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In recent years, public television stations around the country have sent cameras up in helicopters to shoot dramatic aerials of their landscapes. Editors lay down a track of triumphalist music, a booming narrator intones about the “dazzling” “sweeping” “epic” landscapes, and how they shape the “unique” “self-reliant” “colorful” citizenry of our beloved state. Then the music swirls like a bowl of melting moose track ice cream, and the helicopter swoops around a snow-capped mountain peak. Or a really tall grain silo, if we’re in Iowa.
Wyoming PBS is no exception. We’ve seen the high Nielsen ratings from other states, where contributions pour in on the pledge nights when they run these helicopter epics. Air an hour of “Over New Jersey,” and the guy in the La-Z-Boy in East Orange, moved to tears, opens his wallet.
So a few years ago, when Skyworks, an international company that helicopters around with a Cineflex high definition camera system, called up to say they were chopping in the neighborhood (Montana), it was hard to resist. Skyworks offered Wyoming PBS a great deal: The company would fly whenever it wanted (they chose the smoggiest of fire season), shoot whatever they wanted (great shot of the Casper Wells Fargo bank tower, nothing of Square Top Mountain), charge us a ton of money, and keep all the footage we were paying them to shoot which they could then re-sell wherever else pleased. Naturally, we snapped it up. So … a bunch of strangers who had never been here before go up in a helicopter without a script, shoot a bunch of whatever, and then leave the country, check in hand. Works for me: that’s the way I always did print journalism, only without the helicopter or $100,000 camera.
The station dropped this video confetti in my lap, and asked me to make a piñata (a story) out of it. I put some Wagner on the stereo, flipped open Bartlett’s quotations, and started to work, figuring I could be done in about 15 minutes.
First image: our helicopter flies in over the eastern border. Node, Wyoming, from the air! Start writing: “Horace Greeley said, ‘Go west, young man’ and they came, to Node, population … 3!” “The dramatic landscape of Node – towering spires of … wheat stalks!” “The fascinating history of Node – a tractor arrives in 1918!”
Back to the drawing board. Maybe we break the “Over Whatever” mold. Put aside the bombastic music and go with something more subtle – Jeff Troxel’s extraordinary finger-picking guitar, for instance. Let the pretty images flow, but put some heft in the narration, some history and content.
That meant going out across the state for voices – geographer John Allen, to talk about the migration patterns of people crossing the Wyoming’s basin and range in the 19th century; Pat Frolander, the former state poet laureate, describing life on an isolated ranch near Sundance; historian Phil Roberts digging for the truth in the state’s frontier mythology.
Researcher Rosanne Steller Burke provided immense help, culling smart factoids from travel guides, T.A. Larson’s essential history, and primary sources like explorer John Fremont and humorist Bill Nye. The source she and I like best – and a voice you’ll hear throughout the documentary, when it’s completed: the Works Progress Administration Guide to Wyoming, written in the 1930s by Agnes Wright Spring.
The Wyoming guide was one of many written with the WPA’s help during the Depression, when the federal government put a lot of people to work building roads (Yellowstone thanks you), erecting schools, and even making art. It’s as if they didn’t know back then that government can’t do anything right.
Spring’s 500-page guide is a vivid, comprehensive, insightful and sometimes biting look at Wyoming. To this day, it’s a great companion when you travel the state.
Stuff you probably didn’t know: “Wyoming is the only State composed of territory acquired from all four of the principal annexations to the original United States. Parts of the state have been claimed at times by five nations, and some 30 changes of boundary have resulted in the present rectangle now on the map” (Spring wasn’t exact in every detail – it’s not a rectangle, it’s a rhomboid.)
Or, her description of English and Scottish “second sons” who ranched in the Sheridan area before the winter of 1886 wiped most of them out: “They often ranched on a grandiose scale, and, like European landowners, they associated ownership with manorial residences, hunting lodges, servants, dinner dress, and elaborate wine cellars. The directors sometimes lived in London, Glasgow, or New York and chose their superintendents among friends, whose ignorance of ranching equaled their own.”
And, finally, a phrase which, for me, should inform every glance at our Wyoming landscapes:
“The past presses so closely upon the present.”
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