The summer of 1996 seems far removed from the world I know today – the Internet in its infancy, Seinfeld gearing up for its second-to-last season, smartphones and ipads and personal GPS as seen only on Star Trek.
Gleaming Doc Marten boots, smooth and deep-purple, like a stone bruise or a bad decision, held a place of honor in my closet and a perpetual tin of clove cigarettes was hidden in the glove compartment of my battered ’85 Honda Civic. The Cranberries and Sublime and Bush played at intense volumes on my bedroom radio. At that point in my young life, eighteen years old and in possession of both a high school diploma I’d earned by the very skin of my teeth and a pulsating desire to wander, I took a summer job on a guest ranch “out west.”
I can close my eyes and visualize that teenage girl standing on the front porch of my mom and stepdad’s house in the thin gray light preceding sunrise; faded cut-offs and a brief, sleeveless shirt, clothing to showcase my two spanking-new tattoos. I was alone with my overstuffed army-green duffle bag and ready to embark. It was Thursday, the second week of June.
Excitement mingled with a low, unsettling ache across my belly, like hunger pangs, but without the promise of relief upon eating. My mom had issued a halfhearted hug in the kitchen, clad in her threadbare bathrobe; behind me, in the dim depths of that weary house, I heard water running from the sink faucet. My stepdad continued snoring upstairs but I had no desire to waste more words on the two-bit asshole anyhow.
I’d hugged and kissed my younger siblings and our dog Otis earlier, before dawn, all of them still in their beds, promising I’d write as often as I could. ‘Email’ was not yet a word in our daily lexicon; not that it would have mattered, as we had no computer by which to access it.
My little two-door, five-speed Honda was secondhand (probably more like tenth-hand, not that I was counting), pocked by peeling paint through which the primer coat shone in bluish-gray patches, but I was grateful for its presence in my life. God knew I’d worked my ass off for it, and the promise of freedom it provided overrode my embarrassment at its shabby-ass appearance. (Yes, my family is poor, I sometimes wanted to scream; the chip on my shoulder at that age was fairly monumental, often blinding. I am fucking poor! What’s it to you?!)
I stowed my duffle in the hatchback, cast one last look at the house in which I’d lived for the past eighteen months, and then climbed inside my car. The interior wasn’t yet unbearably hot—no air conditioning was just one of my car’s many charming quirks—but I rolled down both windows in preparation for a mercury level that would no doubt top out in the mid-nineties.
I intended to reach South Dakota by noon. A big, dog-eared Rand McNally road atlas lay on the passenger seat; a line drawn with a pink highlighter marker connected two black dots, a stretch of interstates—one substantial and dark blue, the others red and spindly—between Albert Lea, Minnesota and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. A journey of just over a thousand miles, roughly sixteen hours of driving; presumably, based on a phone call I’d received earlier in the week, someone from the guest ranch would be there to guide me once I arrived late this evening.
By my estimation, I would reach the Teton Mountain resort town around nine p.m. local time. I backed from the driveway with emotion jamming my throat, turning up the radio volume; my Wicked Game cassette was already in the tape deck and I can still exactly picture Chris Isaak on the red and black cover, all sexy and looking like Elvis. “Wicked Game” was the first song on the tape, making it easier to repeatedly rewind.
Why I obsessed over that song remains something of a mystery; I didn’t think of anyone in particular when I heard it, I just liked the haunting melody and the way it inspired shivers along the spine. Others may have chosen a more upbeat album by which to commence with a road trip—and a subsequent new life—but Chris Isaak accompanied me across the level farmland of western Minnesota.
Once free of my hometown and roaring along Interstate 90W, I accelerated to seventy-two miles an hour, figuring this cruising speed was fast enough to make tracks but reasonable enough to keep state patrol from my tail. A friend’s older brother had changed the Honda’s oil and performed a passable safety inspection but I knew I would be woefully out of luck if something under the hood decided to give out. I had newish tires and current tabs, insurance and about eighty dollars cash, give or take a few quarters.
I used the car lighter to get a clove cigarette burning, at once inundated by the cloying incense I favored at that moment in my life. There was something indefinably pleasing in the exhalation of smoke through both nostrils at once, a feeling I believed simultaneously rebellious and dangerous and adult. The soft gray of morning gave way to a denim-blue sky, cloudless and sublime, as I rumbled west and I slipped my sunglasses into place. I’d had the foresight to braid my long hair but flyaway strands tickled my forehead and clung to the sticky Clinique lip gloss one of my sisters had shoplifted for me from the department store downtown.
Away, I thought, with a twinge of increasing exhilaration. You’re actually getting away.
My duffle bag contained all of the clothing and supplies suggested by the pamphlet the ranch had sent back in May. A couple of trips to the Goodwill had resulted in a pair of cowgirl boots, sheets and blankets for a twin bed, a jean jacket, a rain poncho, and a thick brown Carhartt overcoat. Not that I planned to do any real horseback riding; I’d been hired as a housekeeper to clean cabins, a total of twelve on the expansive Park County property, in exchange for pittance pay, room and board, and a chance to escape life in my mom and stepdad’s house.
I kept my mind carefully blank regarding my soon-to-be employment, unsure what to expect once I arrived at the guest ranch whose mailing address consisted of a post office box in Moran Junction, Wyoming. I figured it would be an adventure, a chance to meet people to whom I was a complete stranger rather than the oldest in a family who existed just above the poverty line, a girl who worked the late shift at the local Perkins and whose mother had already been married four times. It took an effort to stifle the guilt I felt at leaving my siblings behind in that house.
The interstate stretched ahead of the Honda like twin, dun-colored ribbons, shiny with distant mirages induced by a relentless sun. I reached Sioux Falls around lunchtime, right on schedule, eager to set eyes on landscape farther west than I’d ever ventured. The topography began to change, becoming increasingly beautiful once I passed a rest stop in central South Dakota, located near the Missouri River, a site with a claim to historical fame because Lewis, Clark, and Sacajawea had crossed the area during their journey west in 1804.
I stood on the overlook, along with dozens of other travelers, gazing at the expanse of river and rugged foothill plains, wondering if I was chasing a stupid delusion or if my life was actually about to start. A tall, spare guy with mirrored sunglasses asked if I had a smoke; I offered him a clove from my tin and we sat in view of the Missouri for a spell, smoking and talking. He was headed to Idaho Falls for the summer. At one point he pushed back his sunglasses to reveal striking, clear-green eyes. He wrote his home phone number, in Idaho Falls, on a corner of shiny paper he tore from a rest stop pamphlet; no cell phones in those days.
I can still see his slanted handwriting, in blue pen, the area code the only portion of the ten digits I still recall today. Jackson Hole was just over the border from Idaho, he said, and maybe we could get together sometime. I never called but was flattered nonetheless. Later, mailing my sisters and brothers a postcard from Wall, South Dakota—Miss you tons, you should see all the cowboy hats out here, guess I should have bought one!—I found myself thinking of those green eyes.
By late afternoon I’d reached the South Dakota/Wyoming border and a distinct thrill shot across my belly, eradicating the hunger-like anxiety pains, fueled by a rush of pure adrenaline. The air rushing inside my car through the open windows was intoxicating, better than anything you could smoke or drink to induce a similar feeling. Sagebrush grew in scrubby bunches along the highway, its scent sharp and vivid, stimulating my imagination.
Thin, lacy clouds split low-lying sunbeams, creating slender, cone-shaped rays. The foothills were breathtaking in scope, the land rolling away in elongated, sweeping vistas; in the distance was the promise of “real” mountains, the kind I’d seen in movies and read about in western novels, with jagged, snow-capped peaks. I would soon come to love and devour the work of Jon Krakauer, who was writing Into the Wild that very year, and though I was a far cry from the protagonist of Krakauer’s story I felt in that moment a rush of awareness; a collective sense of adventure permeating the western air, maybe, filtering down from the mountains themselves.
I felt wild. The wildness of the air swelled in my lungs with each new inhalation.
Not caring if anyone thought I was out of my mind, I parked on the shoulder along Interstate 90 and jogged down the ditch to put my hands on the road sign welcoming me to Wyoming. It was tall and substantial and wooden, and as I touched it I felt a kinship with the place, inexplicable and foolish as it may seem. The gritty-eyed exhaustion of driving hundreds of miles vanished; renewed, I returned to the Honda with a tentative sense of optimism and excitement.
By the time I reached Buffalo and the eastern edge of the majestic Bighorn Mountains, where I would leave Interstate 90 and venture southwest on State Highway 16, I’d parked and exited my car about a dozen times, slaying my predicted arrival time in Jackson Hole but unable to refuse the allure of the landscape flashing past my windows. Wearing flip-flop sandals, mind you, unwary of the threat of rattlesnakes, I bounded through endless tall grass and rangy wildflowers to climb small rises of earth and rock, each view more breathtaking than the next.
I’m here, I’m really here, I kept thinking. I’m free!
My cigarettes were gone by the time I rolled into Jackson Hole, Wyoming, close to ten p.m. local time (eleven p.m. according to my dashboard clock). The town enveloped me like an old friend – and it wasn’t until the next morning that I would be rendered speechless by the magnificent spectacle of the Teton Mountains ringing the town for a full three-hundred-sixty degrees. Jazzed and wide-eyed and starving, I stopped at a bustling McDonald’s that appeared to have been constructed of Lincoln Logs. There, I ordered two cheeseburgers and a strawberry shake and asked to use their phone to place a call to the ranch, letting them know I’d arrived.
The ranch manager promised to send someone to town to guide me back to the place and, after eating, I leaned against my Honda to await my future.
Photo Credit: Serene Wandering