It was already dark when we crossed the Wyoming state line, but I didn’t need daylight to know what was out there. Oceans of sagebrush, the occasional pronghorn and mile upon mile of unpeopled land. I didn’t have to see the white cliffs armoring the face of the Ferris Mountains, the blocky folds of Split Rock or the ragged blue rise of the Wind River Range to gauge my progress toward home. This landscape was etched on my memory.
It had been nearly 20 years since I left Wyoming as a high school graduate antsy to see the world. I had returned occasionally for short visits, but this time, in November 2018, the car was packed with my family and belongings. We were here to stay.
It was a cold night, and we pulled into Lander, my hometown, just in time to beat a storm. Within days everything was blanketed in snow. It glittered, blinding and beautiful under a clear blue sky. I tasted the familiar cold crackle of the winter air, blinked in the sun and felt deeply conflicted about my homecoming.
I had always been proud of my Western identity, the fact that I grew up beneath the big skies and rugged mountains of Wyoming. The smell of sagebrush, the mystery of fossils and the arid cold of the high desert helped shape me, and I am grateful for that. But I never actually figured I would return.
Why? That’s a tricky question to answer, and one that’s weighed heavily on my mind since I’ve been back.
Part of it, I know, can be chalked up to typical teenage angst. As an adolescent, I recall a keen sense that there was a bigger, more exciting world out there. I found Wyoming limiting, bound by ideas that felt small to me. I felt a burning urge to leave — one that, I know, has been experienced by teens, and particularly teens in rural places, for millennia.
So I followed my dreams. I left, for college in Montana, a reporting job in California and then to a ski town in southwestern Colorado, where I toiled at a newspaper for long enough to fall in love with the community and forge deep friendships. Like many young Wyoming natives, once I settled, I did not look back.
Not that I wasn’t fond of my home state. The square state. The least populated state in the union. The state with dinosaur bones and mountains of breathtaking beauty, where jackalopes roam and the earth boils with remnants of a caldera. (Occasionally I could even convince non-Wyomites that jackalopes do roam here — one of my favorite tricks.)
I considered my hometown to be the best spot in Wyoming, and bragged about all the reasons it was great: access to the mountains and the desert, more affordability, a size that was not too big and not too small.
For all my affection, though, I had zero plans to actually return.
Part of that, of course, was my own inertia and comfort in my adopted community. The rest was an expectation of slim professional opportunity and memories of the violence, suicide, drug addiction and other dark problems that plague the state. The kind of violence done to Matthew Shepard leaves a scar on a teenage observer, a mark that does not fade.
And, if I’m being honest, I still carried a residual suspicion that there’s not much happening here — politically, artistically, intellectually or economically.
But then, life happened. My priorities evolved. Instead of the frenetic social scene and grueling outdoor adventures that defined my 20s, I became more interested in a slower existence, in keeping a home and garden of my own. I got married. Because we couldn’t afford a house in the ski town where we worked, we started commuting nearly two hours a day. Life turned into a rat race. We had a baby. She only complicated matters.
My husband and I lamented. “If only there was a place with fewer people, more affordable living, proximity to family and great access to the outdoors.” Then it dawned on me. That place exists. It’s in Wyoming.
And yet, even with that knowledge, the move back home was laced with doubt. Adolescence was confusing and disorienting, and I never felt right in my own skin as a teenager. Those feelings always returned when I was home. How would I start anew in Wyoming? How would I build community, find fulfilling work and shed those old misgivings?
Well, it wasn’t easy. First I had to confront some ghosts from my past. But once I did, I discovered they were just that: ghosts.
Then, I had to view this state through the lens of who I am now: a mother, wife and professional looking for a commute-less existence. Finally, I needed to push back on my own decades-old beliefs that the state is, in fact, limiting. I had to explore how much of that was true, and how much was outdated constructs.
And once I did? Bingo.
I began to explore this state as new territory, instead of the same old place I knew — or thought I knew — so well. And, wow, Wyoming.
What I discovered was this: lumpy blue mountains, painted badlands and rolling seas of sage that smell like perfume after a rain. Rivers that sink into the earth, basins that simmer with hot springs and giant cottonwoods dancing like skeletons against pink winter sunsets. The throaty song of the meadowlark in spring, the click-clack of grasshoppers in the summer and the ever-incongruous flock of seagulls at the dump. Lime-colored lichen, yawning skies, the hot smell of pine duff and the cold shock of jumping into a high blue lake.
And those limitations? Sure, some of those still exist. But there also are so many people who are pushing for change, chasing their passions, creating great works of art and supporting one another through it all. There are birders and biologists and bakers. Farmers who coax food from the wind-scarred land. Activists and spiritual leaders, inspiring young people, pioneers and entrepreneurs. Poets and photographers. Hunters. Lots of hunters. People defined by quiet resilience and vast resourcefulness.
The past year has been an eye-opening journey. And I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Along the way, I’ve met others who, like me, had major doubts about coming back, but returned anyway. It’s comforting to learn I’m not alone.
Like them, I took a leap that felt risky. Instead, I landed where I belong: home.