Wyoming is wildly, unaccountably vast. Its relentless desert landscape, home to just half a million people, goes on for miles. Birds flap, hopelessly, in the blue void of the sky. Seeing a car is an event; a house, and the excitement is palpable. It makes for the world’s worst game of I Spy.
It is beautiful, however. We heard there were mountains somewhere, but all we saw were enormous whorled rocks that littered the landscape like fallen pillars. Aged fourteen, I was driving through with my mother and two brothers towards Yellowstone, and the grey road had led us into this Martian setting. It seemed as if God ran out of colours and decided to paint everything yellow and red. My brother, unfortunately studying geology in school at the time, regaled us with the names of all the types of rocks he knew.
Boredom loomed. The American plains are thrust open and exposed in a way that England’s smallness can never manage. The eye runs and runs without meeting anything but the unblinking horizon. Once, from the window of the car, we saw a thunderstorm. It must have been about thirty miles away: yet we could see the slow, deliberate column of rain that descended and drenched the ground beneath it grey, in contrast to the sunny yellow of the hills that swelled all around.
As the eldest sibling, I had bagged the front seat. I was occupying myself with stealing the best cherries from the bunch we had bought earlier and fiddling with the radio, trying to find a programme, with the vague idea that hillbillies must listen to something. I looked up, for some reason – perhaps a particularly exciting round of I Spy – and saw a sweet little desert rat began to hop over the road some way in front of us. I, about to claim it with the magic words, ‘I spy with my little eye…’ watched it spring forward jauntily. It was small and as wheat-yellow as the land around. It sprang in a neat, purposeful yet jaunty manner. I could see its black eyes and the furred, cocked delicacy of its ears. It reminded me of my friend’s gerbil and had almost reached the middle of the wide road, travelling forwards on its tiny feet, more of a mouse really with a long elegant tail, and an enormous black and steaming SUV came arching over the hill and suddenly the rat exploded in a haze of red mist and something red and plump bounced down the road towards us.
I later realized this was a liver.
It was the first time I had ever seen anything die. It was not exactly a philosophical moment, but a thing had perished, suddenly, indecently, and most of all in front of me. I looked behind as we continued on, and I could spy only glimpse a miniscule spatter of an existence, a life that had built and built and then ended right there on the road in front of some guy’s car. Its black eyes and its yellowness and the tip of its small nose had simply ceased.
Wyoming is the tenth largest state in America. It took us thirteen hours to drive from south to north, Denver to Yellowstone.We ate cherries and squabbled for the rest of the way.