I looked over my shoulder to see a young man in a scarf holding aloft a styrofoam cup. Our eyes met.
“…and orphans!” he added emphatically.
Behind him was a table with a couple of large thermos containers. A banner was flapping in the cold wind but I was pedaling too fast to read it. No matter, my girlfriend had already mentioned that there would be students on the University commons today, raising money for charity by selling one dollar cups of coffee. Poor Africa. An entire continent whose name was synonymous with suffering.
My girlfriend Hayley had gone back to college after an aborted first effort several years before which had left her exhausted and in debt. Now she was attending the University of Wyoming in Laramie. It had a decent Anthropology department and, perhaps more important to my girlfriend, it was cheap. The cost of living was also cheap in this dusty town on the high plains, but I couldn’t seem to find a job and soon realized that most of the local businesses were only interested in hiring attractive co-eds. In the end I settled for part-time work as a cafeteria server on campus (“You want fries with that?”). It paid the rent and put food on the table, but not much else.
The town of Laramie was named for the early nineteenth-century French trapper, Jacques La Ramie, who disappeared in the nearby mountains and was never heard from again. In its early days Laramie was like the Hollywood cliché of a lawless western town waiting for the man in the white hat to arrive and clean things up. It was run by three half-brothers who cowed the town through fear and violence, running crooked card games and demanding that settlers sign over their deeds or face the consequences. “Big” Steve Long, one of the brothers (and the corrupt town marshal), killed over a dozen men in gunfights. If that wasn’t villainous enough, they also ran a saloon known as the Bucket of Blood. The new sheriff arrived in 1868 and administered a rough justice by lynching them all.
In 1998 a different kind of lynching brought national attention to the town: the killing of Matthew Shepard. A University student, he was brutally beaten and left to die on the plains outside of town by two young hooligans who pretended to be gay in order to lure him into their car. The incident resulted in the eventual passage of hate-crime legislation which bore the victim’s name, but it also brought out the crazies. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church made the trip to Wyoming to picket Matthew Shepard’s funeral with signs that read “AIDS Cures Fags” and “Matt in Hell”. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when, on another occasion while peddling through campus, I saw a small group of people holding a large sign that listed everyone who would burn in hell, homosexuals among them. They were only five or six in number, with an eight-year-old struggling to hold the unwieldy sign. They looked like extras from Little House on the Prairie with the men in suspenders and wide-brimmed farmer’s hats while the women wore bonnets and plain cotton dresses. This time I stopped and turned around.
“Have you people ever heard of Matthew Shepard?” I asked the group.
The nearest man broke his American Gothic pose and approached me with a smile. The rest of his clan became suddenly animated, closing around me and my bike for the not-to-be-missed opportunity to witness for the Lord. “Uh oh,” I thought.
“Yes,” he answered simply.
“Then you know that he was a student here?” I went on.
“And that he was killed because he was gay?”
I went in for the kill.
“So don’t you think your hateful rhetoric is inappropriate here?”
His eyes glossed over.
“God isn’t hateful. God is love,” he said, apparently perplexed.
I glanced at the sign, which was no longer wavering as the pre-pubescent God-botherer held it to my face with conviction and smirked at his first real faggot.
“Do you think Matthew Shepard is in hell now?” I asked, trying a different tack.
“So your God is a judgmental and spiteful God?”
He smiled tolerantly and nodded to one of his cohorts who produced a couple of brochures. Without another word he handed them to me and continued to beam happily. I was reminded of something I’d heard about the French, about how they regard a person who smiles too much as simple. I’d asked my mother about this and she’d confirmed it.
“Oh yes, that’s true. We make fun of people who smile for no reason. It’s not fair really, because Americans tend to smile a lot. But the French think that someone who smiles too much is an idiot.”
THE MOST DRAMATIC feature of Wyoming is its geology, and nowhere is this more evident than in Yellowstone. The hot spot that drives the Park’s thermal features originated farther west, on the Oregon-Nevada border. Some 16 million years ago the earth’s crust was sundered by a rare and unsettling event known as a flood basalt, in which a massive plume of magma detaches itself from the mantle and, like a lava lamp, slowly makes its way to the surface. Once it melts its way through the overlying crust and erupts the magma begins to ooze out over the surface, sometimes for thousands of years, dramatically altering the global environment. Some scientists believe there is a correlation between these rare events and mass extinctions. It was from this cataclysmic event that the Yellowstone hot spot was born, which continues to erupt in a desultory fashion every million years or so, punching through the earth’s crust as the continental plate moves over it. Looking at a map of volcanic eruptions over the intervening epochs one cannot help but think of some vast and hellish subterranean whale, surfacing periodically to spout fire and brimstone into a dismayed sky. Now there was a judgment day to get excited about.
Apart from that, life in Laramie was very much a snapshot of small-town America. Most people drove around in old pickups and lived in modest middle-class houses with trim lawns and white-picket fences. For me it might as well have been the moon. Right out of college I’d gone to work in a national park. I quickly fell into the seasonal lifestyle, moving from park to park while making the odd trip overseas. I lived out of my car and, occasionally, out of my backpack. Buying a house seemed absurd and children were the stuff of nightmares; they were something bad that happened to people who didn’t take the necessary precautions, like failing to wear a wreath of garlic when vampires are about. But now I was living in the midst of an unfamiliar suburban world and I’d lost the narrative of the national parks. Suddenly, there was no narrative at all.
This feeling of anomie was softened by the stories my girlfriend told me. She was studying Cultural Anthropology and would often relate the adventures of renowned ethnographers like Malinowski, Lévi-Strauss, and Margaret Mead, who spent time among isolated tribes of indigènes. I began to approach my new life in Laramie as a sojourn into the exotic as a participant/observer, but I quickly learned not to share my insights with Hayley because she would just roll her eyes and accuse me of cultural bias and insensitivity (“All I said was, that piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah…“). I found myself identifying with Napoleon Chagnon, an American anthropologist who was considered something of an enfant terrible in the scientific community. His willingness to try the hallucinogenic drug ebene when he was in the Amazon scandalized the missionaries, and more trouble ensued when his reports failed to comport with the sanitized narrative of the day that was being promulgated by his fellow anthropologists. The “noble savage” was no such thing. The savage, Chagnon discovered, was disturbingly like us.
MOST OF OUR NEIGHBORS were students, but the upstairs apartment had recently been rented to a meth addict who soon began knocking on our door.
“You have any DVDs I can borrow?” she asked in a raspy voice.
“No,” I lied.
“How ’bout your girlfriend?”
Hayley took over.
“Yes, I have some DVDs, but you can’t have them.”
“Because I don’t know you.”
“Aw c’mon, don’t be like that.”
“You just moved in,” Hayley explained. “For all I know you could be a meth addict.”
A few weeks later our neighbor disappeared, leaving behind nothing more than a few band-aids and scorch marks on the floor of her apartment, along with a month’s unpaid rent. She didn’t disappear completely though. One day Hayley and I spotted her in a thrift store as she was arguing with the clerk.
“This is a good sewing machine,” she rasped. “But it don’t have any thread. How ’bout giving me a break on the price?”
Hayley shook her head sympathetically when we left the store.
“You’re in pretty rough shape when you’re haggling for a better price at the Salvation Army,” she remarked.
Suddenly, working part time on the minimum wage didn’t seem so bad. Everyone we knew was in debt, either from college or drugs or the lousy economy. I began to think that I wasn’t the only one lacking a narrative, except in my case I was just treading water – most of these people were drowning. And so, after two years on the windblown plains of southeastern Wyoming, working a dead-end job and looking forward to nothing more liberating than Friday night happy hour, I realized that I had stumbled upon the new American Dream: bare subsistence.