A muse is a spirit or source that inspires artistic creation. Wyoming is my muse, but it didn’t start out that way. When I moved to Rock Springs, I arrived on a prop plane that rose and fell like a roller-coaster on the currents of a gale-force wind. But what felt like a freak storm turned out to be a daily occurrence in the high desert of southwest Wyoming. The flight terrified me, but just days later I was ready to jump back on a plane and get out of there.
I hated the wind. It wouldn’t leave me or my hair alone. It had a life of its own and it never stopped, like a troubled spirit, invisibly disturbing the atmosphere and kicking up trouble. But the constant wind was only the beginning of my power struggle with Wyoming. For a long time I didn’t think I was going to make it in a place where only the strong survived: cactus, cowboys, scorpions and hunters.
One morning, soon after we’d moved there, I put my eighteen-month old daughter in her stroller for a walk around the lanes of the trailer park. It was September and the sun was shining and I wanted very much to like our new home. Tumbleweeds rolled down the road like wheels on the loose. We came around a corner to see a hanging elk carcass bleeding out on the grass. What was a winter’s worth of food for them was something out of a horror movie for me.
I am a psychologist and I write mystery novels with a female psychologist as the detective/protagonist. In that sense, I write about what I know — human struggles and drama, intense emotions, troubled relationships gone very bad. These stories might take place anywhere, but I chose to place them in Wyoming, or rather they grew out of my experience of living in Rock Springs, a town known as the armpit of Wyoming where professionals are recruited with bonuses called “combat pay’; a town 60-Minutes made famous for its corruption.
When I write about Wyoming, I am writing about what I don’t know: a land and way of life foreign to me, a place I initially resisted, but it claimed me anyway. And although I no longer live there, Wyoming is in my mind and my mind is in Wyoming, pretty much all the time.
It couldn’t be more different from my small home state of Rhode Island, where every walk or drive is enclosed by trees or buildings and a gentle coastline carves a boundary from the sea. In my first months in southwest Wyoming, the endless vista stretching for miles in all directions was too much to take in. I’d never before had to relate to something so big and so empty.
Not much grows in the high desert and the plants that thrive there stay close to the ground, battered and flattened and tough. Out in the expanse of land and sky, I often felt a crawling sense of unease. I missed the ocean and the place where the land stopped. I began to imagine that just over the next rise, beyond the pale, ragged desert, water moved and broke in waves. I saw the land for what it was and what it revealed, a slice of the naked planet. And then there was the night sky and the gift of the visible stars, hidden galaxies revealed.
I tried to fold into myself like the desert plants, resist the constant moving weather.
But it wasn’t possible. Wyoming broke through. Everything is harsher in Wyoming: people die in the weather in every season; kill animals for dinner and each other for love.
Maybe I fought it so hard because I knew in the end Wyoming would win. I’m not sure how it happened exactly, how I fell in love with a place that frightened and overwhelmed me, a place that brought dark nights and stole so much that was known and familiar. Maybe it was the relentless wind stirring in my soul.
Many people come to Wyoming and are awed by its size and beauty, the mountains and national parks. But the Wyoming that grabbed my attention and imagination is not that Wyoming. I’m enthralled by the dangerous edge, the black ice road where solitary, strong-willed people meet a still wild place.
I lived in Rock Springs for four years before I left it and what it was trying to tell me. After being gone for a while, I knew I was never going to be free of it. All the raw images of the early, lonely days live in my brain. And as with all true love, I can’t get it out of my mind.
The only thing to do was put it in a story.
about LAST SEEN:
Psychologist and police consultant Dr. Pepper Hunt, struggling to deal with the murder of her husband, leaves the private practice they shared and relocates to Wyoming. There, in the stark landscape of the high desert, there is nothing to remind her of everything she lost and left behind.
Then her new patient, Kimi Benally, goes missing in a Wyoming blizzard after her last therapy session—making Pepper the last person to see her. She knows the secrets Kimi shared in therapy hold clues to her mysterious disappearance, and she joins forces with Detective Beau Antelope to try to discover what’s happened to her. But as she follows the trail of Kimi’s obsession with the past, Pepper begins to fear the worst for her missing patient—and her own haunted memories surface.
J.L. Doucette returned to Rhode Island after living many years in Wyoming. She earned a doctorate in counseling psychology from Boston University and has a private practice in Providence. She is at work on her second novel, On a Quiet Street, also featuring Dr. Pepper Hunt.
Category: On Writing