The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places / the Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin

By Trimble, Stephen | Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places / the Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin


Trimble, Stephen, Michigan Quarterly Review


The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places (with Gary Nabhan)

The Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin

When I was boy, and Ike was president, Little America meant freedom. It wasn't Richard Byrd's Little America, the polar explorer's 1929 Antarctic outpost. My Little America was Covey's Little America, the world's largest gas station, hunkered low against windscour and winterblast on the rim of an eroding Wyoming mesa.

These summers of my childhood reeled out as adventures, their rhythms dictated by my father's fieldwork as a geologist. When school ended each spring, we left our home in Denver and drove west through Wyoming to Oregon or Idaho. In these outposts of home-home because we were together-we rented a house in the town closest to my father's mapping area.

This run of the open-space West stretched as wide as the Cinerama screens in its cities, out to the limits of peripheral vision, where it kept going. When something happened in that emptiness-a dust storm, a rainbow, a fleet of pronghorn dashing across the road so close I always imagined them actually leaping over the hood-it made my day My mother and I joked about the emptiness. We would croon, "Why-O-Why, Wyoming," and dissolve in giggles. A city girl, she was fond of the place name that epitomized Hicksville for her: Tie Siding, Wyoming. We began to see signs along U.S. 30 outside of Laramie. "Little America." "World's Largest Gas Station." "65 pumps." "Nickel ice cream cones." Black-and-white cartoon penguins and Fifties signboard cursive led us to the faux-colonial buildings topping a rise west of Rock Springs. Here, one day's comfortable travel northwest of Denver, we stopped for the night at the motel and truck stop punctuating the windy middle of nowhere.

Covey was the founder of the place, a visionary whose story was printed on every placemat in the restaurant. "Away back in the Nineties, when 1 was a youngster herding sheep in this dreary section of Wyoming, I was forced to lie out in a raging blizzard. . . ." On that stormy night, Covey dreamed of surviving to build a haven for travelers in the remote spot. When he heard about Admiral Byrd's base in Antarctica, he knew what he would call his traveler's rest.

His dream-Little America, Wyoming-opened for business in 1934. On these long-ago evenings at Little America, we gratefully took our key to one of the modest red brick units. When we pushed open the door, I was gleeful to be out of the car and in this room with chenille-covered beds set close enough for a boy to somersault across the gap between them. We showered off the sweat that came from driving before air conditioning, with the windows open and my parents still smoking. We walked to the dining room where smiling, elderly Alice Hand played bouncy tunes on an electric organ. With a switch, she flipped on a fake drum accompaniment, beaming with pleasure at this whiz-bang technology.

We rejoiced in our family intimacy. Surely no one understood as we did the humor in Covey's self conscious "Legend of Little America" printed on the placemats. We smirked at each other when Alice Hand played her un-hip music, just as we joked about Lawrence Welk, my grandmother's equally un-hip hero. But, the truth is, I didn't have to look up Alice's name to write this. I remember it, and I remember her benign smile, a benediction bestowed on anyone with the means to sit in those brass-studded leatherette armchairs and pay for their spaghetti with its slightly acidic sauce, for their hamburgers and steak and fried shrimp and soft dinner rolls.

While my parents stopped at the bar for their before-dinner gin and tonics, and again, the next morning, as they lingered over coffee, they freed me to wander around Little America, exploring. Everything about the place seemed a little askew: a gleaming shield of tile in the restaurant bathroom, otherworldly green; in the gift shop, a stuffed penguin in a glass case. …

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