I left my husband for the first time just before our second wedding anniversary. Instead of traveling to our home in Nebraska for the weekend as planned, I spent Labor Day alone in Wyoming. I stayed in Cheyenne and for a week drove every day to the Snowy Range: a 90-minute commute west to granite peaks nestled into a landscape of conifers, lakes, wildflowers, and abundant beauty.
During one of those drives to the Snowies, a sentence came to me: Wyoming welcomes me like a lover.
I didn’t know what the sentence meant, exactly, but it felt weighty and rich. The start of a book or a short story. And I waited for more.
I arrived at Cheyenne’s Little America on my fourth wedding anniversary. Alone. Late. Having just barely made my flight to Denver because the meeting with a divorce attorney had run long. Feeling despair, yet breathing easier (as always) after crossing the Wyoming state line.
My husband didn’t even know where I was.
The next morning, as I drove to the Snowy Range, the sentence returned: Wyoming welcomes me like a lover.
I mulled what kind of character might make such an observation, tried to force a storyline, and ultimately gave up. The sentence remained locked in my mind, but I didn’t know why.
I left my marriage for the third and final time in 2010. I knew I wouldn’t have the willpower to end the marriage if I continued to see my husband. Such was the power of a vow that I took and unconsciously chose to honor more than I would honor even myself.
On June 1, I signed a lease to rent a small apartment in a triplex in Cheyenne. My little house on House Avenue.
Despite what seemed to be a promising conversation in late May, I came to realize that my husband had quit thinking about whether he’d be willing to work, really work, on our marriage. His silence was his final answer.
I asked him in the fall why he didn’t even bother to tell me that he was done trying, and his only response was it wasn’t important enough for him to remember.
During the summer of 2010, I drove to the Snowies nearly every day. There was a billboard next to the exit for Snowy Range Road, one intended to motivate the faithless.
In stark black print on a white background, the billboard thundered, “One Day You Will Meet God Face to Face.” More than a few times that summer, I’d wipe my constantly-leaking eyes and wonder when I would meet God. I’d pray it would be soon. I was aching, uncertain how to go on with my life after failing so quickly at the marriage I had been positive would last, but not desperate enough to hasten a meeting with God.
The embrace of the Snowy Range offered comfort. And as I sat at my favorite picnic table, day after day after day, looking at the enduring granite peaks and the glistening lakes, I would hear the echo: Wyoming welcomes me like a lover.
I still didn’t know what the sentence meant. I was quite sure that I would never again want a lover, even if the lover in question wasn’t a flesh-and-blood being.
And yet… the sentence was a promise. Of what, exactly, I couldn’t say, but a promise that was ancient and new, strong and welcome… and a bit unnerving.
Vacation with my father. In Wyoming, of course.
We sat outside in the late fall sunshine in Lander, him eating a burger and me uncharacteristically enjoying a salad despite the chill in the air.
Wouldn’t you like to have a house in Wyoming? I chuckled at my dad’s out-of-the-blue inquiry. Of course I would. I hadn’t wanted to leave in 2010, and crossing the state line to leave Wyoming always brought tears of grief. Returning to Wyoming never failed to bring me to tears of gratitude.
Of course I’d like a house in Wyoming, but what an absurd idea. How could I possibly afford a house? And how would I manage owning a house in Wyoming while living in Atlanta? Adding fuel to the fire, my dad had been diagnosed the year before with Alzheimer’s Disease, and he needed my help. A home in Wyoming? Appealing, but preposterous. Clearly impossible.
Two months later, I closed on a house in Cheyenne.
By now, I knew myself as a survivor. I survived my divorce. I survived the discovery that my father, the rock on whom I’d always relied, was showing significant signs of cognitive decline. I survived his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, a diagnosis that he forgot as soon as he heard it.
We traveled in those years, enjoying places we’d always gone as a family, making memories that I knew would sustain me through whatever might be coming. We talked for hours on those drives. I realized that even when memory vanished, emotion would linger, and I studied every resource available so that I could be strong for my Daddy as he always was for me.
Finally, during a fall visit to the Tetons, my dad woke me in the middle of the night, calling from the next bedroom over in our cabin at Signal Mountain Lodge. I called the paramedics and followed the ambulance to Jackson’s St. John’s Medical Center, where we learned that his heart could no longer take the altitude.
I’d always held a childlike belief that nothing truly bad could happen in Wyoming. As I stood at the foot of my dad’s ER bed, I realized how foolish I had been in that belief. I felt the passing of an innocence.
I also felt the passing of a dream as I realized that my home in Cheyenne wouldn’t be our summer home as I had planned. I lurked in the hospital hallway, feeling guilty for my despair at having to end the vacation early and even guiltier for mourning the knowledge that it might be a very long time before I could expect to spend any amount of time in Wyoming.
Chastising myself for my hoggish self-focus, I forced my thoughts to getting my dad safely back to Atlanta. Doctors were unsure that he would survive the eight-hour drive to the Salt Lake City airport or the flight home, but getting home to Atlanta was our only option.
Having rushed back to the cabin to pack our belongings so that we could fly home, I paused at the Tetons’ Cathedral Group on the way back to the hospital.
I walked out into the sagebrush, far enough that I couldn’t easily be seen or identified, and I knelt. Bowing my head toward the eternal mountains, I prayed for the strength and courage for whatever might be ahead.
Although I felt small and broken in the timeless landscape, I also felt the sun warming my face and a gentle breeze stroking my back. I felt the spirit of the plains around me, the fierceness of the wildlife that frequented the field, the power of the enduring land itself.
And I heard the sentence again, this time as a benediction: Wyoming welcomes me like a lover.
Finally, the epiphany.
Wyoming welcomes me like a lover.
That sentence came to me a few years ago while I was on vacation in Wyoming. Arriving exhausted, as usual, I felt my soul lift as I crossed the vast expanse of gently rolling hills, dotted with pronghorn and sagebrush, listening to the silence that eludes me in day-to-day city life.
I had believed that the sentence was the beginning of a short story, and I waited patiently for the story to emerge. Each time I visited Wyoming, the sentence returned to me like a soulful boomerang. I allowed it to roll around in my brain, percolating a plot line and characters, but nothing ever developed.
This year, I discovered that my fiction never formed because this is my story, my plot, my characters. It is my truth.
I’d come to Wyoming throughout my life: as a curious child, a teenager resentful of being pulled from my friends, a young adult eager for adventure, a bride-to-be searching for a way to include my mother (18 months dead and still omnipresent) in our wedding, a disillusioned wife seeking peace and rest, a separated woman fighting for a new life despite the long-resisted rupture of divorce.
The next few years were about family, as my father and I traveled together to places so deeply engrained in our family history that not even his advancing Alzheimer’s could dislodge them.
This year, I traveled alone. My father’s heart, still the strongest I’ve known, could no longer tolerate the Wyoming altitude.
I arrived on the heels of a trip with my father interrupted twice by emergency room visits. I’d had to leave my car at the Oklahoma City airport when we flew home after he was discharged from the hospital, and I had to be the one to retrieve it thanks to the illegal gun hidden under my car seat, an unwanted relic from my grandmother’s house.
Throw in hiring professional caregivers through an agency owner who had sounded wonderful initially but then hissed her disapproval when I refused to move immediately to a full-time schedule, running a business, managing the day-to-day home activities… I came to Wyoming with too little sleep and too much stress.
And as I stood and watched clouds move behind the eternal Grand Teton, I heard my sentence again: Wyoming welcomes me like a lover. I could rest in Wyoming’s gentle embrace and recover my strength.
After almost 33 months in home hospice, my father died with dementia on July 29. I was grief-stricken, exhausted, worried about what might come next, angry that well-meaning people dared to tell me how relieved I must be that my father was in a better place, confused by the loud silence in a house that had been bustling with activity for so many years.
I planned to leave town for a week or so after his memorial service, and of course I planned to go to my beloved Wyoming.
The morning before the service, I woke up with the certainty that Wyoming would demand too much of me. My waiting lover would invite me to process everything that had happened over the last seven years, to reflect, to begin feeling where my path might lead me.
That’s what a lover does: call forth the best, even (maybe especially) when bringing it forth requires great energy and investment. I didn’t resent, but I knew that I couldn’t meet that demand. And so I took a cruise to Alaska, spending every hour I could on my stateroom balcony, floating past beautiful scenery. I thought about the past and the future, of course, but gently. No probing. Just what I needed.
The day before the cruise was to end, I received an email from my former brother-in-law Phil. Subject: Concerning William Brown.
My former husband had been on my mind during the cruise—because he loved sailing, I thought, because I’d plunged into caring for my father right on the heels of finalizing my divorce and never took the time to reflect on the marriage’s end. When I saw the email subject line, I scoffed and said to my empty stateroom, “What, is he dead?” And then it hit me: Phil would not be emailing for any other reason. Sure enough, William was gone, just 40 days after my dad had died. Not quite 52 years old.
On my return to the Atlanta house that no longer felt like my home, I stayed in town only long enough to take the necessary steps to address my father’s estate and to see Phil for the first time in nearly ten years. We met for dinner; Phil handed me William’s wedding ring and told me that William had been wearing it the last time they were together. Our conversation shifted by turns from matter-of-fact to intimate, emotionless to pain so acute I lost my breath.
I had grieved my father’s decline for so long that his death felt like more of same; William’s death was a shock that called for intensive care. Less than 12 hours later I fled to Wyoming.
Wyoming welcomes me like a lover, this time with early snow blanketing the familiar vistas. I made the 24-hour drive with only one overnight stop, eager to return to the comfort of my lover’s embrace.
As I drove, I talked to William, demanding to know how he could possibly be dead at 51, why he didn’t tell me he was sick, what my role had been in the demise of our marriage, why I would have to live without ever having made peace with him. Each time I asked a question that was answered with the next song that came on the radio, I knew that Wyoming was working its healing ways.
Were the songs, the rainbows, the images that called out a private joke really communications from beyond the veil? The messages were so on point that I didn’t care. They brought healing and reconciliation. I felt in my heart the conversations that we could never have in person, and I knew that being in Wyoming was supporting the work.
Sure enough, when I left Wyoming in mid-October, the conversations dwindled, and I was left with my own thoughts. By the time I turned east, I still didn’t know what the future might hold for me, but I was certain that I would build a new life, having closed the chapters as wife and caregiver.
As I left Wyoming for the last time during my 2017 walkabout, I felt a new promise: you will be back. You will be mine. I am here, and you will return to me.
Exactly what that promise meant, who could say. As a friend pointed out, I was always returning to Wyoming. The promise was nothing new.
But, even so, it felt fresh, like a cool breeze of new truth. And so I waited to see what message my lover would have for me this time.
On the phone with a friend, looking out the window from my Atlanta apartment. Sharing that I felt unmoored. Not lost, exactly, but having finally emptied my parents’ home, planning to sell it, not yet comfortable in my lovely new apartment.
A hawk flew by, surprising me with its peaceful glide by my fifteenth-story window. That reminds me of the Wyoming birds, I whispered. It’s time. I have to go.
Lounging in a Santa Fe Airbnb, waiting for the snow on I-25 to clear sufficiently to drive to Cheyenne. My house, rented for the last five years, had suddenly become vacant, and I decided to visit, to stay for a week or two, to consider making it my summer home.
When I arrived in February, despite the winter wind that made my eyes water and my skin crack, I felt comforted. Instead of staying a week, I stayed a month. I found contentment in seeing the three butterfly coat hangers that made me think of my mom, in sitting in the sunroom where my dad and I had spent hours watching the world go by, in waking to see the tip of the state Capitol’s gold dome each morning.
I returned to Cheyenne again with my best friend in March, and I stayed for another six weeks, driving back to Atlanta only to attend a beloved friend’s funeral.
On June 11, I packed my car and headed west for the summer with my dog and cat in tow. I planned to return home to Atlanta in October.
As the days slid by, I noticed that I was relaxed. I felt none of the Atlanta-style friction of living (traffic in Cheyenne means five cars at a stoplight) and all of the pleasure of enjoying sunrise from my bedroom window, sunset from my backyard, and the glory of nature from any number of places a short drive from my home.
Friends came to visit and remarked that I looked rested for the first time in recent memory. I noticed that I was laughing more and worrying less.
Wyoming had indeed welcomed me like a lover, and like a lover Wyoming bid me stay.
The wind whispered, you belong here. You are safe. Here, you will heal. You will grow.
On July 8, I got my Wyoming drivers’ license and announced to the world via Facebook: I was home. At long last, I was home.