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Big Wonderful

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In this unconventional memoir, Kevin Holdsworth vividly portrays life in remote, unpredictable country and ruminates on the guts - or foolishness - it takes to put down roots and raise a family in a merciless environment. Growing up in Utah, Holdsworth couldn't wait to move away. Once ensconced on the East Coast, however, he found himself writing westerns and dreaming of the mountains he'd skied and climbed. Fed up with city life, he moved to a small Wyoming town. In Big Wonderful, he writes of a mountaineering companion's death, the difficult birth of his son, and his father's terminal illness - encounters with mortality that sharpened his ideas about risk, care, and commitment. He puts a new spin on mountaineering literature, telling wild tales from his reunion with the mountains but also relating the surprising willpower it took to turn back from risks he would have taken before he became a father. He found he needed courage to protect and engage deeply with his family, his community, and the wild places he loves. Holdsworth's essays and poems are rich with anecdotes, characters, and vivid images. Readers will feel as if they themselves watched a bear destroy an entire expedition's food, walked with his great-great-grandmother along the icy Mormon Trail, and tried to plant a garden in Wyoming's infamous wind. Readers who love the outdoors will enjoy this funny and touching take on settling down and adventuring in the West's most isolated country.

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The first movie western, The Great Train Robbery, was filmed in New Jersey, or upstate New York, depending on whom you believe. The Homer of western writers, Owen Wister, was a Philadelphia lawyer. Zane Grey, the king of the formula western, was a dentist from Ohio. Louis L’Amour, inheritor of the Grey legacy, wrote about the wild wild west from the City of Angels and had such powerful concentration that he boasted he could compose on a median in the middle of the Santa Monica Freeway. Mary Austin, who wrote so beguilingly of the great dry lands experience, spent much of her creative life in New York City, as did other “western” writers, Willa Cather and May Swenson. Jackson Pollock, the celebrated urbanite drip, fling, splash, and swirl painter, was born in Cody, Wyoming.

These facts might seem discordant if not downright contradictory. They may be, but the ability to keep two opposites in mind helps us to negotiate this arid vale of tears. It’s not enough to circle it as yin and yang or simply pin it on a star sign. It is instead what keeps us wrangling—to acknowledge both sides of Prudence. It may also have something to do with the way past and present coexist in our minds. It may be the way sound shifts in passing. Where we are is also where we have been. We have to escape in order to return.




In the river just below

two ghost cabins near Fontenelle,

whose roofs now open to the sky,

we cast cold-handed for the native trout

that rise in corrugated water,

running aqua and violet

in the raw and ruddy afternoon.

We swat at ever-hope of anglers:

for quarry big enough and hard to catch,

but in sharp wind we hear fish snickering

at our folly, for surely they have seen

such exceedingly false lures

and fatuous flies before.

To hear more inviting voices on the breeze,

we scabbard graphite foils

and revive the homestead hopes

that must have built this long-shot place:

these hovels, coops, sheds, corrals—

a jetty against the greater stream.

Let us pray

that the cordwood stacked

will be enough

and more will grow,

that the kids don’t drown,

cattle won’t wander,

the river don’t flood,

horses won’t founder, and

we can still stand

each other come spring.

In sheltered bottom these barren branches

could form a fretwork, trunks make columns

to edifice at arms’ length

a carp-white sheening sky.

And if the soil is poor,

and clay, there’s plenty of it.




The ambulance that carried Whitey to the hospital

was operated by the same firm that ran

our town’s funeral home and crematory,

a coincidence that might have made him nervous,

but Whitey was already too-far-gone, rolling on

to hog heaven now, above the black and orange clouds,

his skull too full for impact, set to burst;

he downshifted into sky Sturgis for the final time.

The deer he’d missed browsed placidly

on the scrub-brush slopes beneath White Mountain,

the one he’d tagged lay smeared in bits and pieces,

dragged off the road by Officer Staples, lights flashing.

Lord, that busted up Sportster, Staples noted,

was as sad a sight as a bloated range bull,

or a dead moose, or a road-killed owl or eagle,

all strewn against the trapeze fence.

He walked the red sea roadside

but found no skid marks on the pavement

and nothing left to salvage.

We all knew Whitey liked to ride too fast—

he boasted road-rash tattoos, close calls aplenty,

but when he broadsided that hapless bambi,

his velocity must have carried him straight through it,




To have become a resident of southwestern Wyoming requires wearing a Prudence medallion. There are two faces on it: one is smirking and amused and the other is horror-stricken.

Having felt the spirit of mountain idolatry early on, it was convenient enough to venture into the Uinta and Wind River mountains, the two great ranges in the neighboring part of the Cowboy State, during my teenage years. Wyoming offered three irresistible things: fresh air, freedom, and fun. Or to put it more concretely: fine mountains, fireworks (good for keeping the bears at bay), and firewater—ardent spirits easily available for underage consumption. There was nothing wrong with the Wasatch Range that formed the eastern rampart of the Salt Lake Valley, it was just that the Uintas and Winds were bigger, grander, emptier, rockier, wilder, more elk-rich and moose-rotten, and their watercourses were troutier too.

Yet Wyoming, at least the part of it my buddies and I drove through, presented an appalling picture of resource development run wild. I recall passing through wide-open Rock Springs on the way to the Winds in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during “the Boom,” a period of coal, trona, and gas and oil development on an unprecedented scale, as well as the construction of a power plant, and the town seemed home to 10,000 house trailers—mobile homes—that covered the hillsides like an impermanent malignancy. Large pickups painted primer gray plied the dusty streets, sporting gunracks containing mini-arsenals that proclaimed that the owners were one with the NRA, rigs that were accentuated with glaspacks that growled and flatulated. The eyesore that was Elk Street swarmed with roughneck oil workers, roustabouts, and riggers—still-barked, three-eyed men who wore tar-stained coveralls year round, and who did not seem kindly disposed toward backpackers. Sin City, Rock Springs, Wyoming, notorious for hard work and vice.




Here at the inlet cove of a high mountain lake,

the water is lined with boulders perfectly placed,

lily pads smiling and three clear hues shining in

morning light:

an ebony ess along this leftward shore,

deep, flagrant blue toward the center,

white sun-catching ripples at the eastern edge—

a fetching body of water pocketed by slopes

of golden meadow grasses gone to seed,

spiked with bright lemony clumps of

arctic willow

and crimson studs of Salix planifolia,

and backed by dark forests of spruce and fir

that sweep to timberline, with sheep slopes


sharp ridges, steps, buttresses, cliffs, and


leading up to turrety peaks that scratch

against the almost flawless sky—marred only by

three thin mare’s tails of high-stretched cirrus,

and that’s not all of it.

Call it perfect if you will.

I do and nearly gasp,

reach for a camera, think better of it,

knowing how a shutter’s snap diminishes

and sensing, too, in cirrus

that this whole September scene

is just about to change

Tomorrow the wind will shift

from warm south to raw northwest,




I study the nurses’ faces. They’re pure poker but worried. The ob-gyn, Dr. Peters, on his third delivery of the night, looks beat and concerned. He’s called in the pediatrician, Dr. Wengen, just in case. The baby’s lodged. For three months Jennifer has been complaining of intense pain down there and his kicking. (We learned that it was a he from the ultrasound.) He’s already two weeks overdue. He’s posterior, breech—they can tell that—and stuck. The suction device they attach to his head isn’t working. Little bone-colored forceps—jaws—are next, or a C-section.

Jennifer has been in induced labor for thirty hours now and is completely worn out. She’s deep inside herself—I can tell. I can tell none of this is really happening to her. It’s not that she’s watching, she’s just deep inside, far away. We withdraw in such times of great stress.

The two nurses tell her to try one more time, Honey, just one more time. We’re all in this together. Dr. Peter’s eyes look pale gray and reflect the overhead fluorescent light. He’s wearing a clear mask that looks like something a welder would use. The pediatrician, Dr. Wengen, one of just two in the county with hospital privileges, stands in the corner by the incubator tray, ready, watching, not in the way. He looks kindly, probably sixty-five. He’s been here before. It’s hard to keep good doctors in our community.




MORNING: Fresh tracks in old snow. Turds on the lawn.

AFTERNOON: Four deer in the front yard, practically on the front porch. Three does and a yearling buck. Pardon me, would you deer care for something to eat? Perhaps also a little something to wash it down?

TWILIGHT: Shifting shadows darker than the grass, clipping the wild currants, nibbling the fall-killed flowers, pulling up anything else they fancy.

NIGHT: Dark shapes, town lights.

HUNTING: It would be possible to brain one of the beasts with a baseball bat.

RODEO: Or hop on top a bony back and ride down Center Street using the whopping ears as reins. On Donner, on Blitzen.

PROBLEM: It’s hard enough to get anything to grow here, in thin poor soil, with ever-wind and sun-blast, but now also to contend with famished town deer in this fifth year of drought … it’s too much.

PROPOSED SOLUTION: Give in to endless winter. Relocate to someplace more temperate, more civilized. Suggest Portland, Houston, or Tampa–St. Petersburg. Plant a few fake deer on the lawn. Watch the paint flake off in the rain.




Darrell “Magpie” Menzies and Richard “Beaver Dick” Martinson worked together in the control room of the massive trona plant at Westvaco. They reenacted together, too, nearly every summer weekend, traveling around to various sites in the state—Hamm’s Fork, Daniel, Pinedale, Ft. Bridger, Casper, to attend rendezvous—to play act, really. And their wives, whom they called “our squaws,” generally joined in the hijinks. Magpie and Beaver Dick’s choice of hobby was intensely embarrassing to their children, who sulked in their RVs, can’t we get any better reception than that? practiced voodoo on little trapper dolls with rubber tomahawks and bags of possibles, prepare to die, Trapper Swine, and dreamed of a life far away from Wyoming. The highlight of the year, though, was the annual hunting trip to the Middle Fork. Magpie and Beaver went alone with only their animals. Smoke rose sinuously into a leaden sky. Magpie and Beaver were enveloped in fast-falling white darkness, in clouds so low and ground-hugging no one would call them clouds. But the smoke did not rise lazily for long. Much to his own delight, and to his partner’s dismay, Beaver Dick stoked and stoked the fire. The flames leapt up, licking back the damp chill. Beaver built a regular white-man’s fire.




A day this nice so late in the season is given one year out of ten: mild and tender-breezed, and so darned pretty that to sit on cool sand and pebbles on the shore of String Lake suffices for much and helps make amends.

A man in a blue canoe glides past and saws the air as he struggles to his feet in the boat and waves—a scarecrow to the lying calendar. Christopher shouts and waves back. Mid-October most years and String Lake is already sheened with ice, not t-shirt weather. Sundry other merrymakers glide past and stroll along. We are all of us lucky.

My boy is happy enough to mug for the disposable camera. His face is still dirty from lunch, which was alfresco beneath tall spruce. During the picnic, two wind-up, fearless camp robber jays provided entertainment and had him in stitches. Silly birds, bold enough to steal your sandwich. They’d land just out of reach, snatch crumbs, and live up to their names. Camp robbers … Silly birds …

Mom’s off walking by herself. The girls are hunting for boys in the opposite direction.



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