Sarah O'Leary


Oh Wyo

I’m sitting in a cafe, sketching. I’m trying to work, but my thoughts wander from my page to the people around me. I know people here, faces if not always names. I don’t belong to them, or they to me, not beyond the fact that we share the same space this Wednesday lunchtime.

Times like this I miss the feeling with a best friend–someone who knows what you mean and how you feel without an explanation. You know where you stand with them; they’ve seen you at your best and not so best and are your friend anyway. It takes time to get there, the thing I don’t have anymore, not here, in this place. Soon, I will be moving on.

I watch two friends a corner by the window–they’re chatting, eating, laughing. They are together but comfortable enough to become momentarily absorbed by a sketchbook or a text, then they quickly return their attention to each other. These days I feel that familiarity through texts and calls. I am connected to people in other places and time zones through words on a screen or by a voice on my cell phone. These words mean more to me than they used to. I am thankful. 

I drive from one Wyoming town to another–nothing between but sky and and snow and pronghorn. I pretend I’m driving on the moon. In a way, I think the feeling I’d have on the moon would be somewhat similar. I am a visitor, driving on twisting roads and through weird rock formations. This place is beautiful, wild and free. It does not speak of home.

I stop at the Wind River Casino, though I’m not here to gamble. Instead, I make my way to the Arapaho Experience Room, past rows of blinking slot machines. I talk to an Arapaho elder named Gary. He tells me his dad fought in World War II and died of cancer when he was 6. He asks me if I’m a rock nut. Not really, I say. Maybe, maybe a little. Gary is reading a book of Arapaho stories–he tells me about ancient gnomes that have magical powers. They’re still here, he says. Now they live in the mountains. 

My mind wanders back to December. We’re driving east to Denver across the plains of Wyoming. The wind whips snow across the road and the pronghorn dance among the snowflakes. It’s unforgivable and harsh out here, yet they thrive. We pass small rolling hills, almost devoid of vegetation, that rise up out of the mostly flat landscape. Anna tells me that millions of years ago they were as tall as the Tetons. Over the years they eroded–one day they will be flat, returned to the land that gave birth to them billions of years ago. Maybe the gnomes live there, among the hills as old as time. 

On Thursday Justin and I leave work and drive out to the Wyss Campus to look at petroglyphs. It’s beautiful–red rock, canyons, scrubby green plants. We wander through the rocks, up and down, until we get to the rock wall covered with pre-historic drawings. I’ve never seen anything like this before. Drawings, some more developed than others, span the length of the wall for over 100 feet. People, animals, creatures, weapons…illustrations of stories I can only imagine. 

I tell Justin about the ‘little people’ that live in the mountains and he has a story too, one that he heard someone who heard it from someone else…He tells me about a NOLS instructor who, on course in the Absaroaka mountain range, experienced something for which there is no logical explanation. One night, Justin tells me, the group made camp and went to sleep. When they awoke the next morning, everything was as it had been, but they were camped in an entirely different section of the mountains. Legend has it that the ‘little people’ moved their site in the night.

Stories like this one linger in my imagination. I want to believe that they could be true and real, that little people dance through the mountains, making mischief and messing with unsuspecting, simple humans like me.

It’s Saturday evening. I’m sitting with Maddie in the bake shop. She just got here a few weeks ago, from Tennessee too. I wish she had arrived earlier. Maybe it’s our shared regionality, maybe not, but I feel as though we understand each other naturally. Around her I can’t stop talking, and then apologizing for talking too much. She just laughs at me and tells me she doesn’t mind. We’re listening to an older, white-haired man play the guitar and sing slow, old tunes. I count the days I have left in this town: 16 more. Then I will leave, driving south to Salt Lake City and, one day, arriving home.

Sitting there, I pull out a letter I received a few days ago from a woman I’ve never met, Shelby. She too biked across the United States. She writes of feeling a bit lost, of not knowing her next step. Her words are full. I feel her spirit in the small pages filled with her handwriting. Reading them, I feel connected to her despite not ever having heard her voice. In her words, I feel as if she understands me and I her.

On my last Wyoming day I am an unexpected ball of emotions. Usually not a cryer, I have tears in my eyes on and off all day. I set my alarm for 4:45 am and drive out of town before the sun rises. The road through Atlantic City is closed so it’s a six hour drive to Salt Lake, but I make it with time to shower and unload my car before I head to the airport. A few texts on my phone asking to know if I made it reminded me that people care, something I all too easily forget. My heart fills with gratitude as the plane takes off and I’m bound for the next chapter. 

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Sarah O'Leary