When I Came West is Laurie Wagner Buyer’s account of her terrifying and exhilarating years in Montana as she changes from a girl too squeamish to touch a dead mouse to a toughened frontierswoman unafraid to butcher a domestic animal. Living in a cabin far away from family and friends, with the nearest neighbor four miles away, Laurie finds herself caught up in two love affairs: one with the volatile Vietnam vet Bill and one with the untamed West—even as she recognizes, in the words of one neighbor, “It is plumb foolishness to love something that cannot love you back.”
While her relationship with Bill grows precarious, Laurie forges a lasting relationship with her surroundings: the rivers, the wildlife, and the people who inhabit such remote corners. Peeling away the romance of escaping to the wilderness, When I Came West reveals the brutality and bounty of a world far removed from modern urban life.
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When I Came West
By Laurie Wagner Buyer
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2010 [University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
A red fox three-legs her way over the last inches of asphalt. She tips into the ditch, disappears, reappears still gimpy, and limps to the edge of the backyard aspens. Her tongue lolling, she turns to stare at my Jeep stopped in the middle of the street. Her paw-raised posture states "confused and in pain," but her eyes still say "not afraid." Like her, I do not belong in the Rolling Park subdivision in the mountain town of Woodland Park, Colorado. Like her, I am confused and in pain. But unlike the fox, I am afraid—more afraid, perhaps, than I have been since I first turned my nose west thirty years ago and followed the scent of wild places to their source.
Although I spotted fox tracks often enough in Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado to know that the canny creatures shared the same spaces I knew and loved, in that trio of decades I caught only a few glimpses of them zipping across remote roadways. Now, within a handful of weeks, looking out the picture window of my mother's ranch-style home, I have seen foxes a dozen times, sauntering through the trees, trotting up the driveway, sprinting ahead of neighborhood dogs panting in pursuit. Whether my sightings have been of the hurt-paw fox or of several different foxes, I cannot tell. I like to think it is the same animal, one who has come down from a wilderness haunt, sent to serve as a spirit guide to help me find my way through the unsettling ache of being a town dweller.
A car approaches from behind, and I glance in my rearview mirror. A herd of t-shirted teenagers crammed into a battered, souped-up Firebird fling their arms in my direction. The vehicle looks like it is trying to take flight. Taking my foot off the Jeep's brake, I creep to the side of the street. The Firebird flies past, gears growling out a young man's disenchantment with a middle-aged woman who had the audacity to stop and study a crippled fox. I search the trees. She is still there in the shade, swiping her injured limb in the air like she is waving. An expression akin to a smirk crosses her face. She yawns. She laughs at me, bored beyond belief at my insecurity.
I do not quite comprehend my new uncertainty. How did I end up here, surrounded by houses, reduced to the fate of walking concrete sidewalks or macadam trails amid traffic, joggers, and bicyclists? I am lost and alone. Stately ponderosa pines grace every spot not covered by buildings and byways. Miles of national forest radiate out from the deeded land. I am allowed to hike there if I hop in the Jeep, drive a few miles to a trailhead, pay a fee, and take care when and where I stop to pee.
Perverse as it sounds, I admit to being spoiled and selfish. At heart I am unwilling to share my private landscapes with others. Traversing the same trail as someone else feels adulterous. The sin of my feet kissing soil and rock that I don't know intimately and to which I have no claim is a sensation ripe with trespass. For too many years, tucked away in wilderness strongholds or sequestered on remote ranches, I stepped out cabin doors and embraced thousands of acres of untrampled country. I consorted with deer, elk, and moose, paid homage to hawks and ravens. I waited for the owl or killdeer's call, stumbled onto fresh bear scat, and searched for trout shadows in streams. I allowed the wind to have her wicked way with me, and honored winter's harsh cold and deep snow because the wrathful weather drove the smattering of tourists and summer-season visitors out of the high country. I paid the price for my nefarious love affair with the land through hard work. I tended to household chores and the care and feeding of domestic animals belonging to the men who allowed me to live with them. Never easy, the romantic, passionate highs naturally dipped down into depressed squabbles. Cabin-fever complaints and furious accusations of one-sided affection became common. Threats meant nothing. The land, the most unyielding of all lovers, simply said, "If you don't like it here, leave."
Until recently, I stayed—sometimes hanging on with the tenacity of fingernails gouged into the cliff's edge. Often I did so against my own better judgment. Frequently I did so against the concerned advice of family and friends, and occasionally in the face of ridiculous odds and unsavory outcomes. I stayed because the land was my life, my inspiration, my sassy muse. The land became my reason for staying alive. Without the land, without the West, who would I be? Where would I call home?
After the years of toughing out a homestead lifestyle on the Northfork of the Flathead River in far northern Montana, I knew I belonged to the West, and the West, in her own intractable, implacable way, belonged to me. It was never a marriage made in heaven. It was always a love affair that hung in delicate balance just above the hellish flames of unhealthy obsession. In those matters of the heart, wherein affection and addiction braid need and want inexplicably together, I often found myself an unwitting bystander. I succumbed, a victim of my body's desire for raw earth beneath my feet and my spirit's restless yearning for unmarred horizons and unfettered wandering. I said once that I came west because I fell in love with a man, but I stayed because I fell in love with the land. It was a true statement when I was twenty, and is truer still as I stare the shifty gaze of fifty down to the wire. Only now, like the red fox that was hit by a vehicle, attacked by dogs, or caught in a trap, I limp my hesitant way into an uncertain future.
I endured earlier short separations from the land with a braced back and a painted-on smile. Divorce from the land, banishment from a way of life I hold much too dear, feels unbearable. The experience remains a kind of pain I struggle to name or give voice to. Agony sounds affected. Grief seems almost superficial. Indescribable loss borders on illusion. After all, how can I lose something that never belonged to me in the first place? Why did I allow myself to love something so exquisitely tangible, but in the end inaccessible? A neighboring rancher once said, "It is plumb foolishness to love something that can't love you back."
My improbable infatuation with wilderness landscapes caught me unawares. A child who had never camped out, a teenager who had never hiked, a college student who had never seen any animal beyond squirrels and birds in the wild, I harbored no notion whatsoever that the trillion and one diamond chips of sunlight reflecting off pristine snow would create an engagement more binding than any carat-sized hunk of crystal purchased at great price from Tiffany's. Once I touched the weathered texture of wind-worn wood and water-smoothed stone, let my lips sip the icy elixir of the river, I was smitten. When I allowed my unclothed flesh to absorb the caress of spring sun, the sharp nip of autumn's temperamental breeze, the teasing twist of summer grass around my calves, I was lost. I fell in love with the sacredness of dirt and air, all flourishing things, and abundant animal life. I promised I would do anything to not have to return to the secular world of day jobs, retirement worries, and stressed-out nights in front of a television.
Like most young women enmeshed in the first great love of their lives, I began to write. With no camera, no talent for painting or drawing, the only means I found available to capture the face and temperament of my lover was words. Small thumbnail sketches at first, like these lines written my first spring in the West: "Raw winds blow in the dawn, catching the mare on guard, her steamy breath enfolding the one born too soon for spring." I wrote longer poems and stories, most of which I mailed back to Illinois to my mother and father, my sisters, or left-behind friends. After wood and water chores, milking, feeding, cooking, cleaning, whenever I had free time, if my eyes were not focused inside the pages of a book, they were glued to the lines of legal pads. I scribbled. I scratched out a plethora of sentences and phrases in an attempt to find the right words to express the tangle of newfound emotions attached to events that happened daily right outside the door. The river at flood stage. A cow elk barking from the opposite bank. Coyotes calling. The bewitching cry of the loon. The whoosh of a redtail's wings as it made a dive for chickens scratching scattered seed in the sun. The live-in skunk's pervasive odor. Slick birth fluids. Nursing the kid goats that lived, flinging the ones that died onto rooftops for ravens. Cats mewing for morning milk. Spotting a cougar racing from cli?-edge shadow to jack-pine sanctuary. I never found enough time or the proper process to capture everything that bombarded my heart and mind. Still I undertook the challenge.
Trying to understand this unwieldy and intractable passion for a barely known landscape, I turned to the men and women who had dedicated their lives and sacrificed their hearts in similar affairs. My first nonfiction article, titled "A Man Alone," sold to Western Horseman in 1978. The acceptance letter from publisher Dick Spencer and the accompanying check for one hundred dollars set my course. While I received countless rejections for my poetry over the next quarter of a century, my nonfiction articles appeared in such magazines as Farm and Ranch Living, Beef, Horse and Rider, The Fence Post, Cowboy, Roundup, and Colorado Country Life. The avocation fed my need to work with words and filled my pathetic bank account with enough funds to purchase postage stamps. I never thought of myself as a writer or, forbid the sacrilege of even mentioning the holy title, a poet. Merely a backwoods woman, I loved to linger over language and mess around with metaphors. I still do.
With gratitude for everything the people and places of the West have given me, I borrow this line from Wallace Stegner's The Sound of Mountain Water: "So if these essays begin in innocence, with a simple-minded love of western landscape and experience, they move toward the attempt ... to understand what it is one loves, what is special or fragile about it, and how far love alone will take us."
Woman in the Backwoods
December 1974. George Williams College, Downers Grove, Illinois. Standing in front of the student mail slot in the Campus Union building, dressed in an ash-gray wool skirt and blazer, a dove-gray silk blouse, steel-gray high heels, and silver-gray stockings, with a wide-brimmed, slate-gray wool hat that sported a single pheasant feather as decoration, I held a one-page handwritten letter addressed to William F. Atkinson, 59928. That was all the address needed for the note to reach a remote area of northern Montana. Having penned the letter the night before with a nervous hand, I had carried it with me all day. It wasn't long, a few sentences, ending with "I'm coming."
I studied the envelope's eleven-cent postage stamp and the man's name. He and I had exchanged a short, heated barrage of correspondence since fall. I held the message to my heart, said a prayer, and dropped the small white square into the slot. In the split second that it took to let go of a piece of paper, I changed the course of my life.
* * *
Just out of my teens, as a third-year student at a private liberal arts college outside Chicago, I had never seen a wild animal except caged in a zoo. I had never camped out or even gone hiking. Every bite of food I had ever eaten had come from a grocery store. Despite being a rank greenhorn, I thought I had the most important ingredient for success—love.
Conceited and selfish as it might seem, I wanted the very best out of my time on earth. I wanted a different lifestyle from the one I had been raised in, one that would nurture me and give me fresh direction and lifelong purpose. As the middle child of an Air Force master sergeant, I had lived in countless places. I had attended fourteen schools in twelve years. I had labored at menial jobs of quiet servitude in places like Denny's Dugout and Yankee Doodle Dandy. Now, in the middle of my junior year of college, having worked in maintenance, the admissions office, and the library, I was restless and discontent. Even the news that I had been accepted as a transfer student into the honors program at the University of Chicago did not quell the panic that surrounded my plan to obtain a master's degree and then a Ph.D. A handsome, charming, and well-educated gentleman had spent the past year squiring me to museums and fine restaurants. When he mentioned marriage, I squirmed away. Desperate for something different, I searched for the crowbar that would pry me out of my ordinary existence and catapult me into something extraordinary.
* * *
In Driftwood Valley, Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher described her experiences in the backwoods of Canada where she and her biologist-researcher husband spent several years. She wrote, "Credit is given the modern woman who dares the loneliness and hardships of pioneering adventure. But the man who dares to take the woman, be responsible for her well-being and allow his own free movement to be seriously handicapped, deserves as much, if not more, credit than the woman." Theodora knew and I knew that no matter how much I loved the land, yearned for isolation, or longed to become skilled in the outdoors, I needed a man to survive in the wilderness.
More so than a man, a woman lives under the mysterious power of the land. Her life flows in cycles and is guided by seasons. The land and the woman are one, but at age twenty, having been raised on Air Force bases and in suburban settings, I had little understanding of that ancient truth. I had been raised in semi-sterile environments; my hands had never been dirtied by the earth or stained with the blood of a butchered animal. A car transported me along paved streets. Air-conditioning and furnaces protected me from the heat and cold. Insulated windows and doors kept the wind and sun at bay. Through no fault of my own, I was removed from the earth, and after a series of failed love affairs and unfulfilling jobs, my heart demanded that I find a way to go back to the natural cycles now all but forgotten. I longed to live at the most basic level of finding food, shelter, clothing, and companionship. I knew of no women strong enough to live a wilderness lifestyle alone, and so I turned toward the idea of finding a man to take me where I needed to go.
* * *
He called himself Makwi Witco, "Crazy Wolf." After surviving Vietnam, he had sought the peace of inaccessible mountains. I called him Bill. When I first heard about him, he was living far north at the edge of a river flowing from the glacial high country in Canada. Looking for a female companion, he wrote to a new acquaintance back east (meaning the Midwest), "If by chance you should meet a woman who would fit the place in my lodge, by all means say I exist." Bill's friend Steve lived near my college, and his mother worked on campus with me. Knowing my back-to-the-land desire, he brought me the crumpled letter that had been typed on an old manual machine. Steve said, "You better pack your bags."
That night I wrote a short note full of longing and despair to Bill. He replied. So began a fevered three-month correspondence with a stranger thirteen years my senior. Falling in love with men who wrote ardent letters wasn't a novelty for me (I had succumbed to earlier romances when I was seventeen and eighteen), but becoming a mail-ordered companion was, especially when my prospective partner lived twenty-five hundred miles of railroad, small towns, buses, and dreary days away.
* * *
Late December 1974. Three a.m. in Fargo, North Dakota. The train had stopped. Snow was piling up outside the foggy windows. People loaded and unloaded luggage, gathered children, and said hellos and good-byes. Next to me, Steve snored lightly. Without his encouragement and guidance, would I ever have had the guts to embark on the journey? A close friend of his was supposed to accompany us west, but she had canceled at the last moment, leaving the pair of us to strike out alone from Chicago's Union Station.
Two youngsters, a brother and a sister, said "So long" to their parents, laughed and giggled, settled into their seats, and sat back happily to begin their trip. They looked far more confident than I felt.
I reread a quote by Erica Jong written in my journal: "Let us not tie ourselves ... but sail into the unknown of the future, yet not paralyzed into immobility by fear; feeling the fear and yet not letting the fear control us." After twenty-four hours on the train traveling west from Chicago to Montana, I was full of fear and ill at ease. I worried that my decision to try a backwoods lifestyle was idiotic. Had I made a grievous error by quitting college, forsaking my family and friends, and jettisoning the plans I had made? What I had left behind was familiarity; what lay ahead was unknown. I had traded in my skirts, nylons, and high heels for jeans and flannel shirts. The heavy pack boots on my feet felt alien. My long hair, pulled back in braids, felt strange without the usual electric-roller waves and hairspray. The train moved again, westward into the black night, across the miles of open country that preceded the Great Divide.
Excerpted from When I Came West by Laurie Wagner Buyer. Copyright © 2010 [University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Woman in the Backwoods,
A Man Alone,
There Were No Women,
Hanging in Balance,
In the Company of Rivers,
Of Mice and Madness,
Getting to Town,
An Unbelievable Night,
Make a Joyful Noise,
Horseplay, Injuries, and Insults,
Bread, Beer, and Old Tom,
Death in Autumn,
The Flying A,
The O Bar Y,