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Driving Wyoming’s North Plains

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

The protection of grizzlies and wolves is a sore point. You can’t shoot them except in self-defense, and government agencies can only take action against one if the animal is known to have killed. People feel threatened by these predators, which more and more are drifting into their back yards. Wolves are decimating the elk population. Now, the grizzly is about to be removed from the endangered species category, and the same may soon happen to the gray wolf.

I propose that the cowboy be put on the endangered species list. Cowboys are ecologists at heart—conservative, perhaps, but conservators, too. They are not interested in hunting, though they’ve done some in their time, or in rodeos much anymore. They know how to breed, herd, and brand cattle, and have done a lot of it.

I was initiated into such matters at Twin Creek Ranch & Lodge, near Lander, at the foot of the Wind River Mountains, by Tony Malmberg and his wife, Andrea. When Tony took me on a tour, he explained that a cow pasture must lie ungrazed for up to 14 months for the grasses to grow back. Allan Savory, a political activist exiled from Rhodesia, where he owned a farm, has convinced many local ranchers to adopt techniques of holistic land management. Driving through the ranch, Malmberg stopped his pickup truck to point out varieties of plants: astragalus, wild mustard, bitterroot (which the Nez Percé lived on), and Indian paintbrush, the Wyoming state flower. Through the clump of cottonwood trees along the creek a magpie flew, making a squeaking sound. Looking east, one could see the landscape become layers of blue. Tony said, "Wyoming is still more sheep than people." This isn’t quite true anymore, but it is the least populated state in America. At Twin Creek, they keep 700 head of cattle and 700 calves on 16,000 acres.

After taking us to see her goats, with names such as Maimona, Wilhelm, Billy, and Xena, Andrea Malmberg suggested we take the back road to Wyoming’s Atlantic City. It was beautiful driving, at first, our wheels on either side of a tuft of grass. The road wound gently through small hills, sagebrush, and wildflowers. Huge dark clouds, then little detached ones, scampered across the skies, coming down low, forming a circle. They got blacker. Denser. The sky seemed to want to come down to earth and crush it. We kept driving, the scenery wonderful, only now there were puddles and ruts. The car skidded, then it stalled. Thérèse said, "Gun it." I accelerated and the car spun almost out of control. I’m not saying it was like being on the back of Sharkey, the Famous Bucking Bull, but it was as close as I cared to get. In our effort to speed across the now seemingly interminable road, the undercarriage hit something and a strange rattling was heard.

"That road is a tire-eater," the waitress at the Mercantile in Atlantic City said. We had grilled-cheese sandwiches at one of the tables in the dark saloon.

Two old cowboys came in. One was tall and gaunt, with a long, thin, white beard, and never took his hat off. The other had white hair coming out of his black hat, a red face, and very blue eyes. The lady who ran the bar told him about our tires and he stepped outside to take a look. He stood before the front driver’s-side tire, looked at it, bent down, looked again, straightened up, and kicked it once. Nothing wrong with it, he decreed, you’ll make it to Lander. All downhill, anyway, the woman added.

We pulled over at the Red Canyon scenic turnoff 12 minutes later, on Route 28, when the rattle became deafening and black smoke began coming out the back. It’s the prettiest spot in Wyoming, said the man who got out of the Jeep I hailed. He was a retired pediatrician back from a fishing trip in Saskatchewan and on his way to Idaho, but he offered to drive us to Lander. When we arrived 30 minutes later and got out of the car, he realized he had left his briefcase—a worn leather bag spilling over with papers—on the roof of the car: he had removed it to make space for us.

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