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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Wide-Open Night

Air Date: Week of

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Commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg travels west and reflects on how great wide open spaces can make even the hardiest traveler seek shelter.


CURWOOD: Sometimes people travel to get away from the rush, and noise and smell of the crowded city. That was one thought on Verlyn Klinkenborg’s mind as he flew out West recently to visit a brother in Wyoming. And there, in the midst of the wide-open space, he found a reminder about why we seek contact with each other in the first place.

KLINKENBORG: My flight into Casper, Wyoming at sunset restored everything to scale; a slow turbo prop plane, more than half empty, the Casper Airport, nearly deserted, except for a man and woman in National Guard uniforms with black rifles, slung barrel-down across their backs.

I sat behind the wing, looking out at the rivets on the trailing edge. The snow-matted thatch of Colorado hovered below, tilled ground, running north from Denver to Fort Collins, and breaking suddenly near the Wyoming line, where an ocean of short grass spread without interruption to the dark eastern horizon.

I’d spend all day in crowds, at check-in counters, in security lines, in the thigh and elbow crush of the viewless airliners. And now, here at last, was the pure impassioned abstraction of flying once again. The ground subsiding at takeoff. The occasional sideways skid of the plane on the currents of air. The shuttering and ticking as crosswinds caught us on the final approach. It felt like a rite recovered at last, a perspective too vital to be curtailed.

Long wind shadows cast by haystacks and windbreaks stretched eastward across the snowy plains. The ranch buildings below had herded together out of the cold wind into the pale reach of a yard light. On the ground, I drove westward, out the hundred-mile stretch of blacktop that passes through Powder River, Moneta, Shoshoni, Riverton. The snow shone like a version of the moon’s thin light. A coyote stood beside the highway, his coat brushed thick, looking like a crossing guard with miles and miles of crossings to watch over. The Powder River sign, population 50, seemed to be exaggerating.

A winter night can seem almost infinite here under the smooth, cold sky. Even the smallest undulations in the open ground, the tightest switches of grass, look like welcome cover from a wind that’s always blowing. Sooner or later, all that open makes you want to find someplace where the rooflines limit the winter sky just a little.

When I finally pulled in to the small town of Lander, 20 minutes beyond Riverton, the sense of relief came not so much from the street lights, which are hidden until the very last, but from the depth of the hills; from the willows on the rivers and creeks. The cottonwoods in town have that look, too; a witch’s head of bare, tangled branches against the night.

The streets lie still and broad. The houses lit within themselves, the darkness deep and even. I had traveled all day with my back to the East, to the huddling crowds of New York City. I thought that I’d come West again, looking for endlessness, which is easy to find in central Wyoming. But what I really found, once again, was a place where you can still feel the power of settlement and urged to band together in the night.

CURWOOD: Verlyn Klinkenborg writes about the rural life for The New York Times. You can hear our program any time on our website. The address is www.loe.org. That’s www.loe.org. And while you’re online. Send your comments to us at letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That’s 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes and transcripts are $15. You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.



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