At Large

Perspective

It's different out West -- and sometimes hideously loud.

By 8.18.06

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In Wyoming, they raise a kind of miniature cow, the perspective Charolais. You see them in pastures alongside the highway as you drive. They appear to weigh about 50 pounds, to be, that is, about the size of a big dog.

Of course, this is nonsense. The pastures, the meadows, the mountains, and the distances of Wyoming are so great that the eye and the brain, seeking to make sense of unfathomable dimension, reduce familiar figures in landscape to seeming miniatures. Across from the motel where my son, my old college roomie, and I stayed lay the National Elk Refuge, a gigantic meadow. On the other side of the meadow, I espied eight small white squares. Beehives, I thought. No. Look carefully and the boxes reveal themselves to be motor homes, a line of them set up to serve the Fish and Game Department, perhaps.

"How far do you suppose it is across the refuge?" asked Mike, my old college roommate.

I just shook my head and guessed somewhere between a mile and a half and two miles. That's at the narrow part. End to end, from south to north, the refuge is about nine miles long. I could see the whole thing from our motel room balcony. Only such repeated daily familiarity allows the mind to begin to grasp the sheer enormousness of the landscape. For the Wagnerian grandeur of, say, the Teton range, one would have to sit, jaw slack, for the better part of a month just to begin to appreciate.

BETWEEN OUR MOTEL AND THE ELK REFUGE ran a road, the locally famous Highway 89. It led from Jackson, Wyoming, in the south, to Yellowstone National Park on the north, passing through the Teton National Forest. A lane each way, Highway 89 was always busy in the daytime. At about 5:00 every evening, southbound traffic would back up headed into Jackson, the local version of rush hour.

A good half of that traffic would be motorcycles, virtually all of them Harley-Davidsons, and most of those full dressers in the $15,000-$20,000 range. Half a dozen local businesses readily identify as biker hangouts -- an upstairs poolroom, the 89 Restaurant, the Cadillac Cafe, two particular saloons. There gather crowds of cyclerus americanus, the familiar leather clad species, mostly large, sunburned, swaddled in the accoutrements of what is, finally, a very expensive hobby. They wear teeshirts from their local Harley dealers or local biker bars, sometimes illustrated obscenely.

Mostly male with a few wives and girlfriends in tow, mostly middle-aged, mostly garbed in black, the bikers gather in groups in the evening. Some stay in motels, some pack along camping gear, all make day trips to Teton and Yellowstone on their shiny snorting steeds. These are not outlaws, these are prosperous middle American hobbyists of a certain bent.

Truth to tell, I envy them, with their rude good health, their strength (it takes muscle and vitality to ride a heavy motorcycle long distances; I've done it), their ready camaraderie, their ability to down a few beers and stay up late and laugh. I even envy them their expensive machines, which are genuine American beauties.

BUT DANG, THOSE HARLEYS ARE LOUD. "Loud pipes save lives," proclaims one popular sticker among the biker crowd, and I have no doubt it's true. I've spent years on motorcycles, and I know very well the frustration of dealing with automobile drivers who "just didn't see him." (My solution was to wear jacket and helmet the same color as the local police force; works a treat.)

Harleys are especially loud in squadrons as they roar past our motel like a cloud of dirty thunder, in Hunter Thompson's phrase. It is a shame that the style requires that noise -- Harley-Davidson, I understand, has even gone so far as to explore patenting it. Because riding a motorcycle in wide-open spaces on mountain roads is a joy and a delight. And there are quiet big bikes, Hondas and BMWs. You could even make a Harley a whole lot quieter with a different exhaust system.

THERE ARE SIMPLY TOO MANY SOUNDS you don't want to miss in the Wyoming wilds. In the dry sagebrush, a kind of cricket clicks like the susurrus of a wooden beaded screen. The silence of the great spaces itself has a kind of weight and presence that should not be missed.

And there are sounds that manifest only in the mind, they are so grand. Look, drive north on 89 from our motel, and in about five miles you pass a brow on your left and then the great vista opens up and spang! There, sounding like a cymbal and kettledrum in the mind's ear, the whole of the Grand Teton range lies in its totality, south to north, among the largest single objects it is possible to see on earth. Seven or eight great peaks, raw, muscular rock, thrusting up 13,000 and 14,000 feet.

It makes you want to turn around, drive back south of the brow, then brace yourself and drive past the brow again, just to have that curtain drawn back and that grand chord sound in the brain.

It's enough even to silence the roar of a motorcycle, if that's how you happen to do it.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.