Creating the West

Creating the West

Creating the West
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Oct. 15 2002 4:45 PM

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Today's  audio update: Alexandra Fuller sneaks off to phone in from the Hole-in-the-Wall.

And God stepped out on space
And he looked around and said:
I'm lonely—
I'll make me a world
.
—from The Creation, by James Weldon Johnson

A dusting of morning snow portends the coming Wyoming winter.
A dusting of morning snow portends the coming Wyoming winter.

If you drive 35 miles southwest of what used to be Kaycee, Wyo. (until it was almost entirely flushed away in a flood of biblical proportions two months ago, leaving, in what only can be seen as an act of God, four churches and the bar), the crease of the land gives way, briefly, to a series of ranch buildings that in the face of their scenery appear completely inconsequential. These diminutive wooden structures, chins jutting bravely to a cold October wind, make up the headquarters of Willow Creek Ranch at the Hole-in-the-Wall and our place of rest for the next two nights. This is the first stop in a journey that will take us (photographer and field producer, Christian Kallen, and me) from Wyoming to Texas along the rocky spine of tough country which encompasses the Outlaw Trail.

Trying to describe this landscape, even the relatively bite-sized chunk of 60,000 acres which makes up this ranch, is like trying to fence the sky. Its vastness—which is something that is felt, rather than seen—is like vertigo. You can't press it into manageable-sounding chunks of acreage and hope that its immensity can be contained. Hump after hump of sage-brush-dotted plane gives way to the vast teethlike mouth of the Red Wall—a 400-foot high, 18-mile-long cliff—which feels as if it may swallow the valley it borders, so hungry is the eye for an end to the enormity of the place.

It's a fatal-feeling land; the careless kind that could lose an incautious traveler or a blundering cow and not even bother to shrug its shoulders. It's also the kind of place that people have come to in order to lose themselves, to distance the world from their doorstep, with a massive bite of inhospitable terrain between them and everybody else. Native Americans came here to hunt bison, outlaws came here to hide and to rest and to refresh their horses, ranchers came here to homestead and to breed and some to starve to death. It is a land that inspires, or perhaps breeds, the kind of eccentricity that ordinary people can only hope to achieve.

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"I loved Kirk so much," Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming and American beauty queen, told a stunned magistrate's court in England back in 1977, "I would have skied down Mount Everest with a carnation up my nose." This was her defense for having kidnapped Kirk Anderson (a Mormon missionary and her ex-lover), whom she then took to a remote cottage where he was chained to a bed and forced to make love to her.

Willow Creek Ranch does not currently harbor any potential Joyce McKinneys (although it is rumored that the room in which Christian is bunking once belonged to a woman whose occupation was to entertain the ranch hands). In fact, the current occupants of the place love God. A book titled The Way for the Cowboy (a testimony of bull-riding Christians with readings from the New Testament) is next to my bed. Meals begin with a heartfelt blessing. God, it is clear, is here.

This spread (how easily one slips into the lingo) is now owned and run by Gene Vieh, a fair-but-firm, no-nonsense man about whom it would seem more proper to say that God fears him, rather than the other way around, and whose breakfast conversation is likely to run along the lines of, "Fifteen prairie dogs eat the same amount of grass as one cow," or (on being told I was from Zambia) "When was the last time you were in Africa? You know that you can carry foot-and-mouth disease in your hair or on your clothes for months."

Meals at the Willow Creek Ranch Bunkhouse are designed to stupefy potentially troublesome guests. The prospect of skiing Everest, with or without a carnation up my nose, seems an ever-diminishing dream in the face of the pile of food with which I am faced at breakfast. I drink tea and retire to my room where The Way for the Cowboy awaits.

Check back tomorrow for another dispatch from the wide open spaces of Wyoming.

Alexandra Fuller is the author of the best-selling memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood.