," I said.
We came down off the ridge into a wide shallow that sloped toward Ucross. An orange rind of light lingered along the western ridges. Grateful for the flattening terrain and the rising full moon, we loped along talking Donna Tartt again. I said: "My favourite thing about the bacchanal is how it's barely described, and how none of the characters will talk about it after." Karen said: "Like how in the horror movies the scariest parts are before you even see the monsters, when they're just alluded to."
We stopped short. There was a pelvis bone in our pathway. Blues man Robert Johnson sings: "I've got stones in my pathway and my road seems dark as night." But a pelvis in our pathway? We picked it up, its big clean shape bright against the ragged hills. We'd seen plenty small animal bones on our walks, but nothing like this. What do you think? Deer? Or cow? Seems big for deer. The mule deer are bigger than the whitetail. I don't know. Maybe cow. Karen said: "See, if this were a horror movie this one bone would be the stand-in for all kinds of terrifying things."
At that moment we turned. Out of some dumb animal premonition. We turned and saw, glimmering dull white amid the twisted night-black sagebrush: a field of bones. And, I'll never forget this: the massive back of some downed beast.
I grabbed Karen's wrist. She dropped the pelvis. We screamed! And started running. And kept screaming and kept running. Until finally our editorializing instincts kicked in: Okay, did you see that too? Yes!!! Wait, what did you see? Bones! Oh my god me too. Did you see the carcass? What carcass? Never mind, there was no carcass. Was it a deer or a cow? I don't know. I'm pretty sure I saw duplicate bones. Like there's more than one animal. Way more. How long does it take for bones to get all white like that? Those bones have been there a while. But the carcass is fresh. Was it … all in one piece? The head was… at an angle. But if animals had killed it they would have eaten it, right? Right. Why would multiple large animals keep dying in the same place? Did they trip? Is there a sinkhole? A portal? Clearly that field is haunted. It is a bone field, after all.
We slowed to a winded trot, still looking over our shoulders. Isn't it ominous how that event perfectly dovetailed with our conversation? Notice how it appeared so suddenly, just like in the movies. Notice how it's the full moon and everything. Even these bails of hay look creepy. Yeah! How come we never noticed this hay's haunted before?
We came up to the main road, right where we'd intended to, but there was a fence in our way. And a ditch. Detouring toward a gate, I stepped on something; it stuck to the bottom of my shoe. I tried shaking it off, scraping it off, thinking it was a clod of dirt or dried shit or something, but it won't come off. Oh man, now my shoe is haunted! I stopped to examine this latest development. It was some kind of saddle decoration that everyone in Wyoming must know the name of—a silver circle attached to a leather circle. It's a haunted cowboy thing! It found you! By sticking itself into my shoe. With a nail! I like how it stuck itself into your shoe but not into your foot. Yeah, I like how it didn't give me tetanus!
The short stretch of US14 from Big Red Lane to the Ucross schoolhouse was a bewildering sequence of orange, yellow, red and white lights; high-speed passing gusts, gears shifting, and tires whining. All haunted.
A last low swath of fuchsia sky had set up shop behind the Piney Creek cottonwoods. The trees are taller than usual, wouldn't you say? How are we going to explain this to the others? The first thing we have to do is wash the haunt off our hands. I hope there's no red meat for dinner.
There was buffalo meat for dinner. Not the best night for it. Luckily the Ucross Programming Coordinator was there. She knew all about the bone field. "It's a dump," she said. That made sense. A cow dies in the field and the rancher has to put it somewhere. Or else the other cows become demoralized, I imagine. This perfectly reasonable explanation does allow one to sleep at night. But it doesn't mean the bone field isn't haunted. It totally is.
Karen came into my studio the day after our haunting. She saw my spread of petrified tree pieces, snail shell rocks and the haunted cowboy thing and said: "A museum of yesterday!"
I read her a paragraph from her copy of The Snows of Kilimanjaro, which I had commandeered from her the night before. Hemingway wrote this in 1927, but it was obviously about our haunted yesterday:
What about the ranch and the silvered grey of the sage brush, the quick, clear water in the irrigation ditches, and the heavy green of the alfalfa. The trail went up into the hills and the cattle in the summer were shy as deer. The bawling and the steady noise and slow moving mass raising a dust as you brought them down in the fall. And behind the mountains, the clear sharpness of the peaks in the evening light and, riding down along the trail in the moonlight, bright across the valley. Now he remembered coming down through the timber in the dark holding the horse's tail when he could not see and all the stories that he meant to write.
Karen said, "Did you just write that?"
See why she's my favourite?
A few days later our six weeks in Wyoming were over and it was time to leave. A Ucross ranch hand carted us off the to airport. On US16 north of Buffalo a Bald Eagle paused wings spread low over the Clear Creek. So close to us. Our avatar. It paused for a heartbeat at eye level with us, feeling for the next updraft, wingspan wide as the Suburban. And then it was gone. Or we were.
Some stories, in their retelling, have diminishing returns. It turns out that our hill walk adventures are hard to explain to people who have never been to Wyoming. Even with photographs, even with rock museums. Karen and I keep in touch. We keep telling each other all the stories that we mean to write—of the wild turkeys and the prairie hawks, of the gumbo and the inland gator holes, of the wind we walked into and the fences we climbed over—and we keep telling each other the story of the bone field, because we know how scary it is. And we know no one else does.