Cody– Laura Bell guides me across her back yard to a small Airstream parked on the grass. Inside, we sit down at a small table to discuss her memoir, Claiming Ground, that Knopf published last spring. To our left is a tiny kitchen with a miniature stove and refrigerator, a small bathroom, and a bed.
“My modern-day sheepwagon,” Bell jokes.
Much of her book recounts her years as a shepherd in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming, where she took shelter in a tiny sheepwagon (smaller, amazingly, than this Bambi Airstream), surrounded by sage, grazing sheep, her horse, her dogs, and miles-away fellow herders. Claiming Ground follows Bell’s Bedouin-like existence through her years as a Wyoming shepherd, ranch hand, wife and stepmother, disjointed divorcee, grieving stepmother, and single working woman trying various careers from masseuse to conservationist—always while seeking her own “ground.”
In the Airstream, we sip ice water flavored with rosemary sprigs and Bell describes spending hours in here editing her book’s manuscript—despite having an office just steps away in her house. It’s as if this small space, like the one that served her so well as a shepherd seeking her place in the world, served her equally well as she sought her literary voice.
At 56, by most measures Bell has found that voice. Her memoir, her first published book, has been well received. Acquired by one of the top editors in the country and issued in hard cover, it’s in its second printing and has landed on several regional bestsellers’ lists. It reached the number 10 spot on the Pacific Northwest Independent Booksellers ranking in March and hit number 11 on the Mountains and Plains Indie list in June.
The success has changed Bell’s life. For the first time, she will write full time rather than on the side, as she did for the more than 15 years that Claiming Ground was in the works. Last month, she gave notice to her supervisors at The Nature Conservancy, where she has worked for the past decade, that she will leave in November.
Bell also plans to move—shockingly—to West Palm Beach, Fla., though she will keep her home in Cody. She is following her new “beau,” as she calls him, David Beckett, a lawyer from Jackson, who has accepted a job as in-house counsel to a corporation there.
West Palm—humid, ritzy—seems a world away from the wide-open ruggedness of Wyoming, about which Bell writes so vividly in her memoir. But Beckett’s job will afford Bell “the space and silence” to write, and she can hardly wait.
“The urge to write is such that I would move into a cinderblock cell and write,” she says. “There’s nothing like having a new door open up in your mid-50s. I’ve always been someone who has been about evolution.”
TURNING OVER STONES
In her memoir, Bell turns over her life’s stones, not shy about revealing her secrets. While herding sheep in her 20s she had an affair with a married man and aborted an unplanned pregnancy. Later, she married a widower cowboy, despite reservations about his drinking. As his alcoholism deepened—he would tuck beers into his vest before chopping wood and opened cans of beer earlier and earlier in the day—she agonized over leaving him because it also meant leaving her two stepdaughters, Jenny and Amy, just 8 and 11, whom she’d raised for seven years.
“Who would be the flame for them if tonight I just kept walking? Where would I find forgiveness if I left?”
She describes her dark despair after her stepdaughter Jenny dies in a late-night car accident. “When the reason to move every day is gone, I can’t find another.”
At times, Bell’s language in Claiming Ground is so beautiful it startles. About her fellow shepherds, Bell writes: “They smelled of sheep tallow, woodsmoke and kerosene, and sometimes of whiskey seeping through their pores. Some of them brought a rare beauty and grace to their work. Others, psychotic or drunk, herded because they couldn’t find a place among people. In the three years I herded, I came to understand they were often one and the same. They wove the line between sacred and profane, never staying much to center.”
Bell handles the dramatic events in her book with subtlety. Instead of writing about sex acts, she describes a sheepherder named Grady draping hot towels over her naked body during their affair. When she is confronted by his wife, she suggests it with a passage about a quiet woman laboring up to her sheepwagon, sitting down for a glass of water, sharing awkward small talk, and then leaving.
“This woman who sits not three feet from me could tell me when it was that the small disappointments began to gain on the joy.”
Some critics and readers have complained that Bell is too coy, and wonder what she left out.
In a blunt review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Nicolette Hahn Niman, a rancher and author, questioned why Bell really lit out for the West.
“Something seems to be missing. Bell’s family, especially her parents, make repeated appearances in the book, and always seem stable, loving people who give her unconditional support, guidance and love, begging the question about the origins of her own discontent and restlessness. From where does her inability to find happiness, to put down roots and build a life, originate? Although the memoir reads as honest, it never undertakes this fundamental and necessary self-examination.”
Bell says she’s heard this complaint. “Some people have wanted more: ‘OK, what was the problem?’
“There really wasn’t anything,” she says.
No rape. No incest. No abuse. In an era of sensational memoirs, each trying to raise the ante with some new personal horror, readers may now expect salaciousness.
Bell says she purposely omitted from her memoir any angst about not receiving enough parental attention when she was growing up. She is the fourth of five children born to busy parents—her father was a minister and her mother an advocate for Alzheimer’s patients.
“I didn’t want to write that kind of book,” she says. (Today, Bell is extremely close to her parents, Wayne and Virginia Bell, 91 and 88. Her book is dedicated to them, and she visits them “every chance I get.”)
“We each are given the challenge to find our place in the world whether you had too much love—you were smothered—or you didn’t have enough love, or this, or that,” she says. “We grow up in a family, in this environment, and we leave. It’s the job of each one of us to understand that water that we swam in, to differentiate ourselves. I had to go a long ways away to do that.”
Bell’s editor Gary Fisketjon at Knopf says he, for one, is glad Bell’s memoir isn’t another Days of Our Lives tell-all.
“I wasn’t interested in notorious dysfunction, most of which is interesting only to a psychiatrist,” he said. “I’m always heartened when I see a book that is able to be rooted in a time and place and not be about how hard it is. It’s not every day that that happens.”
THE “BRIE CHEESE” GIRL
Bell is dressed in a black tank-top over jeans rolled up to her ankles. Red bead earrings and red flats add dashes of color.
She radiates a casual elegance.
So does her home. It has faded Oriental rugs and worn armchairs but original artwork and crystal glasses.
“We used to joke about Laura and her brie cheese,” says her sister-in-law Carol Bell, a close friend who is married to Laura’s older brother David and owns The Thistle, a sundry store in Cody. The two women herded cattle together on Carol’s parent’s Diamond Tail Ranch in Shell.
“Here’s this woman,” says Carol, “who was so rough—never wore makeup, wore Wranglers. But she had this really feminine side. She laid out table cloths and served brie.”
Bell’s house is a strange blend of two old houses pushed together, so it has floors with unexpected steps up and down and a quirky, rambling feel.
“It’s funky,” says Bell, “and it was cheap.”
She bought it soon after she moved to Cody for The Nature Conservancy.
Everywhere inside it are books: in a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf case, piled on tabletops, in stacks by her bed. David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mary Karr’s Lit, a volume of poetry by Pablo Neruda, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna are among the titles I glimpse.
On top of one pile is Wyoming writer Gretel Ehrlich’s new book, In the Empire of Ice. The two women have been friends for years and have a remarkable amount in common. Both moved to Wyoming in their 20s, herded sheep for the Lewis Ranch, worked as cowgirls, lived in Shell, and, of course, wrote, though Ehrlich first published in the ’70s and has published successfully since. Both now have memoirs out describing their years as herders and cowhands and how they fell in love with Wyoming, but Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces appeared in 1985, long before Bell’s book. The two show up in each other’s memoirs, but in recent years, with Ehrlich on the road repeatedly for books about Greenland and the Arctic, have fallen out of touch.
Bell’s home office, a step down from the living room, is small with a large east-facing window. Her desk is a piece of plywood resting on two steel file cabinets. All around are colorful totems from her life. Framed photos of her stepdaughters Jenny and Amy. The original print of the map used for the cover of Claiming Ground, a gift from the artist Harriet Corbett. A framed sketch of Japanese kanji spelling out “What is next?” which she received from a Buddhist monk who presided over Ehrlich’s wedding. A sketch of her dogs by Virginia Spragg, the wife of novelist Mark Spragg and herself a writer who read Bell’s manuscript more than anyone else. An impressionistic print of a horse by a favorite painter, Theodore Waddell.
While writing Claiming Ground, Bell spent little time working in this office, instead using her laptop while propped up in bed. “I found mornings to be a very good time to write.”
Off the library, two Australian Shepherds –Daisy, age two and Sam, five–whine from behind a gate in a laundry room.
Laura expertly quiets them with soothing words. Since her shepherding days, she has loved owning energetic Aussies. Daisy, in fact, came from Bell’s editor Fisketjon, who gave the dog to her when it was clear Daisy demanded more attention than he and his wife could give her in Manhattan.
BOOKS AND HORSES
“It sounds like some cult,” laughs Laura, “but it’s not. It’s liberal Christian,” similar to other mainstream Protestant denominations.
Bell’s mother Virginia, a social worker, is a leader in Alzheimer’s patient care. She was recently inducted into the School of Social Work Hall of Fame at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where the elder Bells now live, for creating Helping Hands, a volunteer buddy-system program.
The five Bell children—three girls and two boys—were born between 1945 and 1958. While Laura’s two older sisters Brenda and Marsha were put in classes for ballet, tap dancing, violin, and piano, “when I came along my parents were tired,” says Laura. “I just got to be a little tomboy. I found if I just read and did my school work, I could fly under the radar. I was out there building forts and pretending we had horses with stick-horses. It was great.”
“I came out of the womb in love with horses,” she says.
Her family couldn’t afford them, so Laura cared for neighbor’s horses in exchange for riding time. Eventually, she saved enough money to buy her own mount, but never quite fit in with the horsey set.
“We would hire the guy from the local public riding stables to transport me to shows,” she says. “The old guy was named Jeep and had a pot belly and chewed. He’d show up with his old stock truck. You’d have to jump the horse in the back of the old rattletrap.”
The other girls arrived in polished trucks with matching trailers.
“I’d be so embarrassed,” Bell laughs, “but that was my destiny.”
Being part of a family at the center of a church could feel like living in “a fishbowl.”
One of Laura’s favorite pastimes was riding a horse beyond city limits with a book and a sandwich in her saddlebags.
Bell graduated from high school as an honors student and yearbook editor. She went to Hiram College in Ohio where she majored in psychology. She never took a writing class there, and even steered clear of English courses.
“I put writers up on a pedestal as sort of like gods,” she says. “Somehow I had the feeling that was something I could never do or be.”
After college Bell’s sister, busy with a five-month-old baby, invited her to spend a summer in Wyoming with her while her brother-in-law worked on a paleontological dig in the Big Horns. Bell ditched vague plans for graduate school.
Soon Bell developed a crush on “Miles”, the head of the dig, “who quoted poetry and sometimes brushed his teeth with a shot of Jack Daniels.” And she fell for the landscape and a romantic notion she’d harbored as a child for living with nothing more than a horse and a roof over her head. While things didn’t pan out with Miles, she stumbled upon the chance to live her daydream when she met Miles’s friend Doug, a shepherd, at his camp.
“I longed for it, so much so that when I went with Doug to retrieve canned drinks chilling in his spring, the words came blurting out, ‘Can I stay here? Do you need any help?’” she writes in her memoir.
NIGHT CLASSES IN WRITING
Living in Greybull and working for the U.S. Forest Service as a range tech, Bell discovered that while her colleagues griped when it was their turn to write a forestry column for the Greybull Standard, she relished it.
“I realized, ‘Oh, I’m getting paid, and I get to sit here and write something!’”
The story she tells in Claiming Ground about the eccentric sheepherder Fred Murdi, who used twine and duct tape to hold his clothes together and died a rich man, had its roots in one of those columns.
Bell decided to sign up for a night writing class at Northwest College in Powell. Her teacher was Debbie Hammons, then a writer and producer for Wyoming Public TV and a graduate of Stanford’s writing program, now a state legislator.
Hammons remembers Bell well.
“I asked all of the students to share something out loud. There was silence when she finished reading her piece. The whole class instantly knew that Laura was a rare writer, someone whose words were profoundly true.”
Hammons encouraged Bell “every chance I had.”
For Bell, Hammons’s encouragement mattered.
“That was the first place where I started to discover the words. I had words in me that were very different from my conversational voice.”
Bell quit her forestry job and took her life in a new direction, studying massage in Salt Lake City. She wanted a profession with flexible hours that would allow her to write. Later, she split her time between a Salt Lake City resort where she was a masseuse and the Stone School in Shell, Wyo., where she was caretaker for a bookstore and art gallery.
She took a class with Terry Tempest Williams in Salt Lake and a weeklong seminar with Rick Bass in Montana. Both writers’ praise helped propel her forward.
“Those were important years to me in terms of starting to write,” says Bell. “I was either writing or conspicuously not writing and agonizing over that.”
A big boost came when Gretel Ehrlich accepted one of Bell’s essays—about her shepherding horse running away with wild horses—for publication in the collection Ehrlich edited, Life in the Saddle: Writings and Photographs (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1995). Bell’s story ran alongside pieces by Tom McGuane, Ivan Doig, and Verlyn Klinkenborg.
“It was like taking a drug or something,” says Bell. “You discover this thing—this ability inside—that I didn’t really know I had. This deliciousness of putting the words together. And the difficulty, what a hard thing that is to do. And, my God, I love it. That’s when I really started thinking, ‘I secretly want to be a writer.’”
Bell received more encouragement when her friend the Cody novelist Mark Spragg put one of her essays in the collection Thunder of Mustangs: Legend and Lore of the Wild Horses (Sierra Club Books, 1997). Bell also received every grant she applied for from the Wyoming Arts Council, four in all.
Bell toyed with the idea of pursuing an MFA but was talked out of it by James Galvin, a poet who received an MFA from Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and who teaches there. He read some of Bell’s writing during a book-tour stop at the Stone School.
“He said, ‘You don’t need a graduate program. You just need to write,’” says Bell.
Still she couldn’t stomach doing it fulltime.
“Other people can say, ‘Oh yeah, I want to be a writer,’ and they’re out and submitting things,” says Bell. “I had to, I don’t know, I felt I had to earn it inside of myself.”
In 1999, when a job for The Nature Conservancy’s Cody office opened up, Bell applied.
“I thought, there’s no chance in hell.”
Bell lacked a graduate degree and science background. But, in the Conservancy’s view, she made up for that with her rich experience working for the kind of landowners the Conservancy wanted to reach for land preservation.
After eight years as the northwest program director, she became associate director of philanthropy, raising millions of dollars.
Molly Hampton, the Conservancy’s director of philanthropy, was devastated when Bell gave notice, even as she is happy for Bell’s writing career.
“I knew it was coming someday,” says Hampton. “I just hoped it was coming in the next few years. Replacing her will be very hard. She has that mix of really knowing conservation well and being well connected. She’s a skilled listener and knows when to ask. A major gifts person is someone who has enough confidence and chutzpah to ask for a millions dollars, ten-millions dollars. It’s an art. Laura could do it.”
That talent nearly derailed her writing. Bell is passionate about land conservation issues, an interest born of her time as a shepherd and nurtured during her years as a Conservancy advocate. She can talk to anyone about the importance of preserving wildlife corridors and endangered species’ habitats. But the effort required for environmental fights necessarily steals from the quiet and solitude a writer needs to write.
“There were times when I was too busy to write,” says Bell, “and I thought I should be writing.”
In 2005, Bell applied for an artist’s residency at the Ucross Foundation in northeast Wyoming—in the foothills of the familiar Big Horn range. Bell was given two weeks to reignite her writing.
“I went over there and I wept and I napped and I slept. And I wrote. But I wrote.”
The kernel for her chapter about the tragic death of her stepdaughter Jenny in a car accident began there.
Finally, with the help of her friend Mark Spragg, Bell summoned the courage to submit her memoir. Spragg recommended it to his Knopf editor, Gary Fisketjon. At that time, what would become Claiming Ground was not narrative, but a collection of essays.
Fisketjon, who also edits Cormac McCarthy and Richard Ford, got back to Bell a couple of weeks later.
The first half of the book blew him away.
“What she was up to was really singular and remarkable and so observant, and she was so good with language” says Fisketjon.
The second half, however, fell to pieces.
“It was as if early sections of the book involved things that happened longer ago so she had achieved a remarkable distance from and toward those things,” he says.
He advised her to rework the end and weave the essays into a narrative whole.
“I dug back into it and worked on it, worked on it, tore it apart,” says Bell. “I had no idea if he would take it on. I just knew it would be a better book.”
But he did take it on.
“I can’t think of a book vaguely related to this—a woman in the West’s experience, I hate to bill things like that, dumb them down—I can’t think of a book of that sort that is anywhere as near as good as Laura’s.”
Many critics have concurred, giving Claiming Ground starred reviews and extolling Bell for her poetic style and keen observation.
“She writes so honestly and beautifully that I dared not skip a word for fear I’d miss another moment of grace or insight,” wrote Louis Atwood in The Providence Journal.
Donna Seaman, a public radio personality and book critic, called Bell’s prose “finely tuned” and “indelible” in Booklist.
Although she extols Bell’s writing style, Niman, the San Francisco Chronicle reviewer, felt, “The reader may well experience the sensation of stepping onto well-trodden earth, especially if that reader has read Gretel Ehrlich’s 1985 book, The Solace of Open Spaces.”
NO INKLING SHE WAS CLAIMING GROUND
For many in Bell’s life, reading Claiming Ground was a revelation. Many had no idea Bell wrote. Others had no idea how well she wrote. Still others, even those closest to her, had no idea of the depths of despair and longing roiling beneath her usually sunny exterior.
“We never had an inkling that she was trying to claim ground anywhere,” says Bell’s father Wayne Bell.
“For the past 10 years Laura has been my closest friend,” says Carol Bell. “I had no idea how miserable she was. The dissolution of her marriage. The loss of her stepdaughter. She did not share that with me. That’s just not who she is. She has a stoic façade.”
Says The Nature Conservancy’s Hampton: “It made me want to know her more. It made me want to take more time with her outside of work, have a coffee, a glass of wine.”
Bell diplomatically passed her memoir by most people she wrote about, including her ex, Joe.
“I said, ‘There are some really hard things in here,’” Bell recalls. “And he said, ‘Oh, hell, we both know who I am.’”
For Bell, Claiming Ground has been a catharsis.
“I feel so much more grace and peace,” she says. “There is ease and grace in my life now. I’m reminded of my past when people read the book and come to me, ‘Oh, are you OK?’ I almost forget how much sadness is in the book and how many tears.
“The writing of the book has felt like years and years of weaving this heavy and beautiful and intricate coat. In getting it done and passing it on to the world is like I dropped it from my shoulders and walked on. I just feel so lightened and joyful and more available for relationship and also to be in the world and to write.”
FAIRYTALES AND PICKING FLOWERS
“I said, ‘OK, I’ll meet the guy but I’m not that interested.” Bell smiles. “[The attraction] wasn’t absolutely immediate, but it didn’t take very long.”
Beckett came with the Airstream, which they use often for camping.
Beckett swept Bell off her feet a month into their courtship when he invited her to New York City to stay with his friend, the ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Bell describes a fairytale weekend.
“We stayed with Baryshnikov. It was also when Knopf made me the offer officially. I had lunch with Gary. It was, wow, I just kept pinching myself.”
Bell says she is already gathering notes (“listening in the world”) for what she hopes will be a novel.
“There’s a character in my mind who is estranged and living in another part of the world. I’d been thinking about New York, but maybe it’s the shadow side of West Palm.”
Bell wants to scope out the food banks and underbelly of the well-to-do city.
She grows animated, nearly giddy, when talking about writing.
“It’s amazing when you start listening for meaning and characters and the conflict. You start gathering it. I feel like I’m sort of walking around through the world now and picking flowers and writing and taking notes and finding the metaphors.”
Friends, she says, worry that she’ll be lost in an urban place surrounded by palm trees and pastel buildings. Bell, however, is sanguine.
“I’m sure I will find my way, but a part of me, I don’t care. I want to be left alone to write. I want to be left alone to write. I’m not going to recreate a life. I’m going for the ability to have space and silence.”
Bell believes her next work will take less than 15 years, though it might take several.
“I don’t think I’ll have to fight myself quite as hard each day to convince myself that I can take up that space and write, that I have the right to write.”
Susan Gray Gose is a freelance writer who lives in Lander with her husband Ben and two children, Lily and Gage. She has been managing editor of the Lander Journal, a correspondent for People magazine, an assistant editor for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and a reporter for The News & Observer (N.C.) She also writes fiction.