How the West Won Me

I left my Manhattan apartment for the last time wearing black sunglasses, a black T-shirt, a long, slim-fitting satin Chinese-print skirt, and matching sandals. As I lifted my leg to get in the cab to the airport, the entire back seam of the skirt ripped – from hem to zipper.

In retrospect, the incident seems portentous. I wasn’t heading out for a Western holiday, a cowboy-themed interlude; I was moving to Wyoming.

And the minute I was out of New York range, my fashion pretensions were rendered useless. I was so pleased when I found a Ralph Lauren suit for half-price at the local mall in Cheyenne, I drove home with the garment bag swinging victoriously from the gun rack in my truck. I haven’t worn it since. Running errands in my maroon velvet tank dress – which I did all the time in New York – garnered more amused stares than I’d gotten since I was a goth teen in suburban New Jersey. And perhaps it’s no surprise that I’ve yet to find an occasion that calls for a Gucci bag.

So how did I end up in Cheyenne? The cute response is that one snowy December night when I was on assignment at a honky-tonk here, a charming roughneck asked me to dance. Long-distance courtship ensued, and then, lured by the promise of love and low overhead, I moved west in 1998.

But there’s more. Quite apart from any amorous pursuits, I realized, I had been consumed by what my friend Maija calls the “Want Monster.” I had changed from a sincere, arty gal to a junior media type and in the process become petulant and ungrateful in the extreme. It didn’t matter that I was doing fine, certainly better than expected. I’m a high-school dropout; having fashioned a career that didn’t involve asking “Do you want fries with that?” meant I’d triumphed over statistics. But so what? Dissatisfaction is common if not celebrated in a town where ambition carries the day. An acquaintance who published four successful books, earns thousands per gig lecturing, and had his novel optioned, once said, “In New York, you never really feel successful, because there’s always someone who’s got so much more than you. There is no ceiling to success here. There is never enough.”

There are other icons of butch Americana, but none has the cowboy’s pansexual allure… . Masculine ardor tempered with rural mellowness has much to recommend it. The amped-up Master of the Universe mania starts to look ridiculous by comparison.

And so I’d go haring off each day in search of the elusive enough, hastened by a sense of entitlement and armored in irony. In a city so brutally competitive as New York I suppose it’s a critical survival mechanism, but while it may be a handy way of shielding your vulnerabilities, it’s also a cultural paralytic. I’ve watched a lot of very talented, inventive people lapse into scenester para-creatives – privy to the galleys of every book and rough cuts of every film, present at every party, and able to tell you the picayune details of all of the hot deals being made in art, film, literature, and real estate – but unable to create anything meaningful themselves. Too stymied by affectation to make a move, they’ve traded output for access.

I was headed that way myself. Living in the shadow of the ultimate punk-rock landmark, the Hotel Chelsea, I was as happy as I’d ever been. But it was only a matter of time before my entire existence involved standing around in clever outfits, tossing back martinis, and sneering about how derivative someone’s work was.

Eventually, I lapsed into a profound funk – I’d sit in Veselka, spooning borscht and observing my ilk with their scrubby hairdos, or see them swarming the Angelika in their interesting spectacles, and think, “My God, there are so many of us.” All those aspirations crammed into a small, finite space – it seemed futile. Was I crazy or just claustrophobic? I couldn’t tell. I sequestered myself in my tiny apartment, watching Seinfeld reruns and weighing my options. When a leak in the roof of my building brought on an infestation of gargantuan flying cockroaches, I made my decision. I wanted out.

Leaving New York is anxious-making. New York is a font of myth, a locus of opportunity – you’re deathly afraid that you’ll miss something. Or that no one will miss you. Still, I steeled my nerves and bailed, because other friends had left and thrived. One went to Manila to head a division of an advertising firm. One went to London for a change of scene. Still another headed to a sleepy Massachusetts hamlet to finish a screenplay. Each of us left for a different reason, but we all planned to return eventually.

Southeastern Wyoming, where I live at the moment, looks nothing like the mountainous picture-postcard perfection one might expect. It looks more like Nebraska’s leftovers. Not that life in the high plains isn’t pretty; in the springtime, the foothills are carpeted in wildflowers, and in summer, the afternoon showers often produce double rainbows. And the sky – it’s immense, clear, and mighty. During the day, monster clouds roll in over the Front Range of the Rockies. At night, the Big Dipper spans the distance between four telephone poles and the Milky Way stretches all the way across mid-Heaven, a translucent silver ribbon.

Winter can be hell. The bitter cold and 60-mile-an-hour gusts dissuade one from leaving the house, let alone outdoor sporting, and the only life you’ll see on the plains is the stubble of prairie grass poking through the snow and the occasional shivering antelope. But it’s worth enduring for the summers, when the air smells of horse apples and sweet grass, and the thunderstorms blow in on a loam-scented breeze.

Moving came with a package of predictable difficulties, including identity crises. New Yorkers are renowned as savvy, tough, determined, and eccentric. When you leave the city, are you no longer any of those things? Surviving the daily grind is testimonial to strength of character, so now that you’re out of it, have you gone soft? And this surfeit of irony – do you need it? It’s scary for a New Yorker to dismantle the irony device, because you’re afraid something awful might happen. Like you’ll turn into a Californian. But when I peeled away my anxiety about descending into dithery Stuart Smalley­ism, I found that at the core of the ironic affectation was a huge knot of panic. Distinctly New York panic. Even if you’re at the top of your game, you live in fear of being edged out of your job, your social niche, your apartment. But once you’re gone awhile, you realize you don’t need the hypervigilant detachment, and it falls away like a snake’s old skin. Life lightens up considerably.

Although I live at more than 6,000 feet above sea level, I’ve never had altitude sickness. I did, however, quease at the lateral expansion. As a New Yorker, I was used to living within tight geographic boundaries, maneuvering within a certain moral and aesthetic, as well as physical, realm. With unlimited space, what do you do? I started by learning things I had never bothered with before. I was shockingly ignorant about many fundamental grown-up tasks. I didn’t know how to change a flat tire. I’d telephone my mother in a panic: “How do you bake a chicken?!” Lawns and gardens? Apparently, if you don’t water them every day or so in summer, they turn brown.

Out here, one is advised to leave the big-city attitude behind. Deigning to enlighten the local citizenry on some matter might yield naught in return but an indignant snort – or even a black eye. Believe it: They really don’t care how they do it in New York! For months, every time I showed up someplace, someone would razz me by yelling, “New York City?!” like the hicks in that Pace picante-sauce commercial. When I opened a checking account, the teller said, “You’re from New York, huh? Well, don’t tell anybody back there about us. We don’t want them coming here.”

Of course, Wyoming is not a total backwater. We have body piercing, alternative radio, latte, botox, and aromatherapy, all of which balance nicely with the remaining vestiges of regional purity. Cheyenne, the state’s capital and largest city (population 55,608), has seven taxidermy shops but no Gap.

And leaving New York is a little easier when your destination has its own major-league mythos. Which Wyoming certainly does; this is cowboy country, pard! Everyone’s infatuated with the cowboy, even in Wyoming. There are other icons of butch Americana – the soldier, the astronaut, the rock star – but none has the cowboy’s pansexual allure.

“Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” is the plaintive wail of singer Paula Cole. Anyone who dares to venture west of the Ohio River or east of Sunset Boulevard will find that the cowboys haven’t gone anywhere. It’s just a matter of whether you’re willing to overlook your raw-boned fantasies about what cowboys are really like and stare into the eyes of the real deal.

Real cowboys aren’t always nice – and by the same token, they’re not always tough. They may prefer Ozzy Osbourne to George Strait. They use cell phones. They don’t all work on the range; some are professional rodeo athletes; some were raised as hands, then became laborers or accountants or content providers. Among the men laying claim to cowboydom, there’s a huge credibility shakedown – who’s the genuine article and who isn’t. In a country-and-western bar, you hear more cries of “wannabe” and “poseur” than at a hip-hop club or a punk show. “Couldn’t ride a stick horse” is the ultimate dis, and it’s often bandied about. Elitism doesn’t just come teetering in on a pair of Manolos, you see. Sometimes it wears Ropers, too.

I had my reservations about giving in to cowboy courtship, since it was unlike anything I was used to. Instead of stories about Ivy League high jinks or what it was like to see Richard Hell at CBGB’s, I was regaled with tales of Little Britches rodeo and jumping Harleys off a freeway exit ramp. But once I got past the cosmetic differences, I was totally charmed. Masculine ardor tempered with rural mellowness has much to recommend it. The amped-up Master of the Universe mania starts to look ridiculous by comparison.

I’m not certain if living out here has made me a nicer person, or if I simply have fewer opportunities to be a jerk. What I do know is that I no longer confuse panic with vitality; time is more ally than enemy; and the urban dictum of “Eat or be eaten” has become, instead, “Eat … or don’t.” I’m doing okay.

Or so it seems most days. Other days, I’m not so sure. Like several weeks ago, when my New England friend e-mailed. He’d had enough of life in the Berkshires, he wrote. He’s headed back to town. Where will he be living? The Hotel Chelsea.

The bastard.

How the West Won Me