Wyoming. Soil sits pale atop smooth brown rocks. Desperate clumps of sagebrush tack the earth down, a knotted gray net, far-flung and adrift. I just pedaled through a long flat stretch and up a bluff that I had in sight for three hours, since getting on the road outside Lander. I survey now from a precipice of emptiness—even trees dare not congregate, and this landscape, like the sea, has no edge, no masts.
The long day of pedaling gnaws on me. My lower back groans, most of me wants to get fetal, and the unmistakable clench below my navel comes and goes, holding my attention hostage, freeing it, intimidating it—an eddy I can’t escape. My girl body wants to take the day off. My ride-across-the-country-in-80-days ambition refuses. This desolate, lidless July day offers only merciless sun, compelling me onward. Despite the apparent impasse, my body and mind come to a temporary détente—I need to rest. It’s more than 30 miles to Sweetwater Station, the nearest place with water and toilet paper. I scan the terrain for a place to shit.
This bluff looks nothing like a bluff from the top, but it might afford a crack or swell—a shield for me from the cars that probably won’t pass by. I don’t care, but I do.
I lean my bike against a fence post and cross between the lines of barbed wire, careful not to get snagged.
I grew up in Wyoming—not here, exactly, though with its imprint—but it’s been a long time since I found myself on the high plains. The simple motion of crossing through barbed wire brings my childhood back acutely, my older brother stepping on the lower line and lifting the upper line, making the opening larger for me. Though I like to think I never needed his help getting through the fences, he probably saved several pairs of pants from being ripped.
I see my brother and me outside after a thunderstorm has passed. He was nine, and I was seven. We collected all the worms on the concrete driveway and sidewalk that were escaping the storm’s wet gush. Both of us gathered the worms with our fingers and held them in cupped hands, then dropped them in a pile on the sidewalk.
All those worms, pinkish brown with their yellow collars in a big wriggling, stretching, slimy-looking mass on the dark gray sidewalk. I stood there in my pink shirt, jeans, and pink Velcro shoes looking down at them, wondering why they come out when it rains. My brother stood across from me. The mound started to flatten as the worms began a new trek across the sidewalk.
My brother squatted by the mound and used the edge of his hands to sweep them back together. He stood up again and pushed me away with the back of his left hand.
“Stand back,” he said.
Still holding me away, he kicked his right foot low and directly into the pile. Again and again, he smeared the worms between his shoe and the gritty sidewalk.
I stood dry-eyed, looking down at the mess. I hadn’t expected he would do that.
Here in Wyoming with my brother, I felt a constant need to catch up, to compensate for being younger and a girl, to even once be as strong, to give him an experience of the hurt he inflicted on me. No matter how I fought back, I could never hit him as hard as he punched me. I could never outrun him, my shirts pulled and stretched in his hands, my long hair ripped from its roots, my shins kicked, arms bruised. Over what? Because I wouldn’t do what he wanted. Because I tried to take back the colored pastels he stole from me. Because I rolled double sixes when we played Parcheesi.
My child memory tends to forget the care, the evidence of love in him – parting the barbed wire, including me in his trespasses to catch snakes.
Right now, having crossed through the fence, I turn away from the old hurt. I head toward some bushes. When I get to them, I see they’ve grown in a water scar. Water can’t penetrate the rock, and it beads and chains on the hydrophobic soil. Not an ideal location, but the mess will dry and flake away before water comes.
Here, wind whittles landscape. If it weren’t for the sagebrush, nothing would stay—even this place would blow away.
I pick up some old sticks and a couple of rocks—those most free of soil, crumbles, or flaky bark. I don’t carry toilet paper, ever. Weight, space, necessity—no reason is compelling enough for me carry it when I can easily make do without.
I walk back to the bushes, awkward and tottery with my cycling shoes on the rocks and concretized soil. The metal of my cleats, the sound of chisel on stone. Dust, gritty between my teeth, strong in my nostrils and the arid air. I pile the sticks and rocks next to me, glance left and right toward the empty road, pull down my cycling shorts and squat. I look down, and then out, eyeing the landscape.
I’m bleeding straight into my shorts.
I didn’t used to bleed. I took birth control for twelve years; it gave me amenorrhea and erased my emotional experience. Four years ago, I quit using it. After it left my system and my body started to readjust to itself, my cycle returned vengeful and erratic, my emotions too—neglected, punishing. Blood came with a cudgel sunk solidly in my pelvis. Emotion would tiptoe in then squall and rage: devastation, embarrassment, burning, and weeping. Like a toddler potty training, I had one accident after the next, unprepared, unknowing, unpracticed. Slow to learn.
I use the sticks and rocks to wipe, grab the waist of my shorts and pull them on as I stand. I walk back toward my bike, push the barbed wire down and step through the fence.
For the moment, my intestines have untangled.
“Weakling,” I hear my brother say.
My abdomen clenches. I stand tall in the wind, and it buffets me. I breathe for my little girl self. I look at the scraggly sagebrush. I learned to grow in this harsh climate. During my years on birth control, I forgot. I didn’t feel emotional hurt, and physical sensation had to penetrate a thick blanket of numbness.
Gusts ram my arms and legs, swirl around my neck, grab my breath. As I pedal away, I look back toward the bushes.
I like to see the blood when it comes, to let it out, messy, like splattered paint. In its expression and irregular form, beauty.
Exposed and untethered atop rock, my mark on the landscape, correspondent with this place.
Heidi Beierle grew up on Wyoming's high plains where wind whipped her hair and sagebrush crumbles stuck in her socks. She works as a community planner in Portland, Oregon, specializing in bicycle tourism and active transportation. In addition to High Desert Journal, her creative work has appeared in VoiceCatcher, Journal for America’s Byways, Herbivore Magazine, and Alternatives Magazine.