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Trespassing by Vick Lindner
 

Before I moved out of the shack on the Big Laramie River, I got thrown off a ranch. After writing all day, I liked to stretch my legs on a nearby two-track that bordered the crumbly granite hills, studded with bleached rodent bones and rusted metal scraps. Raptors I failed to name pressed through the thick sky, larger and weightier than the spare lid of earth.

The entrance to this road, a quarter mile from my house, was barred by a gate and a big "No Trespassing" sign. When I first moved from New York to Wyoming, I was surprised to find that the West's proverbial "wide open spaces" offered a stranger so few places to walk. Even here, in the country, thirty miles from town, much of the prairie was privately owned, or I had to cross private property to get to public land; I wasn't always sure which was which. I knew I was supposed to "ask permission," but the owners' names weren't posted, and I didn't know who or how to ask.

I lacked the strength to unhook the tight U loop that bound this particular fence gate to its stationary post. Instead, I pinched up the top strand of barbed wire, then compressed my body through the narrow space, catching my royal blue parka on the sharp twisted prongs. I ignored the "Beware of the Dog" sign once I understood that there was no dog. I had never seen the rancher, who lived in the thrown-together compound of unmatched buildings down by the river, only a thin wraith of smoke coiling out of his chimney. His Angus cows, some a Hereford mix, black and white faces molded into rhetorical Noh masks, were scattered about, grazing on the hardscrabble hillsides. It never occurred to me to feel guilty about trespassing—not a deadly sin on my personal roster—or about failing to ask permission from an identifiable source. I'd heard, or vaguely surmised, that the land didn't belong to this rancher, that he leased it from a richer rancher, or the BLM. Anyway, I didn't think about it much. I was a neighbor, I rationalized, just taking a short walk; I wasn't shooting, removing, or harming anything.

That day in late winter, the last time I strolled this bleak, stony track, the small herd of cows, shaggy in rough winter coats, puddled up and followed me as I turned toward home, imagining, I suppose, that I was there to feed them. The mass of bushy black beasts trotting determinedly in my direction, uttering their voluminous leather-gut "AUOOOOO," unnerved me. I'm afraid of large animals, domestic or not. "Shoo…!" I shouted, waving my arms. The sound of my voice, or perhaps he'd been watching, brought the rancher out of his house. He ran up the hill and confronted me as I was hastily maneuvering my body back through the pinched-up barbed wire.

No elegant Hollywood rancher, this one was short and fat, encased in filthy Carhart coveralls, plodding in mud and manure-caked rubber Pacs; an incongruous plaid beanie with a narrow visor, tied-up ear muffs, and a bobbing pom pom, not a white Stetson, topped off his head. As he yelled that he'd seen me sneak onto his land for more than a year, his face imploding with long-stifled fury, his eyes remained fixed abstractly on the mountains behind me. Couldn't I read? What did that sign say? He pointed, finger shaking with rage, at the mammoth "No Trespassing" poster. What was I doing making his cows run? He was trying to get some weight on them….

I'd lived on the river for three years by then. This rancher had watched me slip through his fence for 36 months, fuming, cursing, awaiting the moment when…when what? He could summon the temerity to throw me off? Find the right justification? The appropriate level of rage? From my confrontational New Yorker's perspective, the delay seemed peculiar. I'd already learned that the most effective tactic when I offended a Wyomingite—an increasingly frequent event in my life—was to take the low road and apologize. I had the chagrined bow of the head, the little shuffle, the meek, colloquial, "Gosh, I'm real sorry," down pat by the time I ran afoul of this rancher. But watching me eat ersatz humble pie seemed to make him madder. He blustered on about my trespassing gall, how I'd unsettled his half-starving cattle.

Finally he turned away. "Shit, I was just walking… I didn't ask your dumb beefsteaks to follow me!" I said to his back in a low voice, inaudible in wind. ( I knew I could be fined, or worse, if he called the Sheriff.) As I hurried toward my ramshackle cabin, I questioned the dense sky, "Can you really OWN land? Or the divine right to WALK on it?" I didn't believe in the concept of trespassing on vast open acres, I thought. Well, I grumbled defensively, if I see that rancher's roof go up in flames I won't even call the Fire Department….

When I reached my mud room and took off my hat I realized it was the same hat the furious rancher had been wearing—the identical green and brown plaid beanie, the same ear muffs, the same puffy pom pom. I'd bought mine in a Sheridan thrift shop for fifty cents to add to my Westernalia collection: the fringed jackets, pointy gold parade boots, vintage Pendleton shirts, a brass belt buckle that declared, "I Will Give Up My Gun When They Pry My Cold Dead Fingers From It." This beanie coincidence struck me as hilarious, a touch of the absurd; I fantasized telling my friends back East about it.

In the days that followed a wet wool snow snuffed out the road; the phone didn't ring once. Thus thrown upon essential resources, I began to rethink the troubling encounter. I envisioned myself as the rancher had seen me: an arrogant, bourgeois, university professor from Somewhere Else, (after eight years in Wyoming, I was still introduced as "Vicki from New York"), slumming in a rented, wood-heated shack. He had no doubt watched me skid through my thorny patch in slippery wedge heels and a black velvet dress; he must believe that I'd mocked him by defying his fence while wearing his hat. I could go back where I came from, but he would be stuck here with the blizzards, the staccato yip-howl of coyotes, and the wind blowing dust. I didn't need a degree in Range Management to see that these gusty high altitude foothills, bristling with prickly pear, sage brush, and sharp needle grass, were better for raising jack rabbits than cattle.

I gazed out the thermal pane at the frozen river, at the deer carcass, stuck in the ice and gnawed by dogs since early December. That rancher, I thought, was a meaner, less romantic version of the pithy old homesteader in James Galvin's The Meadow, "tough as a pine knot," more isolated than I was, mired in poverty. With sorrow not quite devoid of pity, I imagined his brown shag rug, his instant coffee, his cough, the obliterating lines of his television. I recalled the way he'd raged at me, his eyes fastened on the old granite cliffs, seeing my deed, Trespassing, dismissing my face. I was ambivalent about my urban audacity for once. If I could replay the scene, would I wear the same hat? Probably not, but I hoped I'd still boldly ignore the loud sign and transgress the gate.

  

Vicki Lindner has published a novel, Outlaw Games, and been awarded an NEA grant and two New York State grants for fiction. Her recent work has appeared in the Heather McHugh issue of Ploughshares, New York Stories, Northern Lights, and the Utne Reader. She also performed an essay, "How I Came to Play a Man in Legend of Rawhide in Lusk, Wyoming" for Wyoming Public Television in the summer of 2000. Ms. Lindner teaches half-time at the University of Wyoming and lives in the Shoshoe National Forest the rest of the year. 
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