Blue October

I moved from Vermont to Wyoming seven years ago and did not expect to miss New England. Yearly, the Vermont snow had lessened in amount and quality, tending toward the sleety end of the stick; the traffic grew heavier, and, in autumn, swarms of hunters and leaf-color enthusiasts clogged the too-narrow, potholed roads. My house was too small for a growing number of books and research material. Trees bothered me — their dense shade, their impenetrable jungles of seedlings, the claustrophobic looming that cut off all but a small piece of sky. The hazy, polluted air cut visibility further. I was surrounded by an increasing number of neighbors, barking dogs, and No Trespassing signs. Then I began to worry after my first two books, Heart Songs and Other Stories and Postcards, that I might be turning into a regional writer. And I had itchy feet, a need to roam the back roads of the continent. Vermont seemed the kind of place where you stayed home.

For some years, I had been going out to Wyoming, a place where the sightlines are long and conducive to working out tight sentences. In fact, I thought of empty Wyoming as the ideal writing place for me. The sagebrush called.

What I liked most about Wyoming is that it was the emptiest of the states, with a population of about 494,000 in 98,000 square miles — 10 times larger than Vermont but with a smaller population. Also, one of my French-Canadian ancestors had left his name there. Joseph Marie LaBarge had set out from Assomption in Quebec around 1808, shortly after his 21st birthday, and paddled alone to St. Louis. In the 1820s, he hired on with General William Ashley to trap beaver in the Rocky Mountains. He was with Ashley in 1823 in a fight with the Arikara on the Missouri, and later was one of the party on a tributary of the Green River in what is now Wyoming. In both places, his name is perpetuated in streams called LaBarge Creek. In Wyoming, the rather frowsty little town of LaBarge is also named for him.

In 1996, a few weeks after my mother died, I moved to Wyoming. I spent three or four months in Ucross, near the Montana border, then moved to a funky hamlet in the Medicine Bow range at an altitude of 8,100 feet. There I bought a house. Behind it is banked the great dark bulk of the Medicine Bow National Forest. To the east is Sheep Mountain and the Laramie Plain, still showing the old wheel ruts of the Overland Trail. South of the house is a crooked stream and a stand of aspen.

Wyoming's autumnal palette is more subtle than New England's flashing October burst. The high plains grasslands of eastern Wyoming sport Irish green for only a few weeks in springtime, a green that rather quickly transmutes to the color of straw gold. As the summer wears on, this color clarifies to a bright, almost transparent yellow. The vast miles of prairie glow. Here in the mountains, where I balance views of the plains below and the steep rocks and dark pine forests above, the first snow often comes in September. A light dusting of snow over the short, yellow grass creates a curious and beautiful color I have never seen anywhere else — a kind of shimmering, iridescent violet.

In October, the amber aspens burn against the somber lodgepole pine. From a distance the deep egg-yolk yellow drapes the mountains like unrolled bolts of Chinese silk. The willows that grow along watercourses go a brash yellow tinged with green. Rabbit brush takes yet another soft shade of yellow so that the entire luteous landscape comes in sheets of straw, citron, topaz, and old gold. Some shrubs go the red of dried blood, and the stems of osier glow like fireworks. There are 13 kinds of sagebrush, but their colors all fall into the silvery blue-gray-green register, a soft and melting hue. The closest New England gets to this color is in a mullein leaf, but sage is bluer and grayer. This horizontal gray landscape seems eerie and boring to those from greener worlds but sagebrush supports the Wyoming ecosystem and the diverse wildlife.

It is all intensely beautiful. And yet something familiar and as old to me as my own life is missing and always will be missing: the October smell of leaves and the decaying leaf mold of New England woods — earthy, mushroomy, root, and rock. I think often of a tiny spring that issued from the roots of an old yellow birch at my old Vermont home and spread out down the slope in a wet fan. It is amazing how much power olfactory memory packs. It is this distinctive odor of decaying leaves that I miss more intensely and terribly than the smash of swamp maple red. Wyoming is an arid place. Only after a rain does one suddenly get the flavors of the place — the famous terpenoids of the sagebrush, the resinous pines, grass and heat, the vixenish stink of animal burrows. The autumnal colors mute and fade quickly and scentlessly.

I sometimes think I will go to Vermont again one blue October and stop along a rainy back road when wet bark makes black trees and brings up the evocative and ancient smell of rot and decay, an odor I have known all my life but lost.