The other day a friend asked how long I’ve lived in southwest Wyoming and how I liked it. She laughed when I admitted that after 9 years, I’m still just getting used to it. Winter out here is especially shocking to me, the cold temperatures the only part I’m used to. Michigan winters, as I remember them, are very wet and white. I have vivid memories of the icicle-laden lighthouse sticking up from the frozen waves of Lake Michigan like a gigantic candy cane, and forts almost two stories deep in the mountains left by snow plows. I even miss the childish joy of wading through streets slick with iron-colored slush. I close my eyes and see trees scarved in snow with top hats of dark clouds, red cardinals and black squirrels ornamenting the landscape, but when I open them, I find myself staring in disbelief at the virtually unchanged landscape out my window.
Though we do get the occasional heavy snow, most winter days in Wyoming are like an empty promise, frigid but sunny, the rugged landscape a dichromatic study of the colors brown and blue. Distant hills still bear their 5 O’Clock shadows of scrubby sagebrush and the towering buttes boast of a hint of orange, looking like enormous Butterfinger candy bars with all the chocolate sucked off. And yet, there is a subtle and almost evasive beauty in this unique landscape, which, like anything in the desert, is found in bits and pieces littered across miles of land and time. Closer to home, my boys press their faces to the window to witness a dozen or so scrubby mule deer clustered in our tiny front yard, nibbling at cactus buds and the last, wilting tidbits of grass. Out here, houses show off lighted cowboy boots rather than stockings, and Santa forgoes his legendary reindeer and sleigh for a trusty steed, his saddle bags bulging with presents, as rendered in local art. And the high shelves of stone form a natural cliff for displaying what must be one of the world’s highest Christmas trees, its lights like a distant cluster of stars, a beacon among the starving clouds. And just as the landscape stands apart from seasons, so our little town with its single grocery store clings with a stony grip on the past; Green River, WY is the last town in the United States with a functioning Pony Express. You won’t catch me sending out classy photocards I made online– instead, I sit at my desk for hours and hand write old fashioned Christmas cards to all our family and friends, which will be stacked in a special box in our post office and later loaded into saddle bags and driven 20 miles across country on horseback. Even shepards (known as sheep herders) still find steady employment out here, most hailing from Mexico or Peru and living in tiny metal wagons, twinkling in their isolation far off the beaten trails of four-wheeler traffic. The sheep can be so dense sometimes that the land seems to float and move as the men drive them off the back roads, wading through a sea of wool on horseback.
It is one of the special perks of Wyoming that history lives on in the lives of those who still work the land and its sparse gifts. Somewhere between here and the Colorado border, my husband and I once found a little woodworking shop where a retired man (remarkably elf-like with his cheeky smile and short stature) hand carved beautiful toys out of various types of wood. I’ll never forget the way his wife winked at me as she told me that Wyoming was a wonderful place to raise kids. As we drove away north, my fingers caressing the finely polished toy car in my lap, I looked out at the land of packed dirt that sprawled endlessly beneath the wide sky, and wondered what in the world she could mean. What was out here but emptiness? And yet, there was the lovingly crafted toy in my lap, the future in my belly, and a home to go home to, despite the desolation around us. And that is the bit about Wyoming that rings true to the miricle of Christmas; it is a place where life and hope are carefully tended miracles, tucked in the cradle of a seemingly barren land.