Through my twenties and into my forties New York City was the beckoning hand, the place that perpetually sighed from afar that my life could soar if only I made the first leap – quit my job, cut my ties, sold my belongings, packed only one suitcase — to meet its enchantment at the maximum intensity of its power, I had to travel light so as to leave and enter as if remade. The dream was all about trying on new configurations of life as if they were rich shirts pulled on and then thrown off just as casually – write novels or plays and scripts and live above delis in Hell’s Kitchen.
Years ago I read about a bar somewhere in that old Irish neighborhood. On Tuesday nights crowds gathered and sang sea shanties, roaring like great happy creatures, brothers and sisters all for an evening. Sheridan County, Nebraska I wanted to do that and then spend my disciplined days writing and cracking a code no one had yet imagined existed. Or I thought of working in a museum and day by day descending deeper into some arcane splinter of the world, and in this way nurturing a clandestine passion, but at night emerging into all those lights and the hive of millions, any one of whom might change my life. I saw myself walking, always walking at a pony’s clip, up and down obscure streets, making discoveries, converting the city into my city. I imagined going to plays and operas and listening to singers and bands in tiny clubs, and like Al Pacino in one terrible movie, being able to converse in any language as needed, Spanish, Mandarin, Urdu or Mongolian, and so opening up every person in the city as if I had the keys to their every locked door.
I have always carried a double-ness in my longings for places. The time I spent out West in my twenties anchored in me a love of big country, open spaces, emptiness, and wild nature that feels as reliable as a birthright. In Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado I felt released from the narrowness of the East, from the crowds, traffic, malls, and the divisive ephemera of media culture. That promise of release has been inside me ever since, a strong current flowing parallel to the tidal pull of New York.
Last Sunday the Times carried a story about life in Sheridan County in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. Kirk Budd, a third generation rancher in the western panhandle and his wife and children are struggling to make a go of it in a county, like many in the rural West, that is losing population. His children are self-reliant and confident, and their neighbors few but dependable, but raising cattle is risky; the hard, physical work never stops. The weather and the land can be without mercy.
Inara Verzemnieks, flying above that land, writes that it “is like one endless unpunctuated idea — sand, tumbleweed, turkey, bunchstem, buffalo, meadow, cow, rick of hay, creek, sunflower, sand — and only rarely did a house or windmill or a barn suddenly appear to suspend the sense of limitlessness.”^* She sees a space that appears boundaryless, somehow whole in its lonesomeness, as if the bisecting, fragmenting, atomizing, fracturing sense of life in the East did not apply here. The land takes hold of those whose livelihood depends upon it, in spite, or maybe because of its rugged demands. One of Mr. Budd’s young daughters, who he worried had begun to drift away “from the remoteness,” said that “she couldn’t imagine anywhere else feeling like home.”
The land without people like the Budd’s would settle back into a kind of passivity; instead of lonesome, it would become lonely. Instead of empty, it would become desolate. This far out, the very scarcity of human beings makes neighbors all the less anonymous. Their singularity proclaims their importance. In a January blizzard, you need neighbors who look out for each other — the ferocity of the land and weather demands that they not hold back.
I want to travel to Sheridan County and drive those roads and talk to people and imagine what a transplanted life might look like. To move there now would probably be the most heedless leap of faith, oblivious and blind, but the temptation of all that sky and of a life suddenly intersected by Westerners, ohh — I will think about that, and I know that I will see them and the rolling land as I fall into sleep.
This is home. Neither destiny nor fate led me here. I think of those as meaningless words that only provide solace. We make hundreds of choices and circumstances swirl around us like leaves in a strong wind — I landed here because of those. I no longer want to move to New York. I could not bear to lose the liberty of walking out the door and into some place wild. And so this past Tuesday in the snow we walked across the road and into a field.
The dogs had not seen the geese among the corn stalks, but the geese were universally alert, the shape of their heads like black 7’s pointed at us. The snow fell so hard that they were sometimes obscured. First Luna and then Wolfie turned and sniffed, saw them, froze, and then began leaping rows of stalks, and the geese, honking continuously, began throwing themselves into the air as if part of a long ascending string being pulled from above, and then they were wheeling in a circle the width of the field, and one wedge of that wheel came over us, the dogs stopping and looking up through snow now falling so thickly that it veiled the tree lines, and all I could see were the geese and the dogs and the snow.