Rick Shory

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Laundry in Lander

This started as a letter to friends, but I thought it gave a sense of place, and the times we live in.  The New Old West, and the information backroads.


Mark must’ve come to this same laundromat.  He’s the kind of guy who’d live in a cheap apartment.  He’d spend his money on travel and adventure, not frills.

The washer’s filling as I type on this laptop.  The guys on the crew play country music too much in the green rig.  It makes me think of Mark.  Sweetness, and heartache.  But Mark lived right here in Lander, Wyoming, three years.  Even without country music, that’d make me think of him.  He would cross my mind every time I saw the name on a map.

Lander feels like a college town, though there’s no college.  Well, there’s NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School.  I guess that counts.  Mark worked at NOLS.  He did computer database work, and in summers horsepacking.

As soon as we pulled in that first afternoon:  My God, Mark, what were you thinking?  Sure, Lander’s a nice little town, but you’re never going to meet anybody.  But then I remembered, he wasn’t out yet.  In his thirties, a luscious little hunk of a man.  He had no idea he was gay.

He described it one time.  “Sure, I had, like, fascinations with guys.  But I thought it was some low self esteem thing, or something.”

The excuses we make to ourselves.

Maybe he drove out to the hills for a pastime.  Work at NOLS must’ve been some adventure.  I can picture him shooting pool at the Lander Bar.  For me, though, there’s just about one weekend’s worth of fun here.  Our two-day stop before the Greybull will be about right.

“So, you know folks around here?” the guys asked as we pulled in.

“No.  I was only through Lander once before, last summer.  With a bunch of NOLS people, setting out a horse course.  Pulling trailers up to the Absoroka Range.  We stopped here for dinner on the way home.”

I didn’t mention my romantic interest.  I had already told them I was gay.  We’d been in the upper reaches of the Green River.  I knew the lay of the land.  “You sure have been around,” they asked, “What took you up here?”

“I was seeing a guy who worked at the NOLS ranch, out of Pinedale.  It was real nice.”  It had been.  That was Mark, of course.  If the guys have a problem working with a fag on the team, they’ve been quiet about it.  Forest Service has “sexual orientation” written into its civil rights policy, so I don’t mince words.

But Lander held my private memories from the previous summer.  There were few enough.  A burger, or something, at the Gannett Grill.  Window shopping for trucks in the Nissan lot, after hours.  We were with Rick (other Rick), who runs sailing courses in the Northwest.  And Amy.  And I don’t know who else.  And Mark.  And me, wondering just how interested Mark really was, as he always kept me wondering.

Now it’s about a year later.  Mark and I were maybe going down to Colorado this weekend.  It’s Gay Pride in Denver.  A couple months ago, when we officially split up, it was a parting shot along with lets-be-friends.  Maybe if I was not too far up state, I’d rent a car, and pick him up in Laramie, and we do this.

But his email lately was this road trip he has to take back east; see his dad in Indiana, and this elderly great aunt on the East Coast, and Goat and Lang’s handfasting in Tennessee, and maybe this rodeo.  Basically giving me the between-the-lines message, like always, that I’m way down on his priority list.  Well, maybe I still put out a bit of that breathless hopefulness, and he can smell it even through email.  I guess I’d do the same.  Still, it’s sad.  I feel the few shreds of him I have left slipping away.

The washer just switched to spin cycle.  It’s only a dollar here, to two fifty in Jackson Hole.  Everything’s twice the price in Jackson, the guys on the crew say, but there sure are some honeys walking the streets!  I’ll say.  All kinds of honeys.  I like the construction worker guys.

I can’t figure it.  Mark was running all over the place, the whole time we were going together:  Flying to the space shuttle launch in Florida.  Trips to Denver.  Road trips back east.  Zooming up to Montana.  All of which is fine.  Apparently, never much worried that it was all riding on a huge pile of credit card debt.  Still, if you’re cool with that, fine.  But always, supposedly, finishing his Masters.

Then, all of a sudden , something changed.  About the time he forgot about me, he decided he needed to start making money.  So he started working on commission at this computer repair place.  Which is a set-up for long burnout hours and not much pay.  When I last saw him, he said he hadn’t been out of Laramie for weeks.  Couldn’t afford gas money even to Fort Collins.  All this, and supposedly finishing his degree.

The washer’s done, and I didn’t even notice.  I guess the hot dryer will be OK for work clothes.

My first day in Lander, we got to town early.  I did some business, then walked Main street; all ten blocks of it.  Down a side street by the river, a memory nudged.  Didn’t we stop by a house here?  Amy’s house?  There had been straw bales around the doghouse, for in winter when it gets so cold.  And a little deck.  And plum trees.  Maybe I’d recognize it by the plum trees.

Amy is Mark’s good friend.  She’s quite a woman.  Sharp with horses, and databases, she exudes a good natured but no-nonsense competence.  Small and wiry, she embodies for me the new old western cowgirl.

Another street over, a blue house with white shutters looked familiar.  I was shy on such a tenuous connection, and thought I’d come back later.  Then, I was stepping up the walk, and my finger pressed the bell.

The door opened and a familiar face greeted me.  A guy talking on a cordless, smiled, “Hey, I remember you.  Come in!”  Him, I remembered from the ranch, in cowboy gear.  Brown eyes and handlebar mustache.  A man with skewed features, but handsome in spite of that.  “Have a seat!”

On the wall was one of those paintings you know has a hidden image.  Men on horseback, riding through an aspen stand, and the black branch stubs on the white trunks form some pattern.  But I couldn’t make it out.  Also, a frame-size photo of this guy here, holding up the head of a big elk he’d apparently shot.  Somebody else was in the picture with him, maybe Amy, like it was a team effort.

Done with his phone call, he came into the front room.  “I don’t remember your name,” we shook hands, “But you were at the ranch.”  True enough, everybody at the ranch would feel like family to me too, if I met them in town.  His name was Greg.

The first quarter’s run out on the dryer.  The socks are almost dry, but not the Carharts.  I guess duct tape isn’t a permanent way to patch a T-shirt.  It didn’t stay on.

Greg and I caught up on old times.  Yes, this had been Amy’s house, “But she decided she didn’t want to live here anymore, and moved up to Montana.  We’d shared the house, but now it’s just me.”

The dogs were wound up from being in the yard all day, and now Papa was here.  One kept fetching a well-chewed chunk of ax handle, bringing it to be tossed across the floor, to fetch again.  It was all real pleasant and down-home.

Mark had mentioned, in email, he likely wouldn’t be working up at the ranch this summer, as there was a new manager and a different crew of folks.  “Yeah,” said Greg, “And I’m not there either.  I’m now working for Cedar Landscape and Tree Service.”  He touched his bill cap, showing the company logo.

Greg had applied for the ranch manager job after the previous guy left.  Mark, the other Mark.  They all called my Mark “Brogan”.

“They didn’t even grant me an interview,” Greg said, “I felt disrespected.  Two of the people they did interview had nowhere near the qualifications.  A lot of folks thought that wasn’t done right, but I took action.”  Meaning he’d quit.  I was sad for him.  It seemed quite a notch down, to quit working with horses, and now be spraying lawns.

“Well, I’m not burning bridges,” he continued.  “I was up there doing some shoeing for them earlier.  I have great respect for the instructors, and the courses they run.”

“Brogan was up there too, briefly”, he mentioned.  This was news.  I’d emailed him when I was working up the Green River, and not a peep then.  Well, I would’ve been too busy to connect anyway.

“Are you still in touch with Brogan?” asked Greg

“Yeah, I get email.  We were maybe going to meet up this weekend and head down to Denver,” I didn’t say what for, “Being as I’m working in the state.”

I wondered how much Greg knew about Mark and me.  It had irked me how shy Mark had been to let people at the ranch know he was gay.  Especially the handsome cowboys.  Like he feared their rejection.  So I kept quiet about it too, though I thought it was stupid.  For example, this gentle, pleasant man I was talking to right now would probably be no more than surprised, and then mostly forget about it.

“Did Brogan ever get done with that degree?” Greg asked.

“Not yet.  I think he’s stumped on the thesis.  Last I saw him, a few months back, I tried giving him a pep talk.  Saying a lot of people get that way, then make it through.  I got the hit he didn’t want to hear it.  Just didn’t want to hear about it.  Now, in his last email, he’s saying he’s got to get is life together, with or without the degree.  I guess that means without.”

I stayed about a half hour, wary of wearing out my welcome.  But Greg seemed happy to talk.  When another phone call came, I took my leave.  “Stop by again,” Greg said, as he picked up the handset.  He meant it.

Walking back to the motel, it crossed my mind, maybe Greg was downplaying what had been between him and Amy, same as I was about Mark.  Sad how we do that, but I can see.  Talking won’t bring it back, so why talk about it?

The dryer’s done, and only took two quarters.  Amazing this dry climate!  I shake the hot buckles so they won’t melt the bag, and haul it all out to the green rig.

I got no room to criticize what  Mark was doing living in Lander.  What am I doing, walking these streets mooning about him?  He’s a fine man, none finer, but it was a near miss.  I got to move on with my life.  Meet some guy who’ll be a keeper.

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On Location in Logan

We’ve been in Logan, Utah, three weeks now.  The first day, I was weirded out.  The thought of all these Mormons.  Aliens!  Jackie had scared me with tales of her trip to the Beehive State.  Lurid images of six women in a Laundromat, all enormously pregnant, each with half a dozen kids in tow!

Maybe it’s the tempering influence of Utah State University.  I saw young guys with earrings, and baseball caps turned backwards.  I saw young women playing frisbee and hackysack with the guys.  Comforting images of normalcy.  I think I even saw a skateboard.

As days went by, I got comfortable with the LDS influence.  The other folks at the Forest Service training are a likeable group, though a bit more attracted to beer than me.  For them, the Utah limit of 3.2% alcohol is a strain.  My impression of alcoholic beverage is that it must have been nice stuff, but yeast got in and it went bad.  Since I don’t drink at all, three-point-two is a number as theoretical as pi.

The restaurants are all non-smoking.  Many doors are posted, “no smoking within 25 feet”.  That fits right in with my druthers.  Only extend it to about 2500 miles, and impose the death penalty.

Logan is clean and safe.  Maybe there’s a dark side, but it’s well buried.  When I was a kid, my dad made a trip to Utah, and came back talking how clean everything was.  “They even have little streams of water flowing down the street gutters.”  That’s irrigation water, I learned on this trip.  You can get a ticket if you park with your tire obstructing the flow.

Logan lies in a little farming valley, the Cache Valley.  A hundred and fifty centuries ago it was a small pocket bay when the Great Basin bathtub was at its fullest and the present Great Salt Lake was freshwater Lake Bonneville.  The water drained down, and now Cache Valley is an emerald pasture tucked between abrupt mountains, the Wellsvilles to the west, and the Cache Range to the east, both sporting crags still laced with snow in June.

Everything is “cache” this, and “cache” that.  Long before the Mormons, the trappers used to cache their beaver pelts in underground pits out in the valley.  Something, maybe the cool conditions, made it good.

I think it’s funny.  We have our image of these crusty mountain men, taking Indian brides, and skinning dinner with a buckknife.  The West was wilder than anything we can imagine.  But these rough dudes’ entire business was to sell their wares at the periodic rendezvous.  And that commerce was wholly driven by the foppish Eastern fad of beaver hats!  When fashions changed, it was the end of the Mountain Men!  The whole thing lasted just a decade or so.  It wasn’t even a lifetime.  Some of the names that ring with numinous awe, Jim Bridger, Ephraim Logan, etc. were young, in their twenties — and didn’t live too long either.  They were lucky opportunists, like COBOL programmers at Y2K.  Maybe just the lucky few who survived till they reached what’s now Utah, and learned the ropes.  Lucky we even remember their names.

I have long mused how human fashion can bring the demise of a species, as it did the Western beaver; or wreck environmental destruction, grinding up whole mountains for an ounce of gold.  My personal response has been to resist fashion in all its nefarious forms, as anybody who knows me can verify!

Logan is civilized now, with fax machines and email, a fine place to have the training.  Beyond the scheduled forestry, I had to train myself on the local plants.  I’m supposed to be a botanist, but there were scads of species I had never seen on the West Coast, or the Front Range of Colorado.  I made trips up Logan Canyon, collecting and doing ID.  I’m banking the same ones will be in Wyoming, right over the pass.

About the second week, I tracked down the USU herbarium.  The tech person, Kim, was looking over my plants, and said, “Why don’t you show this one to Mary?”

The name over the door was “Mary Barkworth”.  I was in awe.  What?  You’ve never heard of her?

Ok, imagine you’re a small time rock musician, and you get a casual invitation to drop in on Paul McCartney.  That’s what it was like.  Mary Barkworth is famous in grass botany!  She is the most well known person in the pedagogical lineage of my old botany professor, Ron Taylor.  When I was first learning grasses, he mentioned this former student.  “She’s reorganizing the whole grass family.”  To me at the time, it was like being a missionary, not to the savages, but the very tigers themselves!

Well, Mary turned out to be entirely approachable.  She is Australian or Canadian or something, and totally charming in her British colonial kind of way.  No, she is totally charming in her own kind of way.  The gang was about to go out collecting down the valley, looking for some grass you never heard of, for illustrations in the new edition of Manual of the Grasses of the United States.  Maybe that sounds dry, but imagine a re-release of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” or something, and they ask you to strum a few bars in the background.  This was major.

I figured I’d learn more local plants quicker tagging along with them than poring over the microscopes, so I asked if I could come too.  They were happy to have me, and sure enough, it was a fruitful trip.  Mary and I talked grasses as Kim’s packed white station wagon scooted down Highway 165 to Paradise; the town that is.

“So the bromes are their own tribe now,” Mary was saying.  “It’s obvious, really.  The closed sheath.  The adherent palea…” I nodded at these traits I knew well. “And they’re all missing the same part of their chloroplast genome DNA.  I suppose you never noticed that.”

“Not with my hand lens,” I admitted.

“Does the triticeae still stand?” I asked.  This is the tribe of “wheatgrasses”, which look, to the untrained eye a bit like, well, wheat.

“Yes, but we’ve reorganized the genera,” Mary said.

This was something I knew about.  A big group used to be the genus “Agropyron”, which rolls off the tongue, as in the incantation every rangeland student knows, “Ag – ro – py – ron    spi – ca – tum”.  It’s bluebunch wheatgrass, the indicator species that means good Western grazing.  Like most scientific mumbo jumbo, it’s been abbreviated.  In this case to “ag spic”.

I long ago forgave Mary and her co-conspirators splitting it out into the genus “Pseudoroegneria”.  Not the same ring as “Agropyron”, mind you; but not bad once you get the taste in your mouth.  Makes you feel you’ve done your good day’s work, just learning the name.  “Pseu – do – roeg – ne – ri – a”, and then a pause, “spi – ca – tum”.  Or is it ” – ta”?

“I still call it ‘ag spic'”, Mary commented, “Perfectly good name, and everybody knows what you’re talking about.”

After the trip, the botany crew took me to the White Owl, which all the other Forest Service people had discovered their first night in town.  The “W. O.” serves good, though weak, beer; and it has atmosphere.  I held my breath through the smoky downstairs, and survived to the upstairs deck.  It was pretty nice, and I don’t think they were just putting up with me because I was the designated driver.  After all, they invited me back to the herbarium next day!

In the middle of the training I flew to Massachusetts for half a week, changing hats from trainee to trainer.  Actually wearing both hats at once.  It was kind of a whirlwind.  My main memory, other than the whole new set of plants I didn’t know, was how many good places there were to eat out.  In Boston or Amherst, I could’ve gone to the same restaurant, working through the menu, for a week.

Back in Logan, I’d asked a group of the foresters advice where to go.  “Utah isn’t known for its great cuisine,” Terry offered, “Bland food and bland people.  Their state tree should be the aspen, a bunch of clones!”  I laughed long.  A forester would think of that.  A grove of aspen grow all from the same root.

Towards the end of training, we had to move to another motel.  A motorcycle convention had reserved all the rooms, “just two days before the Forest Service made their plans,” the lady at the front desk explained.  She was a prim little thing, and I couldn’t but wonder if she took a secret inner delight in cutting loose and mouthing that phrase “hawg rally”.

“They’re here for the hawg rally,” she said, and I glanced around to see if any other heads turned at our mistress’ brush with profanity.

The first guys who rode up, I could see why they called it hawg.  My memory of the bearded, strapping bikers in Sturgis last summer was wiped away.  Now, I’ve got no problem with fat men, per se.  A lot of ’em look hot.  But these guys, maybe it’s something about the engine vibration, jiggles all their flab down.  Or maybe it works the other way.  If a guy can’t get ladies, maybe that’s why he goes for bikes.  Yer hawg’s not going to roar away on its own next morning.  It’s paid fer!

Once they were there in force, a few handsome ones did spike the brew.  They made the obligatory scene, rows of black and silver machines, lined up in front of the tabernacle.  I couldn’t help wondering if most of them were accountants in their day job.  Maybe it’s the kind of bikers who would stay in motels in Logan, Utah, instead of camped out in the Black Hills mud.

So traffic up and down Main Street in Logan was a bit thicker that weekend.  My team’s Green Rig is a beast, a big old Ford Bronco, who’s a bit grouchy starting out of first gear.  I’m getting the touch for that tranny, but multi-stop errands are still an adventure.  The more so from how Logan traffic lights are organized.

I think, between 1400 North and 700 South, they missed putting traffic lights on maybe three or four cross streets.  At first I was surprised.  By contrast with the usual Mormon efficiency and logic, why were the signals so unsynchronized?  Then I realize they were perfectly synchronized.  They are perfectly synchronized to turn red when you are half a block away, and then green again right when you get up to them.  Amazing!  Every time!  It’s exactly the pattern to squeeze maximum noise out of the phalanxes of “hawgs” rolling up and down Main Street every hour of the night.

It’s been nice in Logan, but kind of like Country Music.  Nice in small doses.  I get into Country.  Each song is a jewel.  I love the no-holds-barred passion, straight from the heart; and all carefully crafted to sell.  Logan is just what it is, but after three weeks here, I feel like I’ve been listening to nonstop Country music.  A dozen songs, and they all sound the same.  Way too heterosexual!

In Cache Valley, I’d be talking to a young guy, some kid.  Then he’d mention his wife.  Didn’t anybody ever think of anything else to do with themself here but get married and start having babies at seventeen?