In the Tetons, dawn breaks. Night does not tiptoe its way closer to sunrise by shades. The world is all shadows and looming silhouettes, and then the sun explodes from behind Crystal Peak and sets the whole dew-covered valley on fire. Sharp light hits the needles of the lodgepole pines and fractures. It splashes onto my sleeping face like a bucket of ice water and hurls me headlong into the cold morning. I reach for my boots and a book of matches, clear eyed as I breathe a chest full of the high mountain air.
That’s how I tell it, anyway. And it’s true: mornings in the mountains are bright and crisp and sudden. Every once in a while, though, I catch myself treating life like a story waiting to be told. The Wyoming sun became a caricature of itself the first time I saw it rise, transfigured immediately by my taste for romance. Before I had any call to describe it—no audience of curious little cousins or eager-eyed sorority sisters out there in the backwoods—I was pumping adjective after grandeur-soaked adjective into that morning, bending the moment for its eventual inclusion in dinner conversation.
I worked in the Gros Ventre range of western Wyoming last summer, hired by a summer camp for kids who want to spend their summers riding horses and wearing Stetsons. I was a trail cook. That meant I spent my mornings frying bacon, my evenings grilling elk, and the rest of my day cooking up ways to fill the hours. I lived and worked with two guys who had been horse wranglers since birth. Jon and Tom used to ride bulls. They slept in their jeans, gutted tobacco juice, and let me smoke their cigarettes in the morning when we bridled the horses.
The whole affair lent itself beautifully to the romantic language of the Rocky Mountains. The cliffs were jagged and the rivers were frigid and I wore my cowboy boots every day, warming their leather by the fire as I cooked. I brewed bitter black coffee and hollered at the mules when they got too close to my bag of apples. It was all terrifically western.
Somewhere along the line it became clear to me that I am the author of my stories. I pick the plot and the wording and the beginning and the end. I’m not sure exactly when that dawned on me, but the thought wheedled itself irrevocably into my brain, with somewhat troubling consequences.
As I watch the Wyoming sun rise, or slide my dusty cowboy hat down my head until it fits into the groove above my eyebrows, I don’t just fire off descriptors internally, preparing for the experience’s inevitable conversion into story form; I act differently. I engineer the motion of my hands and the posture of my back, tightening my lips and doing my damnedest to look like the bullnecked backwoods cowboy that fits the picture my words are painting. I make sure I always have stubble on my chin, and relish the smell of wood smoke on my jacket. I could be a line from a John Denver song.
Just after sunrise, before anybody else is up, I stand by the cook fire and look north. I roll back on my boot heels, squinting at the horizon as if I knew which clouds meant rain, and nod at a couple of ravens who must have woken up before I did. Morning, y’all. I grab the axe from on top of the wood pile, and with a couple of well-aimed shots send two halves of a pine log flying in opposite directions. I grip the splintered firewood and toss it neatly onto the pile. It’s beginning to warm up.
There is something uncomfortable about this self-awareness and authorship. It feels like looking in the mirror too often to make sure your hair’s still perfect. “Quit acting, you idiot” echoes out from the hills more than once as I put on a show for the ground squirrels and the spruces and nobody else. I am concerned for my own authenticity in these moments of self-consciousness. Nothing’s worse than being artificial. Fakers are lepers, cast out and disregarded by the people in my life. A narcissistic leper. Hell of a winning combination.
As early morning bleeds into mid-morning, the kids disappear around a bend in the trail, beginning the day hike that will take them along the ridgeline of White Canyon. I lean against the wood pile, arms tucked up under my knees, and wonder what’s next. The pots are clean and the fire’s out and the day is all mine. There’s a book sitting next to my sleeping bag that’s stayed half finished for weeks. I haven’t written anywhere near the number of letters I said I would. We need kindling.
These days I’ve got a pretty well-carved-out idea of what I’m shooting for where my image is concerned. It’s somewhere between Theodore Roosevelt and Curious George. A rough and ready bull-moose glad-hander with an appetite for the awe-inspiring and mischievous. It’s a blueprint that the thread of my personal history hints at, and now that I can buy my own plane tickets it’s getting whittled down to an increasingly coherent point.
My back resting on the wood I’d stacked the day before, I fiddle with the frayed hem of my jeans and wonder: what would Leland do?
I head for the cliff. It’s a sheer red face littered with hunks of granite. It climbs a couple of thousand feet to a wooded ridge, and I’ve been eyeing it for weeks. I hop the creek and cross the flats that separate me from the foot of the cliff, winding my way between shoulder high sage bushes. As I get closer, I do my best to divine a route that’s steep enough to be a challenge but unlikely to kill me. No one knows where I am now, and it would be game over if I took a good tumble.
And up I go, sweating on all fours as I scramble switchbacks up the steep draw. I do my best not to let the crumbling red clay carry me downhill with it. Halfway up, I stop for water, reluctantly—I’d like to kick the habit, and I make sure my face shows it.
Near the top, I spook a herd of big-horn sheep. Twenty or so of them hop up from their afternoon snoozes and beat it for the safety of the wooded slope behind them. The ewes follow the lead of a burly ram who must be in charge. He hammers a path uphill, pulverizing the red dirt and sending clouds of dust from his hooves as the rest string along behind. I try to move like him, muscles taut and lean.
I felt five years old the first time I saw a grizzly bear. A couple weeks into the job, I drove the camp truck around a corner on Wyoming State Route 31 and rolled right past him. He might as well have been a T-Rex or Zeus: the superhero of the American west, a mythical character I’d only ever seen stuffed and roaring silently at the Natural History Museum. I got the same rush of wonder and nostalgia the first time I galloped on a horse, and the first time I got to drive my uncle’s pick-up truckand, and the time a fourteen-year-old asked me how long I’d been a cowboy for.
I know I’ve hitched myself onto my fantasies and ridden them West. But when some horse whinnies, the hairs stand up on my arms and I can’t help grinning—I really do love this stuff. I love the way the saddles smell and the way the diesel engines cough and the woodsmoke and the mountains. I’m walking around in twenty years’ worth of daydreams, each one of them as much my own as my memories and shoe size.
On top of the ridge, I sit cross-legged on a boulder that juts out over a hollow full of wildflowers and windfall yellow pine. I’m higher up now, and the air tastes different. I feel infinite. Still and silent, I watch a hawk catch the swell of a rising air current and ride it in a slow circle above the valley. I straighten up and try to catch his eye. I hope he’s watching.
I pull pen and paper out of my bag and try to turn it all into a letter.
In the Tetons, dawn breaks.
Leland Whitehouse is an Ohio native still chasing down the Daniel Boone fantasy he cooked up as a toddler. Leland likes John Prine, trout fishing, and beer. Send him a naked picture of yourself at email@example.com.