The Road Trip That Taught Me What Marriage Could Be

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Photo: Aurora Open/Getty Images

The morning I turned 27, I woke up in a room with a bearskin rug. The bear’s head, still attached, pointed away from my bed, toward the lofted room’s back window, through which could be seen a wide, flat expanse, dotted with the occasional scruffy tree: the dusty plains of Wyoming.

I had driven to Wyoming —Fort Laramie, Wyoming, population 231 — from Colorado, and to Colorado from New Mexico and to New Mexico from Texas and to Texas from Arizona and to Arizona from California. Fort Laramie was my sixth stop on a solo cross-country road trip that would eventually return me to New York: to a job I had tried unsuccessfully to quit; to a life I didn’t yet know how to leave. My task, between coasts, as I drove across deserts and mountains and prairies and cornfields, was deceptively simple: to be alone with myself. To think. “Wanting to be wanted — accepted,” I wrote in my journal, diagnosing the personality flaw for which this journey was to be the cure. “I think — hope — this trip will curb me of some of that.”

I dressed in a long floral muumuu (a city girl’s idea of prairie garb) and headed downstairs. It was early, not yet seven, but my host, an honest-to-goodness cowboy — he manages and lives on a cattle ranch — had already brewed coffee. Fort Laramie is not a place one arrives in by accident, and the few people who do plan trips there are mostly retirees in RVs touring America’s historical forts. I was in Fort Laramie to visit friends: the cowboy, Noah, and his wife, Natalie, whom I had met in New York when we were both interns at the same literary magazine.

Natalie and I are similar, on paper: unassuming backgrounds, Ivy League educations, literary aspirations. After her internship, she’d worked in magazines; I’d gotten a job at a publishing house. But while I, frustrated and overworked, had burrowed deeper into my unhappiness, she, faced with a similar situation, had left: for Wyoming and a job on a ranch, where she’d met a cowboy and married him. Visiting the Strongs — Noah, tall and broad and impressively bearded for a man still in his early 20s, had an impossibly apt last name — promised both the pleasure of seeing a friend and the pain of comparing her life to my own. Natalie had not been happy in New York; in Wyoming, standing on the porch in a yellow sundress as I drove up to her ranch house, she was radiant.

“You’ll think we’re so old and boring,” Natalie had joked on my first night in town, as we chatted in the living room beneath the massive taxidermied head of an elk Noah had shot when he was 12. I didn’t. Instead, watching my friend’s husband rub her feet, I thought how lucky they were — not just to have each other, but to have, for miles around, no one else. I thought, This could make me happy.

***

My first full day in Fort Laramie, Natalie and I went into town: the old fort, two trading posts, a saloon, a restaurant (closed), a gas station (abandoned), and a building that looked like it used to be a motel. The first trading post — named, what else, Calamity Jane’s — was run by a woman with the strongest French accent I’d ever heard outside of a multiplex. She said she’d lived in Boulder, Colorado, for 40 years, which seemed suspect, though her assessment of Boulder’s residents — “snobs!” — did not. (The disdain for Colorado, in Wyoming, is strong and statewide.) I bought a sunhat, the better to shield the few parts of my body left visible by the muumuu. The second was staffed by a rough-looking woman whose accent, we agreed, seemed vaguely British — an odd coincidence, or evidence of Fort Laramie’s unsuspected cosmopolitan appeal. We toured the fort, which had also attracted a group of rowdy Italian tourists, before repairing to Vicki’s Saloon, where Noah joined us for an early dinner: third-pound burgers — Vicki was out of quarter-pounders.

I had wondered, before entering, why Vicki’s was a saloon and not a bar; once inside, I quickly understood. The interior was dim and smoky, populated by gruff men sporting hats and overalls and mustaches, and by one child, maybe 6 or 7 years old, who kept trying to climb on his seated father’s back. In the fridge behind the bar, packs of cigarettes were for sale.

Inside, I found myself — half shyly, half proudly — dropping my r’s, saying “real good,” instead of “really good,” peppering my speech with "y’all." I wasn’t trying to pass, exactly, just pass unnoticed in a town where one might overhear one man say to another: “Well, your cousin is my cousin’s cousin, but we’re not cousins.”

Noah, who had grown up nearby, didn’t need to pass: With his broad hat and his leather boots and his insistence on opening doors for his wife, he simply belonged. And though Natalie hadn’t been born in the state and so couldn’t be of it in quite the same way, she seemed untroubled by the barren landscape. I had always admired the fierce streak in her personality, her desire for independence. And while in New York this desire had been largely frustrated, here, it meant she was well-suited to a life that required you to grow your own vegetables if you wanted fresh produce.

Noah clearly admired it, too. It is easy to see, in a man’s protectiveness, a woman’s weakness; but if Noah was, instinctively, always looking out for Natalie — his big hand forever encircling her smaller one — it read as an act of respect. She was strong enough to be worth defending. On my birthday, we ate elk steaks for dinner. Noah had shot the elk the previous winter, and he and Natalie had packed the kill out — something like 300 pounds of meat — in the aftermath of a blizzard, together.

***

I did not discover, in Wyoming, that I’d make for a fine rancher’s wife — I know for a fact I wouldn’t. I don’t cook, dislike gardening, can’t ride a horse. (My second day in Fort Laramie, Noah and I rode out to see the heifer’s pasture; my pathetic attempts to trot earned me sympathy and inner-thigh bruises.) On my birthday, Noah tried to teach me how to shoot; my aim, even under this patient tutelage, did not improve.

I did discover the depth of my admiration for Natalie’s decision to leave New York — for the severity of the break she had made with her previous life. “If I wanted to matter,” says the character David Wallace in David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King, “— even just to myself — I would have to be less free, by deciding to choose in some definite way.” It’s odd to think of freedom as a kind of constraint, or of constraint as a kind of freedom. But, logical or not, I understood that New York’s plethora of choices had paralyzed me. New York had encouraged a desire, already hard-wired, to be generally desired — by jobs and men and girls whose Instagram feeds made me sick with envy — while at the same time concealing what it was I desired. Perhaps if I chose to be less free, I would at last understand what it was I wanted to do with what freedom remained.  

When I left Fort Laramie — headed east, to Omaha, an eight-hour drive through Nebraska’s browning hills; it would be one of ugliest legs of my journey — I had made no decisions. But I had glimpsed a way of living radically different from my own. Staying in Airbnbs in Taos or Denver or Philadelphia for one night, two at most, it was hard to imagine myself into daily life; these stops were vacations from the quotidian. Staying with Natalie and Noah had allowed me to glimpse — even briefly — a quotidian I could never have imagined.

The corner of New York publishing I inhabited seemed sometimes designed to make me forget the existence of people who didn’t care about pre-pub reviews and book advances. If my road trip had been, in part, an attempt to remind myself that of course this wasn’t true, Wyoming was the state in which I began to think that maybe the problem wasn’t publishing; it was me. Maybe I didn’t care about these things either. 

And if I must confess my nostalgia for Wyoming is largely superficial, a collection of images — flat, hard-packed earth topped by sparse grass; fiery sunsets; the trail of dust kicked up by the back wheels of a pickup truck — I am also certain that the fundamental appeal of my friends’ lives was not aesthetic. It was based on the evident strength of their partnership — marriage being a natural constraint, and one that can be now, though is not always, freely chosen. With such a desolate landscape as its backdrop, the ties that bound my friend and her husband together — two against the unforgiving world — could not but be thrown into sharp relief.

I had always imagined marriage as two people, in a boat, rowing; the trick is not to jump ship. Now I think of it also as two people, in a house on the plains, 45 minutes from the nearest grocery store. It’s harder to see what the trick is there, but I know two people who seem to have figured it out.