I’m a pickup-truck passenger bouncing along the highway at eighty-five miles an hour, fingertips ricocheting off the laptop keys. The gold and green watercolor landscape of Wyoming spreads out in front of me. To the west, dark stained clouds threaten the shadowed mountains with rain, but the rest of the sky fades from an intense blue overhead to cyan near the eastern horizon, and as the late, great Wyoming native Chris LeDoux describes, “the cotton candy clouds roll by.” This place has a certain texture to it. All places do in my modest, non-scientific estimation. The wind ripples the boundless grasses, blows the hair across my face, and drowns the thoughts from my mind with a pervasive whine. It’s an ever constant force of challenge. The stretched sky looms infinitely overhead, bragging to me of the vastness of this land and my inconsequentiality in it. This space reeks of gritty pioneers and tempestuous bison. This determination of a place’s aura, ambiance, atmosphere—whatever you want to call it—is my craving, what I itch and hanker for.
Close your eyes. No, not your reading eyes, your imagination eyes. I am going to take you somewhere. You’re on a street, rather a city road, not too wide. The sidewalk that you’re standing on is narrow too; so narrow, in fact, that if you meet someone coming the other direction you would have to sidle past or step down into the uneven gutter. The stones of the street and sidewalk are old, not a single one quite square or level. The buildings flanking either side are four stories tall with graceful windows geometrically spaced on walls that seem to come right over the top of you and block any sunlight that dares to poke through the constant overcastness. It’s quiet, but not in the Wyoming way. There is an ever present hum of traffic and humanity that floats right below the surface, a feigned silence of white noise. Some would say it’s raining, but I would tell you it’s more like a mist. It lands in a dewy layer on your face and arms. The street glistens from the moisture, and a confetti of cigarette butts stand out from its wet darkness. It smells like an old city—dirty and used—but layered over the top of that ancient scent is that of bread and flowers. If you look down the street you can see a line snaking out of a storefront, baguettes and croissants heaped in the glass cases. The flowers outside the shop next door seem to have come alive in the mist, their scent not sweet but herbaceous, nearly wild.
This is my memory of Paris. It is a snapshot in time and space, wholly true, and at the same time untrue, to what the city actually is. Yes, there is an Eiffel Tower, but did you know that in the winter the park below it has wet, sandy patches that almost squeak beneath your feet? Yes, there is a rather large and important art museum, but did you know that there is a bench on the second floor, away from the hordes, against a cool stone wall? You can lean against it in solitude and admire a room full of Dutch artwork until you nearly fall asleep. These are the things that stay with me about a place when all the rest has faded into sepia-toned blurs.
For these reasons, central Wyoming has no less texture than Paris. The palpability of a location cannot be ranked. It simply is. However, the emotional reactions to these experiences is what defines a place. If I close my eyes and summon up my Paris, what do I feel? Satiation. Wyoming is defined by its nothingness; I feel lonely and bold in its recollection. My chests puffs intrepidly, partly as a stalwart against the wind that whips through on its way somewhere else, but partly as the pioneer spirit invades my stagnant being.
What is the value in naming this quality, this place-ness? I struggle to articulate any reasonable or coherent answer, but those untraveled expanses hammer and peck at me like a nagging child demanding attention. It is the quest to experience things as they truly are as opposed to how they exist in my imagination of them. I want to see the graceful stride of a Namibian lion and feel the power of its paws echo in the ground. I want to know what the high-altitude air at Machu Picchu smells like and how sounds echo on a Norwegian fjord. I want to taste fresh buckwheat noodles in northern Japan and feel the briny broth coat my lips. This is what drives me to travel—the realization of my expectations in a new environment, where my imagination meets reality.
I’m only traveling through Wyoming on my way to Montana, an expedition that has long been on my radar. As an uncompromisingly proud nearly-native of Colorado, I often feel a sense of competition with other locations, specifically mountainous areas. Few places that I have seen in this world compare to my home. The mountains, the ones I see each day, are like family, and I am loyal. I have heard the praises of Montana’s Glacier National Park sprinkled into conversations over the years, and it has long been bumping around my mind, beckoning at me to discover the aura of the Northern Rockies, close relative of my beloved.
This trip, however, is painfully slow. The desolate hills of Wyoming are demanding a payment for that which lies ahead—another attribute that adds to its surly texture. Flying down this asphalt gash in the landscape, I can conjure up an image pieced together from my own expectations, but I know that the park’s true identity is a texture that can only be experienced and grappled with.
The plains of Wyoming finally relent, and the topography starts to shift. The air temperature decreases as the car climbs higher into rolling hills that will eventually turn into mountains. The smell of sage begins to mingle with pine, and the strong prairie wind is dampened into a mountainous breeze. I’ve been here before, so I greet this place like an old friend. But I am bordering places that I have yet to go, and I patiently wait for that definitive texture that I know will impress itself upon me when I get there.
I don’t share these intimate descriptions with others very often, relying instead on the recounting of standard-issue monuments and mementoes. They always fall flat, and I can never articulate those qualities that truly make a place unique, or more accurately, unique to me. I wish that my meager descriptions, my feeble words, could accurately describe the aura of this place, of any place, but if mere words could convey the magic, the experience itself would lose its magnetism.