Saturday, September 6, 2008

Sweet Laramie

Not to sound like that annoying “I love my life” Julia Roberts, but I really have had an amazing life and it bums me out to think that it’s just about half over. (I fully expect to live to be 102.) One of the many things I’m grateful for is the opportunity to have lived in Laramie for a year when my ex-husband was a visiting professor at the University of Wyoming.

When we first moved to Laramie I was immediately struck by the kind and genuine spirit of everyone I met. People in stores were the friendliest I’d ever seen, a refreshing change from the Night of the Living Dead who manned the cash registers in Buffalo, where I'd lived most recently. Even the high school and college kids were nice and polite—products of ranch life, my husband said, not the snotty, spoiled, self-centered brats that typify the offspring of today’s “helicopter parents.”

But not since my own college days at Plattsburgh State University in the 70’s had I seen such pervasiveness of alcohol. Drive-through liquor stores stood on every corner, or so it seemed. They closed late and then opened again early, even on Sundays--perfect if you wanted to get all loaded up before church. What you wouldn’t know, unless you stopped in, is that many of these establishments had a full bar set up inside; you could sit and drink right there among the shelves of spirits.

At the time, the Wyoming legislature had recently lowered the legal limit to .08 and open containers in vehicles were still fine as long as the driver didn’t have one in hand. Amazing, considering the two alcohol-related tragedies that had made national headlines in the early part of the decade: the Matthew Shepard murder and the accident on Route 287 that claimed eight members of the University of Wyoming track team.

We once saw an incredibly drunk guy staggering in the Buckhorn Bar downtown (a Wild West place complete with bullet hole in the mirror behind the bar), and when we returned hours later, we saw him continue to be served. Clearly he was shitfaced. All I could think was, how’s he getting home?

The sense of isolation was something I’d never experienced before. There we were in a city of about 25,000, with literally nothing around for miles. Cheyenne’s about a 45-minute drive, but between the tandem trucks, wind, blowing snow and black ice on I-80, I remember feeling we were taking our lives in our hands every time we made the trip to Sam’s Club.

But I-80 wasn’t as treacherous as I-287, which ran south to Fort Collins. Fort Collins is only 66 miles away and is a funky college town with shops, restaurants, and a pedestrian mall. I remember wishing Laramie could be more like Fort Collins; even just a coat of paint over downtown would have helped. Laramie had a couple of coffee shops, some nice restaurants, a yoga center, a brew pub, a few kitchy stores, but not enough going on to make it a happening location.

The Wyoming wind, as I remember, could make you mental—someone told me Wyoming had the highest suicide rate in the country because of the wind. I don’t know if that was true, but it seemed plausible enough. The air was continually out of control, resulting in an overall sense of disarray, though there’s really nothing to blow around in Wyoming. It’s that barrenness that's part of Wyoming’s appeal. You could think it’s the most beautiful or the ugliest place you’ve ever seen. I thought it was beautiful.

Railroad lines separate downtown Laramie from West Laramie, and for the first time in my life I understood the meaning of the “other side of the tracks.” One morning, soon after we first moved there, Phil and I were scouting out a place for breakfast and stumbled upon a restaurant in a truck stop out in West Laramie that reminded me of a scene from Deliverance. Cigarette smoke filled the filthy dining room.

The waitress was nice enough--her long brown hair pulled back into a thin ponytail, her happy smile revealing a dental nightmare. Who knew how old she was, probably a lot younger than she looked. I imagined her to live in one of the many trailer parks nearby. At another table sat an older couple with a young man whom I imagined to be their son--probably in his early 20’s--and, sad to say, with an IQ that was probably not much higher.

The place scared the crap out of me. Country-scary is much more uncomfortable than city-scary to me. And as small as Laramie is, much less West Laramie, I could never find that truck stop again.

I hold a true fondness for Laramie. We could get from one end of town to the other in no more than 7 minutes, even with “traffic.” I doubted we’d ever have an easier lifestyle; Phil could walk to work and so we needed only one car. The supermarkets were never crowded.

And the sun always shines on the Wild West town of Laramie.

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