My heart thunders as I pass the unglittering sign staking out the bucking bronco state: WELCOME TO WYOMING – FOREVER WEST. Here, I think, lies a land I’ve never traveled.

*  *  *

The highway slows through Laramie, and I follow my own detour to the University of Wyoming. The stone buildings are a sallow beige, and students wearing backpacks and black sweatpants drift non-descript between them. To my surprise, they look like they could be on any campus in the nation.

I enter the Student Union building. Colors bleed from the ceiling, a matrix of flags from around the world—Brazil, Hungary, Australia. An occasional student sits alone, bent over an assignment. I pick up a small plastic stand from one table and read the rosy pink flier pressed inside:

2.7 8 p.m.
Gardens
Dirty Revival
12 p.m.
Union 203
LGB 101
Safe Zone Training
2.14 8 p.m.
Gardens
Poetry Slam
12 p.m.
Union 203
Gender Identity
Safe Zone Training
2.21 12 p.m.
Union 203
Visible Ally
Safe Zone Training

I download pop albums and podcasts on my phone while I sit on the toilet. I know LTE will be quick to abandon me beyond the city limits.

*  *  *

From the Student Union building, I process to a broad field tautened like a bedsheet between slumbering academic buildings. Reverently, I pace the stone paths, considering each caramel-colored bench until I find his:

MATTHEW WAYNE SHEPARD
DECEMBER 1, 1976 – OCTOBER 12, 1998
BELOVED SON, BROTHER, AND FRIEND
HE CONTINUES TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
PEACE BE WITH HIM AND ALL WHO SIT HERE

I sit here. A bouquet of flowers browns and brittles, stuck into the snow at my feet. But a carillon of purple bells dangles from a single stem as if it had never been severed from Earth.

I think about how if it were up to me, I’d give it all up—the landmark hate crime legislation, the books, the movies, the plays, the thousands upon thousands of ears pricked and lives prodded—for him to be 41 years old, quietly practicing Italian. Someone I’d never meet.

I wonder: must change always be carried in on the bloodied back of Death, dropped in a heap at our feet?

*  *  *

As Laramie condenses in my rearview mirror and wire fences gallop alongside me, I wonder where outside the city they brought him. Which of these fence posts they tied him to. Where they cracked his skull like meringue. Which patch of Wyoming was selected as the place for him to bleed and die. Where the cyclist found him in the morning, mistaking him for a scarecrow—a warning.

I think about how they had offered him a ride home.

Meanwhile, I eat a pink sprinkle doughnut that I purchased in Denver this morning—“Pink sprinkles, for the women’s march!” the employee at Voodoo Doughnuts had informed me. A blaze of green hair sprouted beneath his hat.

*  *  *

I pull over to a gas station in Medicine Bow, Wyoming—a building hunkered beside two pumps from a different millennium. I can find no place to swipe a credit card, so I hurry inside. Beside the large front window, a gruff man with white hair sits smoking a cigarette. The smoke prowls up the walls and hides amongst the bags of chips.

Boxed into a fortress of cigarette packages, a squat woman greets me. I slide her a twenty for gas at pump one. A blotchy black tattoo and slash of white scar tissue populate her forearm. “That’s fine,” she explains, taking the money, “but if you ever come back here in the future, you can just fill up then come pay inside. We’re very trusting here.”

I nod to say I’ll remember and hope I won’t have to.

Outside, barbed flakes race down on razor winds, pouncing on my shoulders and the black roads and the hunched building and the expressionless man filling up his red truck opposite me—determined to erase it all.

*  *  *

Soon, the air around me flaps white like a ghost. I feel suddenly claustrophobic, like when I’m on a plane and it ascends so slowly through the wispy layer of cloud, endless tendrils pressing in on my window, the irrational fear that I may never escape this vaporous purgatory.

The white road is almost indistinguishable from the eternal white fields, and periodically the monolithic metal blade of a snow plow shutters by like a tidal wave inches from my door, engulfing my car in a hissing spray of white.

My hands tighten desperately on the steering wheel. My little bubble of pop music and podcasts feels so fragile here.

*  *  *

When I finally reach the interstate, only two thin belts of asphalt are visible beneath the thick smear of snow. It’s like driving on a balance beam. The speed limit signs boast an ungodly “80,” a speed that, in these conditions, promises to be lethal.

I drift an inch too far to the right, and my car writhes like a fish thrown onto land. I tighten my grip and fasten my eyes on the road.

I will not die in Wyoming.

*  *  *

Eventually the snow retreats, and I lift my eyes to the land around me:

Tar-black trees and bleach-stung snow make Rorschach tests of distant hills—I see cracked skulls and beached sailboats. Ice clambers to suppress jaundiced grass. Clusters of obsidian cows stand still along endless fences like graveyards—headstones wiped of their names by the wind. It is all so hollow and so beautiful—like a postcard with no message scrawled in familiar cursive on the back.

The hills turn away their pale faces, looking aloofly into the distance, unforgiving.

Two can play that game.

*  *  *

I pass two road signs in quick succession:

SOUTH FORK
CRAZY WOMAN

MIDDLE FORK
CRAZY WOMAN

Each stands beside an exit ramp that plummets into nothingness, where red STOP signs plead like NASA rovers left to die on foreign planets. I think I know what drove her mad.

*  *  *

I never knew that land could inspire all the dread of open ocean. But occasional sheds and houses drift among the shallow valleys, a lamppost and eerie orange light bent over each. Angler fish in the deep.

Above, beneath the leaden shelf of clouds, jagged hills form a serrated pink blade of rosy sky. I long for whatever it’s reflecting.

Day is wrestled into night, and the white snow wanes to blue until the hills swell like bruises around the calloused asphalt. My headlights beat back the thick black air. When I finally see Sheridan in the distance, its red lights glow like embers, kissing the feet of impassive hills.

*  *  *

As I finally near Montana, I think of the Denver Botanic Gardens I ambled through yesterday. Of the humid greenhouse. Of carefully placed palms and fanned ferns, making the air soft and gentle. Of the placards fixed beside each plant, naming it.

As I finally leave Wyoming, I think of this morning. Of standing in the center of my Denver hostel room. Of people I’ve never met quietly breathing on bunks all around me—some still in torn jeans, others stripped to skin and underwear, blue nightclub wristbands taut around their wrists, cannabis still staining their lips. Of their breaths, soft and gentle. Of how angelic they all look, robed in sleep.

Gabe Gunnink

Gabe Gunnink (’14) graduated Calvin with degrees in secondary education, Spanish, English, and writing. He is currently teaching our nation’s youth how to say the colors in Spanish but hopes one day to relocate to York, England, where he will write poetry out of tea shops, go for lolloping runs through the British countryside, set the record for the most treacle cake consumed in a single sitting, and work part-time as a magical singing nanny with a knack for reminding families of the important things in life.

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