Friday, January 1, 2016

On Coming Home

I am from Jackson Hole Wyoming, where the winters are snowy, COLD, and gorgeous. Hoar frost glistens in the air so that in the morning when the light is right, there is a rainbow halo around the sun and teeny diamonds floating all around you. Sure, it might be twenty below zero, but when the sun is out, all that lovely radiation warms you up, and you don't feel the cold. The town is situated in one of the most remote areas in the continental United States. The closest large city is Salt Lake, which is a five hour drive away. In all directions, for miles and miles, there is nothing but twisting mountain roads, tiny western towns, cows, and wildlife. On a single drive dropping off a dear friend at the airport recently, we saw moose, elk, deer, and buffalo. There is a place right next to town where, in the fall, you can drive your car and be surrounded by a herd of bighorn sheep who come to lick the salt off your doors while looking you right in the eye. 

While I was slogging through six years of graduate school, first in Vermont and then in New York City, I missed Wyoming desperately. But I married a New Yorker. To someone from America's greatest city, (arguably,) Jackson is stark and isolated. New Yorkers have the instinct to be around lots of people because you're less likely to be mugged if there are dozens of witnesses around. Here in Wyoming, the only witnesses would be the elk while you're being mugged by a grizzly bear. For understandable reasons, my husband was reluctant to move to Jackson, and I thought Colorado would be an okay compromise, thinking the nature and climate would be comparable. Fort Collins is at the base of the Rocky Mountains after all. 

I regretted the move almost immediately. I found out we were living in what's called the Banana Belt of Colorado, along the base of the Rocky Mountains, which experiences mild winters and very hot summers. A lot of people imagine huge piles of snow for Colorado dwellers, but this is not true along the Front Range. Because of the huge wall of mountains that cuts through the state, warm air gets trapped at the base, creating a bubble of warmth in a sea of cold. This is called an inversion, and I hated it.  Sure, we'd get a little snow, but it would melt usually within a week or two. Winter was a brown, slushy affair, flaccid and boring. Not enough snow to cross country ski, and no alpine ski resorts within a reasonable driving distance, so winter sports just weren't the emphasis there, unless of course you count indoor hockey. Yuck. Nothing against hockey; it was the indoor part I didn't like. In the summer the temperatures are punishing. Sure, you can go for a hike in 100 degree weather, but do you want to? The town is great. The people are great. But at night I had dreams of Wyoming, recurring nightmares featuring people I went to high school with who'd stayed in Jackson, whispering at me that I could never go back. I would wake up in anguish.

My husband loved Colorado, loved the sun, loved the mild winter, but he saw what it was doing to me. Even though I had resolved to live there for the rest of my life, and had tried hard to do so cheerfully, he knew it was eating me up inside. One day when we were in Wyoming visiting my Dad, walking through the woods, watching our kids happily scrambling over the mountainside, he said out of the blue, "Okay. Let's move here."

I dissolved into sloppy, grateful sobs. 

So we moved in July, and I was ecstatic. The summer was glorious, a pleasant upper seventy degree paradise. I took my kids on hikes, and they were little mountain goats, scrambling over the hillside, loving it. Oh, I was so happy. So utterly thrilled! I looked at the mountains every day and I thanked the universe, thanked my father who helped us buy our house outside of town,  and above all thanked my amazing husband for his loving sacrifice, which was large. I thought I was the luckiest woman in the world. Autumn was just as gorgeous, with intense yellows and golds glowing in the slanting sunlight. At night in our rustic home we listened to coyotes talking to each other, and elk bugling, their hauntingly beautiful mating call that sounds a little like whales singing. Paradise. Winter was beginning, the first true cold of the dark months, and skiing soon! Hurray!

Then I had a bad week. 

My husband left for New York on a week long business trip, and I was all set to enjoy the time alone with my kids. We would watch movies and cuddle in bed, and I was going to handle everything just fine. Best of all, it had started really snowing. We'd had a few humble snowfalls, but finally we were getting some REAL snow, about a foot expected to fall over the next five days! Finally a real Jackson winter!! 

Then one day, on my way home from dropping my kids off at school, I was approaching the turn off to my neighborhood from the highway. There was a large truck right behind me, and I was afraid of being rear ended if I slowed all the way down before I made my turn. There was enough snow on the side of the road I couldn't move over to the shoulder to slow down either. So I decelerated as I made the turn. I was going probably twenty five miles per hour as I came down the slope, and I hit my brakes again to turn onto my street, and slid right into the ditch by my house.

Allow me to describe this ditch: It is about twenty feet deep, with a STEEP drop down from the road, steep enough it would be hard to walk down without sitting on your butt as you slide. It's almost cliff-steep.

I started screaming as my car approached the edge. Even my car screamed. I didn't know I had an alarm that beeped if you were about to roll your car. I know it now, and it screams in your ear, making you even more scared. Somehow my lizard brain took over and I was able to straighten out so that my nose was pointed down. I stopped the roll, but the ride down was bumpy and scary as hell. I wasn't injured much beyond being shaken painfully against my seatbelt. For two weeks afterward, my neck and back ached, with pain radiating down my shoulder into my arm. But it could've been so much worse.

I got my car towed, and borrowed my Dad's car while they fixed mine. I had thought loading three kids into carseats in my minivan was exhausting, but my Dad's SUV was a killer on my already sore back. My husband wasn't due to come home for a week, and though he offered to cut his trip short, I insisted I was fine and I could handle it on my own. And I did. The insurance covered most of the repairs, I got the kids to school on time, I did all the house work alone. I managed, but missed my husband. I cried a little, and a couple times I yelled at my kids until I realized I was being a jerk and apologized. 

But the accident left a scar. Suddenly I remembered that these beautiful Wyoming winters are dangerous. Really dangerous. How could I have forgotten? The list of people I grew up with who have died on these roads is unsettlingly long. And now, every single time I approach my street, I tense up. I look down at that ditch, afraid I'm going to end up there again, but this time we might roll, and my kids could be in the car. We have to drive past that yawning chasm of death every damn day. Suddenly the beauty I had longed for seemed menacing, and I began to question my selfishness in moving my family from a home they loved to this Siberian Hellscape. 

The honeymoon period is over. My dreamy joy at living here has been replaced with a mundane seriousness, a grim acceptance that we now live in a place that can kill you. People die from cold. People run into grizzlies and get mauled. People fall off mountains and die. Avalanches can sweep across a major highway that connects Idaho to Wyoming, which hundreds of people commute every day. I personally know of people who have died when their cars got pushed over the side of a cliff by a rumbling mountain of snow. 

There are things you have to know to survive here. Always make noise when you're in the woods to warn bears of your approach, and if possible, bring a buddy and bear mace. Check the avalanche report before you go into the back country, and if an avalanche happens anyway, swim as you fall and try to make an air pocket in front of your face so you don't suffocate. Wear proper clothing if you're going out so you don't get frost bite on your fingers. And when you're approaching the turnoff to your neighborhood on the icy highway, slow down starting about a quarter mile before your turn so the dummy tailgating you is forced to slow down too, make the turn at the top of the hill going at a crawl, so you don't end up rolling into the ditch at night in twenty below weather and end up freezing to death in your car because you live in a remote area, there's almost no traffic, and no one will find you until morning. For example.

Some time has passed, and I wish I could say these dark feelings inside me have dissipated. My husband knows I'm having second thoughts about moving back here, and he's annoyed about it, understandably so. I'm annoyed with myself. I suppose a period of adjustment is to be expected, as well as a mourning period, saying goodbye to those mild Colorado winters, those easy roads, the convenience of living an hour away from Denver. Did we make a mistake moving here? I hadn't thought so. I'd thought it was the best thing we could do for our kids, moving them to a natural paradise, one of the last vestiges on Earth of what this planet used to be. But now I know it's the kind of decision we could come to regret if something happens to one of our precious children. Maybe one, or all of them, will slide into that ditch, rolling this time. I think I will have to be one of those mothers who stays up until they are all safely home, not the one who goes to bed without worry. (Are there any mothers like that?) And if there is a night when they ignore curfew, come what may, and stay out into the late hours in the dead of winter? I will be frantic.  That is the deal we made when we moved here. I didn't realize it before, but I sure as hell understand it now.

Yesterday, when I took my kids sledding, a bald eagle flew overhead through the glistening hoar frost, utterly silent, oblivious to my children's laughter, close enough I could've hit him with a puff of powdery snow. I reminded myself that I do know how to avoid a bear encounter, and my kids do too. I don't have to make that Idaho commute because of the generosity of my father who helped us buy a house on the much more expensive Wyoming side of the Tetons. I'm not a back country skier, so avalanche risk for me is next to nothing. And I now know how to make that scary turn onto my road with relative safety. I'm no longer living in easy going Fort Collins, true, but there are bald eagles right in town. There are coyotes that frequent my neighborhood, singing me to sleep. And the natural beauty is absolutely awesome, in every sense of the word.

Okay, Wyoming, you treacherous beauty. I'm home.

I am pleased to report that I am fully recovered from the accident. How do I know? I was telling a friend that the other night I heard the haunting scream of a mountain lion outside my house. She smiled, and said, "So. Did that make you more worried about moving to Wyoming? Or did it make you feel excited?" My answer was: "Excited. Very, very excited!"


  1. And to think we almost retired to Wyoming instead of Colorado. After reading this post, Amy, I think we made the correct decision. May all your days be so filled with beauty and blessed solitude that you don't even notice the cold anymore. And be careful!

    1. Thank you Pat. You should come for a visit, but in the summer. Get a break from the heat!

  2. We moved to Laramie for four years, although I don't suppose that's really Wyoming. Despite the wonderful people, I found the wind and cold almost unbearable. I'm learning to love Colorado, although I'm afraid my heart will always be in the Midwest.

    1. Laramie is a pretty harsh climate actually! I lived there for college, and the elevation is actually higher than Jackson Hole, or Denver! It's the high plains, so there's nothing to stop that wind. One year in Laramie, it got so cold that all the cars in town stopped working, for real! (Fifty Five below zero!) That meant I had to walk to my college finals, which was a bit scary. Laramie can be rougher than Jackson, but it's a great town in many ways. The climate in Jackson is cold, but there is far less wind. I'll take Jackson over Laramie, though in Jackson there's no Jeffrey's.