Guest Essay by Lee Nellis.
Jackie is face down in the pink mud, laughing so hard she cannot stand. Henry is doubled over in mirth. Sophie, our dog, looks down from a sandstone capped pinnacle above the wash. She doesn’t like snowball fights. But the melting of a wet November storm has given us the perfect opportunity for a hilarious badlands battle. Sister sneaking up on brother, kids pelting me. An hour of simple joy in the wild lands of Wyoming.
In other seasons we have made pinch pots of the dark gray clay that seems to be found only in the shade of certain boulders here, admired the ears of a resting jackrabbit, re-assembled a coyote skeleton (except the skull, couldn’t find that), discovered pronghorn sheds, wondered what petroglyphs say, and named the spring flowers coming up under the sagebrush. We once calculated how many miles a human would have to carry an object of his or her own weight to match the effort of an ant we followed dragging a beetle carcass to its mound. Four, I think.
These kids and dog and dad adventures do not happen in a designated wilderness (though we go there, too). They are rambles in the wild that remains in the Big Horn Basin, expressions of the freedom found only in places with few people and fewer roads, places where schedules evaporate and there is nothing to buy. The places that make Wyoming what it is.
A pile of rusting cans does not detract from the wild nor do the eroded tracks where someone once drove in search of what: uranium? It’s a feeling that I suspect is shared by the man who grinds along that bumpy road east of here on his ATV, pulling up Wilderness Study Area boundary markers. A feeling that I understand as a mix of grief and defiance. It is far easier to aim the frustration we all feel about the loss of our communities and landscapes at the BLM (a slow-moving target) than at the system (there’s nothing else to call it) in which we are enmeshed.
After all, it costs a few gallons of gas to get out here, and that must be produced somewhere. Critics of wilderness will hasten to remind me of that. Not so much because they want to plop a drill rig into this draw where the prospects of production are slim (though they will if heavily enough subsidized). It is because they have been taught to value only what can be counted. They fear what would happen if we were all to stop counting and just be here, now, with the wild. Snowball fights might become the highest and best use of land.