One of the things I didn’t know about the West is that the men there really do wear cowboy hats. In fact, as soon as we traversed the Missouri River in South Dakota, we started seeing them on big men, sometimes with flowing handlebar mustaches, who looked solitary, wistful and strong.
And people here also really say “howdy”!
During my time living abroad, I’ve heard America derided as a land with no culture, or at the very best, one with a homogenous culture. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As an East Coast native, I feel like a complete foreigner out here.
First of all, I am nowhere near as tough and self-reliant as the women, especially those of Wyoming. They drive monster trucks, ride horses, work in construction…and have the most amazing legs.
One lady we met, Mikel, told us that for a living she drives a team of horses, teaches horse riding, runs a business showing Conestoga wagons and hosting chuckwagon dinners, while also having time to provide life counseling using horse psychology. Not to mention that since last January, she has been living – alone - in a 23-foot trailer. She said she’s much happier since she lightened up on possessions, and that if she travels, she just parks in a truck stop and uses a candle for light AND heat.
It was Mikel who saved us when our GMC Yukon’s engine started smoking and making increasingly more distressing h-r-r-r-m sounds as we attempted to make our first climb, along a 7-mile stretch of road at a 10% gradient, into the Big Horn Mountains. Stopping to see why we had pulled over, she joined Daniel in having a look under the car’s hood (bonnet) and said we were fine, that all we needed to do was shift into third gear (duh). A nice lesson in automatic transmission.
Thanks, Mikel, for saving us a trip to the mechanic – and probably a lot of money. She was to be the first of our Wyoming guardian angels, who fell kindly from the sky.
[Responding to our email thanking her for her trouble, she recommended that we “Take the odd road, the road less traveled as they say and the Universe will surprise and delight you”. She also cited Cecil Beaton: "Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary."]
Second, as a city dweller, I have no appreciation for wild animals. Notwithstanding the odd fox or raccoon, my experience with serious, large wildlife is nil.
We are now coexisting with wildlife. Camping at the Badlands, a man told us we had gotten up too late to see the coyote outside our trailer. And we thought coyotes were only in the cartoons! Then, at Mount Rushmore, we encountered longhorn sheep. And in the Black Hills, the buffalo do indeed roam, echoing the lyrics of that old song ‘Home on the Range’ – which was performed by a band playing at Custer State Park’s annual Western Art Fair. These beasts are not scared of people, and graze nonchalantly along the roads. And of course at Yellowstone, one hears warning after warning about bears – both grizzly and black.
Third, I assume that everyone thinks New York City is the Best Place Ever. Not so. And even the handful of people we’ve met who’ve approached us expectantly – having seen our New York State license plate - have walked away in disappointment after finding out we were not from upstate.
Finally, people here are really patriotic, with each stars-and-stripes flag larger than the last. They love America, and also fight for it, as evidenced by the large number of servicemen and servicewomen we’ve met. I saw a bumper sticker proclaiming, “Freedom is not free – thank a veteran”. It’s true, we don’t appreciate this enough.
Before breaking off, I should mention that Daniel is embracing the culture of the West – sporting not only a leather hat inspired by the region, but also a flashy new pair of beige and brown stitched leather cowboy boots.
Claire – On maternity leave from career as editor of monthly finance trade magazines, and occasionally a freelance translator. Half-American/half-English, raised in the suburbs of New York, has lived in London for almost nine years.
Daniel – Furniture designer/maker based on London’s Columbia Road flower market, for ten years, also an aspiring painter and DIY supremo. On one-year career break to reconsider options. English by birth, but mother is half-American and spent part of her childhood in Bronxville, New York.
Sophia – 3.5-year old spitfire who loves school, singing, swimming and being a big sister
Lulu – Born May 8 of this year, a model baby who eats, sleeps and gurgles.
Special guests – American, British and international friends and family who drop in along our trip to see whatever part of the country they fancy. They’re welcome to travel in the car with us and sleep in an adjoining tent.