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Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx
So now that I've addressed the big gay elephant in the room I'd like to move on to the rest of the book which is quite a collection of literature. I was raised in Utah and since driving for hours in any direction you choose is what we do for fun in the west I've had the misery of being in and through Wyoming several times. As a child we took several trips to Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, and the southwest corner of Wyoming on the trips to Dinosaur National Monument which were my absolute favorite when I was younger. I even remember a couple of trips where for no apparent reason we drove to the Little America which is an overblown truck stop in the middle of nowhere. It's advertised as a heaven of a family resort but I suppose that's only true if you're a long haul driver who thinks that Wendover, Nevada is as good a place to stop as Las Vegas.
To complete my Wyoming story, as an adult I worked for a company that did industrial cleanup and had the displeasure of sucking the soot out of various processing units of a shale oil mine. My favorite time was when I, even though I am afraid of climbing the shortest ladders, was up about 10 stories using a vacuum hose to suck the ash out of some large tower who's purpose was nothing other than to pour foul black air into the sky. All this while my oxygen mask wasn't working so to breathe I had to move my mask aside and suck up huge lungfuls of smoke that tasted like a cross between motor oil and wood ashes. After that disastrous day I got to go over to suck the water out of a gold processing pond, we had to make sure we had the right pond because the wrong one was sure to have some cyanide in it, I was told it was used to separate trace amounts of gold from the mountains of dirt they poured into the ponds. The crew I worked with called me "the professor" because I wore glasses and didn't swear. I learned a modicum of respect for the working class on that trip and also learned that my destiny was at a desk somewhere. I tried working for the company for a bit when I got back to Utah but I had to call in every day I wanted to work to see if anything was available and I just couldn't motivate myself to make the call more than twice.
I also spend about three months working in Yellowstone park. It wasn't my cup of tea. Danger lurked at every turn. It wasn't even the famous bears or the fact that if you left the trail you were running the risk of falling through the thin crust into a pool of boiling sulfur water that caused the real problems. Those things just gave me nightmares and made me afraid to leave my room whenever I wasn't working. What interfered with my everyday life was the bison. I was always afraid to go anywhere at night. Every day there was a story of a tourist running afoul of the huge woolly beasts and getting gored. My favorite story was the one of the tourist who set his son on the bison for a photo op. The op ended up being an operation, not an opportunity. Once I was trapped in the laundry room for four hours by a bison and once my friends car was attacked by a bison on the way home from the pub.
On my way east I drove across Wyoming. It was the loneliest part of the country and I've sworn I'll never voluntarily return. Somehow Annie Proulx captures this mood perfectly in her stories. I'll need to do a re-read to see exactly how she does it but somehow I felt the emptiness and the sense of despair all throughout the book. What makes these stories so great is that without detailing the characters she fleshes them out with their thoughts. There's plenty of time for thinking in Wyoming, in fact there's not really a whole lot else to do but think and wait for something to happen, and if you've ever lived in a small town you know that when something happens it's larger than life.
The second greatest story in this book is The Half-Skinned Steer, an award winning story itself that has been featured in several anthologies outside this book. People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water, Pair of Spurs, and The Governors of Wyoming are all great character and prop driven stories. I also have to say that 55 Miles to the Gas Pump was a fantastic one pager that I read four times just to drink it all in.
So go enjoy your well earned awards Annie, because it's a cold lonely night in Wyoming and your book is so startingly descriptive that it's as close to the real Wyoming as I want to get.