The Books: “Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2″ – ‘Man Crawling Out Of Trees’ (Annie Proulx)

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Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 by Annie Proulx – excerpt from the story ‘Man Crawling Out Of Trees’,

I love this story. It’s about two transplants from New England to Wyoming – and the culture is so different they might as well have moved to Turkmenistan. Mitchell and Eugenie are a couple in their 50s – who have spent their lives in New York (I think they lived in Brooklyn) – until a couple of bad things happen (a mugging on the subway?) and they decide to move. Their daughter Honor is a young woman now – with her own life – so they decide to move to Wyoming. Their dream is to live near Yellowstone or one of the national parks, but they soon discover that any property anywhere NEAR any of the parks is way beyond millions of dollars. They eventually settle on something – smaller, scraggly … and it’s almost like they’re stepping into a dream-state. Like, to people in Wyoming, it’s all real, for God’s sake … there’s no fantasy in living how they live – but Mitchell and Eugenie are foreigners and they have a fantasy of the West, and what their lives will be like. Mitchell was a philanderer – and we eventually realize that Eugenie is no saint, either – so I think they’re hoping that a change of venue might help their marriage. Yeah, well, the people who actually live in Wyoming are used to folks like Mitchell and Eugenie – people who move there with some sort of “dream” – and they try to accept Mitchell and Eugenie but it’s like the two of them just cannot get the language straight. They miss symbols, they don’t pick up on messages … they keep breaking “the rules”. It’s like they are still living by New York rules (the “man crawling out of trees” incident is a perfect example … Eugenie sees an injured man crawl out of her trees on a snowy day and is so terrified she locks all the doors and calls the sheriff’s department. Turns out, the man was an injured skier, who was calling for help – and so the town judges Eugenie – In Wyoming, even if a man is your mortal enemy, you help him if, say, his truck broke down, or he’s fallen on hard times. Even the sheriff yells at Eugenie. But there’s more. Mitchell and Eugenie are not particularly close – you can tell – and their daughter Honor has had a baby with a man Mitchell’s age – her boyfriend (he sounds a little bit like the Tim Robbins’ character in High Fidelity – they live in Maine – and Mitchell and Eugenie are baffled as to who their daughter has become. They don’t know how to deal with it. At the same time, they are now trapped in the reality of Wyoming – wondering where the dream went.

Great story. Very funny, but with Proulx’s insightful observations – and her accurate aim – not only at folks like Mitchell and Eugenie, their pretensions and mistakes – but the folks of the town who are rigid and close-minded. Culture clash. And you write people off at your peril. But also: some people are just assholes, and never forget that. A total lack of curiosity about another person and another region in the country means you are an asshole.

Proulx rides both sides here – although the story is from Mitchell and Eugenie’s point of view. Proulx lives in Wyoming and has for many years. She knows it intimately. But she can slip inside Mitchell and Eugenie, because that’s what she does, as a writer.

And the response of the folks in the town, their neighbors, reminds me of the B&B we stayed in on Achill Island, a big island off the west coast of Ireland. The couple who owned the B&B had lived there on Achill for thirty years. And they were still referred to, by the villagers, as “blow-ins”. Blown in from somewhere else. How long would you have to live there before they just accepted that you were one of them? Probably a very long time. But also: if you move to Achill, with some leprechaun-filled fantasy of the ‘auld country’ – you will be doomed to disappointment. Deal with reality, please. Have real curiosity about the culture you are visiting.

Proulx describes this whole divide perfectly.

Here’s an excerpt.

EXCERPT FROM Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 by Annie Proulx – excerpt from the story ‘Man Crawling Out Of Trees’,

Wyoming had seemed civilized when they first moved out, but gradually evidence appeared that forced them to recognize that they were in a place people in the east would regard as peripheral to the real world. There were disturbing proofs that the weight of a harsh past still bore down with force. Every few months something inexplicably rural happened: on a back road one man shot another with his great-grandfather’s 45.70 vintage buffalo gun; a newcomer from Iowa set out for an afternoon hike, and fell off a cliff as she descended Wringer Mountain. Black bears came down in September and smashed Eugenie’s bird feeders. A hawk hid under the potentilla bush and leaped suddenly on an overconfident prairie dog a little too far from its burrow. In Antler Spring, the town where they bought their liquor and groceries, a young woman expecting her first child was widowed when her husband, fighting summer wildfires in Colorado, was killed by a Pulaski tool that fell from a helicopter. Vacationers locked themselves out of their cars and were struck by lightning. Ranchers, their eyes on their cattle, drove off the road and overturned. Everything seemed to end in blood.

Outside the Star Lily Ranch community Eleanora Figg was their nearest neighbor. She was an elderly widow rancher in her mid-seventies of the classic Republican, conservative, art-hating, right-wing, outspoken, flint-faced type. She ran both cattle and some sheep, drove an ancient black Jeep. She loathed environmentalists and people from somewhere else. Mitchell understood the bumper sticker on her Jeep – SHOOT, SHOVEL AND SHUT UP – to express her opinions on wolves. She had taken one look at the Fairs’ Infiniti and recognized them as sybarites who dined on camel heels and foreign olives. She herself lived on home-killed beef, boiled potatoes, and black coffee. She was always dressed in jeans, manure-caked boots, and a ragged barn coat. When they first met, Mitchell shook the old woman’s hand, feeling the coarse, hard fingers gripping his own with remarkable strength.

“How’s your teeth?” she said. “Pretty sharp?”

“I don’t know,” said Mitchell, nonplussed by the odd question. “Why?”

“Always lookin for somebody help us castrate lambs.”

At the post office the woman told him about Eleanora Figg.

“Her and her boys Condor and Tommy just about run this place.” She added that there had been a third son, Cody, who had died of heatstroke hiking in the Grand Canyon on his first and only vacation.

He had met Condor Figg. The first winter he learned the hard way that the truck he had bought was best as a summer truck. It skidded and slewed in the lightest snow. The inevitable happened, and while he was trying to call a tow truck on his cell phone, damning the hundreds of Wyoming dead spots that made smoke signals more practical than cell phones, a big flatbed truck carrying a thousand-pound roll of hay pulled up.

“Got a chain?” yelled the driver, a big chunky man wearing a T-shirt despite the cold and snow. He had a curly black beard and eyes as narrow and darting as two fingerling trout.

“No,” said Mitchell, and before his mouth closed the man was out of the truck and dragging a heavy chain with hook ends from it. In less than forty seconds he had the chain wrapped around Mitchell’s trailer hitch and the truck up on the road, pointed the wrong way.

“My God,” said Mitchell, “how can I thank you?” He fumbled for money, looking at the hole in the snow where the truck had been. Beyond the fence thirty or forty pronghorn grazed with cool detachment. He rushed on, his voice fast out of his throat. “My name’s Mitchell Fair. We live in Star Lily Ranch.” And he held out a twenty-dollar bill.

The man looked at him with hatred. “Yeah. I know. Keep your money. Where your house sets is where my folks had a stock tank. When old Dean Peraine had that truck you bought off a him he run it ever weather for damn near ten years. Had some weight to her. Never went off the road unless he wanted to.” He jumped in the big truck, stood on the gas, and was gone in a blast of blue smoke. But Mitchell put four hundred pounds of sandbags in the bed of his truck and his winter driving skills improved. He stayed on the road.

There was another old woman in Swift Fox – Mrs. Conkle. She was also a rancher’s widow but lived in a decrepit trailer with a yellow stucco exterior. Over the years wind-driven dirty had discolored the structure as the stucco cracked and buckled into a leprous mass. Sometimes when the Fairs drove past they saw the old woman outside, struggling to hang some wet grey garments on a drooping clothesline.

“That old thing,” said Eugenie. “You have to wonder how somebody gets to that state.”

Mitchell, who talked with local people more than she did, had heard a tale of hard luck and swindle.

The day the Fairs left Swift Fox on their journey to Maine they had passed Mrs. Conkle’s ugly trailer. The yard was full of trucks, and men were coming from the trailer carrying a bureau, a box of canning jars, a rocking chair.

“Ah,” said Eugenie. “There must have been a fire. Or maybe the poor old lady died and the relatives are going through her things.”

Mitchell didn’t think so. As they neared the bottom of the hill, coming toward them was Condor Figg’s flatbed loaded with lumber and logs. In the side mirror Mitchell saw him turn in to Mrs. Conkle’s yard.

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3 Responses to The Books: “Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2″ – ‘Man Crawling Out Of Trees’ (Annie Proulx)

  1. Diana says:

    1. The castration/teeth thing – people really do this! I knew a young woman many years ago who was from Montana, studying Animal and Vet Sciences in college, who was puzzled when I moaned about the high cost of rounding up stray tomcats in the small town I lived in then and taking them to the vet to be neutered. Where she was from, you just learned to lop ’em off yourself. They must have put them under somehow, I don’t remember, but the image of a tomcat splayed on his back on her kitchen table has never left my mind. (She offered to teach me but I declined.)

    And then she progressed from there to tell me about how they castrated bulls, and about how when your hands are full… I can still see her shrug. This was 15 years ago but I’ll never forget this woman!

    2. Having recently moved back to a different small Idaho town, after living most of my life in cities, I find it amusing to see what tourists assume about me when they stop in the bookstore where I work. They sometimes talk loudly right in front of me about the very quaintness of it all, as if I can’t hear or understand them. They’ll look at me and I can just see them assuming that I’ve lived here my whole life, never gotten off the prairie, that kind of thing. When I’m just as much an outsider as they are, really. So I can relate to Proulx’s duality here, how she sees both sides.

  2. red says:

    Diana – Great comment!

    You know, that same dichotomy that you describe exists in Rhode Island, too. There are the “townies” on one side (that term was always an insult to all of us – being townies) – and the tourists who flood the state every summer. It would be like they felt they OWNED the beaches … or they OWNED Newport …

    It’s hard not to have resentment on both sides. And Rhode Island can’t help but be insular because of its size … weird, that there would be a similarity with Wyoming in that way (or Achill Island) but it’s true!

  3. The Books: “Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2” – ‘The Wamsutter Wolf’ (Annie Proulx)

    Next book on my adult fiction bookshelf: Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 by Annie Proulx – excerpt from the story ‘The Wamsutter Wolf’. A lot of Annie Proulx’s stories are dominated by silence and space. Maybe there’s wind, the sound…

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