American Impressions, Chapter 45: Wyoming
The Wild Bunch
Pat Trautman and I are harvesting rocks on her ranch. We pry them off the ground—pebbly five-pounders that look like migrants from a beach in Maine, 50-pounders impersonating meteorites—and heave them into a backhoe so they can be dumped somewhere more useful than a cattle pasture. It’s convict work. I’m breaking nails. Pat isn’t breaking a sweat. She finds the futility of the job amusing, or at least relaxing for a Saturday morning. More rocks will mushroom up next year, she says, pushed out of the ground by temperature variations, and the job will have to be done all over again. Wyoming land wouldn’t be caught dead acting loamy and smooth, like the Great Plains. It flowers rocks as a reminder: This is rough country.
The majority of people who come to Wyoming head for Yellowstone National Park in the northwest corner of the state. They snap a few pictures of roadside bison and elk and of punctual geysers, then leave. A smaller number snap their shots at Grand Teton National Park or near the Big Horn Mountains. A much smaller number tries living in the state, usually to ride the latest boom of Wyoming’s only exportable resources—natural gas and coal. Booms never last, so most of those eventually leave, too, unless they’re the Harrison Ford types who can afford to divide their time between ghettos of wealth like Jackson Hole and more clement properties on the coasts.
Natives—those few left behind—have written off Jackson and its surroundings as an annex of California, the sort of place where people drive around with “Wyoming Native” bumper stickers, which prove that the driver is anything but a native. Ostentation is not in the Wyoming character. It would consume too much energy in a place where every calorie is needed to live on the land’s harsh terms.
Fazed by nothing, a smile attached to every story she tells, Trautman, a native to the bone, had just described her son’s recent car accident as if it’d been just another minor hazard of living in Wyoming. He rolled five times before being ejected through the sunroof, breaking ribs and an arm, and ripping up enough skin to need weekly skin grafts. Recovering nicely. There also was the story of a neighboring rancher who was tending to his wife’s recovery after she’d had half her scalp lopped off in a head-on collision with a drunk driver, only to become an invalid himself when a bull rushed him and hacked out his spleen. (The community rallied to their bedsides). Pat herself has broken every bone in her body at least once. She tames horses for other farmers, so she’s cracked a few wrists and ribs that way. Cows have stomped on her. Sheep, whose disposition for anger is their way of being surprising, have mauled her. And she’s had her share of run-ins with farming equipment, tractors, irrigation pipes and a grain elevator that crushed her spine into an accordion when she was an adolescent. But she also was taught early on to fend for herself, a sort of local ethic that accepts pain or risk like, say, background music. Beginning when she was 8 years old, she’d spend nights camped out alone on a mountainside, keeping an eye on the family herd.
Her ties to the wilder side of America’s past go back 150 years. A forebear was born on the Oregon Trail. A grandfather spent eight years packing mules in the Klondike. A great-grandfather prospected for gold in the South Dakota Black Hills in 1876, the year of General Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn. Compared to that, broken bones and solitary nights with a herd on a mountainside doesn’t sound like much, at least not to Trautman. She doesn’t see why I find her life so interesting. “We don’t talk about it,” she said at one point. “We live it.”
It’s not the money. Cattle is a losing investment, selling at a third its value of 20 years ago. The Trautmans have four children, all but one in or beyond college. So Pat Trautman works at a state college in town. Her husband, Garry, is a teacher at an alternative school. Chores on the ranch never stop, but doing them helps them live life more sensibly than they know how between walls—and carry on a tradition even as it is dying all around them.
Trautman’s family has been in Wyoming three generations, ranching its way from South Dakota and the northeastern part of Wyoming before World War II to the 2,500 acres and 300 heads of cattle it owns today around Lander, in Central Wyoming.
Most of us wouldn’t last half a winter in Wyoming. We’ve been conditioned for too many comforts and expectations. And why not? Ascetics or Unabombers aside, no one in their right mind would abandon modern niceties for a crack at playing pioneers and breaking bones, which explains the emptiness of the state. This land of “high altitudes and low multitudes,” in the words of a former senator, has fewer people than any state in the union, including Alaska. But those people are a weird, fascinating bunch. They’re doing everything they can to preserve the bone-breaking. Some of them have been inviting others to discover how fun bone-breaking can be.
When Trautman was 14, she joined the first girls’ course offered by the National Outdoors Leadership School, an Outward Bound-like outfit created to teach wilderness education, and headquartered ever since in Lander. Created, it should be said, over a few rounds of beer in a Lander bar one evening in 1965, by Paul Petzoldt and Jack Nicholas. Petzoldt thought things up. Nicholas put them in legal terms. Petzoldt was a mountaineer trainer for the military during World War II, a former Outward Bound instructor and a rancher. He died in October, at age 91. Nicholas was a lawyer—and eventually a district judge—and a rancher. He was also, and still is, Pat Trautman’s father.
My morning chores of rock-picking and irrigation pipe-moving were done. A half dozen of us, including Jack Nicholas, who’d been moving law books around all morning, gathered near a barn for a lunch of cold cuts and chips. Listening to him talk about his Wyoming childhood sounded like a story out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. He ran away from home at 13 (“Our children know it but our grandchildren don’t,” he says, not wanting to send them the wrong message), worked in a bowling alley in Sheridan for three months before his father found him, ran away again at 14 to Canada, Oregon and Washington and settled down on a 1,500-cow ranch north of Big Piney as a farmhand.
He finished high school by correspondence, taught himself the classics by the time he was 19, put in his time in the Army during World War II then returned to work on the ranch. When an accident sidelined him for a winter (those broken bones again), he decided to try college in New Mexico, where he met his wife, Alice, a Californian. They settled back in Lander. Wyoming to Alice was “a little bit like stepping back in time.” (It still is.) Jack started a law practice. They bought land “for the children,” Alice says. “We didn’t want them to grow up running up and down the street.” They grew up learning to be roofers, carpenters, electricians and house-builders. But out of the five Nicholas children, only Pat became a rancher (much of her 2,500 acres are actually her father’s). Her three brothers and a sister all got law degrees, although one of them decided to be a cardiologist as well.
Nicholas got to know Petzoldt in divorce court. Petzoldt’s first of four wives had hired Nicholas to represent her. A few years later it was Petzoldt’s turn to hire Nicholas in a legal matter of his own. They became friends. It was the mid-‘50s. Petzoldt wasn’t doing much at the time except growing alfalfa and chasing after a Lander girl, whom he later married.
”One January,” Nicholas remembered, “he calls up and says, ‘Let’s go climb the Grand.’ “ As in the 13,772-foot-high Grand Teton, whose summit is a jagged spear of ice and stone even in summer. Petzoldt had first climbed the mountain when he was 16. But climbing it in winter sounded like an invitation to a beheading. “He said he’d heard of another party who’d done it in winter time. So we did. We were a party of six or seven people. We went and climbed the Grand.” It took them five days, two of which they spent in their tents, weathering a blizzard. Petzoldt—but not Nicholas—made it a New Year’s tradition after that: He’d climb the mountain every Jan. 1 with a bottle of champagne, popped at the top. (He’d end up climbing the mountain 300 times in his life.) Petzoldt was flamboyant, rude, unapologetic, sometimes violent. He once cornered former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson when Simpson was a state legislator to force him to listen and he knocked down an American medical missionary in a fight after climbing a mountain in Pakistan, killing the missionary. He was arrested, but not jailed. He joined Outward Bound as its chief instructor in Colorado in 1963 and was shifted two years later to Wyoming to explore setting up an Outward Bound program there.
Petzoldt had other ideas, which he hashed out over drinks with Nicholas. He’d start his own outdoors education school. NOLS—the National Outdoors Leadership School—was born in a pub. “The next day I drew up the articles of incorporation and sent the bylaws to the secretary of state,” Nicholas said. Nicholas also went through his encyclopedias to lift every college and university address he came across, sent them all letters about NOLS, inviting students to apply. “In a matter of a couple of weeks we had $30,000 in the bank—to us what sounded like a huge amount of money.”
Thirty-five years later, Outward Bound is still the leader in outdoor education, with about 9,000 students a year, but its popularity is waning fast in seemingly direct proportion to NOLS’ growth. The Lander school attracts about 3,500 students a year and has “graduated” 50,000 since its inception (most students take one course). Many never get to Wyoming. They fly directly into school outposts in Alaska, Mexico, South America, Australia. But Lander, that nowhere town of 10,000 in a state full of nowheres, is the center.
Some are older than 25, but most are college or high school students. Most are from East or West Coast cities. Most have led lives of urban comforts where balancing competing entertainments and a surplus of material ease is as close to experiencing stress as they’ve come. Natural hazards are to them as foreign as cable TV is to an Australian bushman. As foreign to them as a place like Lander.
They don’t have to be too inquisitive to find out, from the missing person signs scotch-taped all over town, that this was the home of Amy Wroe Bechtel, the 24-year-old blonde jogger who disappeared in the nearby mountains of Sinks Canyon two years ago and has since periodically reappeared, in name only, as grist for “Unsolved Mysteries” and “Geraldo.” For some of the students, those are the mountains where they’re headed next. They’ll be made to disappear there on purpose, at least from familiar roads, although they’ll never be far from an instructor, from food, from sophisticated radio contact with civilization in case something goes wrong. They’re not out to learn nuts-and-berries survival techniques, but how to prepare for—and lead—expeditions into the wild.
About 200 wilderness outfits have cropped up in recent years. Most of them—Pecos River, Project Adventures Inc., Geographic Explorations—are either geared at corporate clients who want to boot-camp their employees for a few days or at baby boomers who want to experience the illusion of dangerous explorations but with armies of porters and cell phones and nightly comforts of brie and Merlot at their disposal. Whatever they learn may help them say yes to their boss more efficiently or boast of more spectacular been-there pictures at their next family reunion, but it won’t teach them how to avoid becoming a search-and-rescue statistic should they take on the wilds on their own.
Americans have been getting out more, but they’ve been getting in trouble more, too. The National Park Service recorded 4,875 search-and-rescue operations in 1990. The number was up to 6,338 last year. People assume that urban comforts and certainties can be applied to the wilds. NOLS teaches its students not to assume. In 30-, 60- or 90-day courses of backpacking in Wyoming’s Wind River ranges or the Pacific Northwest, of hiking glaciers in Alaska, kayaking in the Yukon or climbing mountains in Colorado, it attempts to teach the self-reliance and good judgment that came naturally to people who lived on the land in the past. It’s a tough job in a society where the mere existence of risk, when it isn’t attached to some form of business or monetary gambling, is considered a sin.
”It’s gotten to the point that we’re so controlling of risk that we have to find other outlets for it,” says John Gans, NOLS’ fifth executive director and an educator in one form or another for most of his life. NOLS, he says, fills that niche as a “coming-of-age” experience that no longer exists in society at large. Jack Nicholas compares it to what military service may have done in the past. It brings strangers together, throws them in difficult circumstances and teaches them how to cope. The derivatives are more self-confidence, leadership skills and—a Petzoldt obsession—magnified respect for wilderness. “We turn out very good environmental citizens,” says Bruce Palmer, the school’s admissions director.
NOLS is so keen on environmental protection that it has developed the “Leave No Trace” ethic and led to the creation of a research organization by the same name. The proper disposal of human waste has its own sub-field in the LNT literature. (“When using a cat hole, the key to achieving pooping perfection is, as in real estate sales, location . . . location . . . location” goes one tract on the subject.) Of course, even in its philosophy of putting wilderness first, the existence of NOLS, and outfits like it, only point to how distant wilderness has become from most people’s lives, and how exclusive a club it can be. A NOLS course costs anywhere from $7,200 to $8,800. The school offers a few scholarships, including token ones to local Wyoming students, but the great majority of its enrollment is white, middle and upper-middle class, and out of state. And the more distant the destinations—the higher the elevations—the more rarefied the diversity of people you find there.
NOLS itself has struggled a bit in Lander with its image as “the granola-crunching Nolsies,” as Jeff Ogara, a local writer, described them. It was once a hub of hippies and drop-outs whose highs didn’t always have to do with mountain-climbing. But that was before the conservative shift of the 1980s. And when the town’s iron ore mine closed in the mid-‘80s, reducing Lander’s population by 3,000 people, NOLS became one of the principal private employers in town and a model corporate citizen. If most of its graduates and employees come from somewhere else, many have settled in town as permanent residents, taking up posts on local boards, becoming the new natives, even redefining the way Wyoming looks at itself.
Pat Trautman speaks of the way mountaineering has become part of Wyoming’s heritage on a par with ranching. NOLS has been directly responsible for that. But it also signals a shift in Wyoming’s future: ranching is becoming, like mountaineering, more of a leisure activity than a viable or even necessary activity. It’s a craving that has its time and place, but that is no longer the norm. Little by little, Wyoming’s wild bunch is being domesticated, and fewer bones are breaking.
WYOMING IN BRIEF
Total area: 97,818 sq. miles (rank: 9)
Population (1997): 479,743 (rank: 50)
State capital: Cheyenne.
Economy: Oil, gas, tourism, mining.
Nickname & Motto: Equality State; Cowboy State; Equal rights.
Entered union: July 10, 1890 (44 th).
Notable facts: Wyoming numbers 10 head of cattle or sheep for every Wyoming resident, but the state still fails to rank among the top 10 ranching states in the union. Its chief economies—virtually, its only significant economies aside from national parks visitors—are mineral and fossil fuel extraction. Wyoming has the nation’s richest supply of uranium. It also has its most generous coal beds. In the 1980s, Wyoming overtook Kentucky and West Virginia as the nation’s leading coal producer. Coal is extracted mostly in the northeast corner of the state from the largest surface coal mines in North America.
Wyoming in quotes: “I caught coyotes by digging the pups out of their dens in the spring. We would keep them in a pen during the summer and feed them on the prairie dogs we shot and trapped. In the fall we would sell the skins. As I look back, I realize that Dad taught us how to be self-sufficient. We didn’t live ‘on’ the land or ‘off’ the land. We lived ‘with’ the land. We never thought of getting something for nothing. We saved enough money to get what we needed or wanted. We always had lots of animals. We had a bobcat tied up at the back door. The chickens learned in a hurry to stay away from him.”—From “Growing Up With Wyoming: The Life of Fremont Miller,” as told to Eugenia Christensen, Mortimer Publishing, Lander.
* “Rising from the Plains” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), John McPhee’s narrative of Wyoming geology, is also an entertaining cross-cut through the state’s more human history and contemporary culture.
* The National Outdoors Leadership School’s Leave No Trace philosophy is summed up in a Annette McGivney’s recent paperback, “Leave No Trace: A Guide to the New Wilderness Etiquette” (The Mountaineers, $10.95).
* National Outdoors Leadership School: www.nols.edu
* Leave No Trace: www.lnt.org
* Bureau of Land Management, Wyoming: www.wy.blm.gov
* Wyoming Livestock Roundup: www.wyoagcenter.com
* Wyoming Tourism: commerce.state.wy.us