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Bighorn


For about a year, Simone lived in a Wyoming town two hours south of Billings, on a straight line down 94 through the Crow Reservation.

Way long before, they logged the hills till the forests were spent, the dull-gray husks of trunks peeking out from beneath snowdrifts in winter. So then they raised corn and sugar beets till the cattle and the cattle drivers came. So then they farmed less corn and fewer sugar beets. They fed the corn to the cattle and distilled the sugar beets into whiskey for the cattle drivers (who drank it at The Mint Bar to avoid going home to their wife and kids and draft-prone ranches with small musty root cellars). Then the railroad arrived and at around the same time a local kid named Lyle walking his dog Ginger around the Bighorns found a black opening beneath a rock ledge a mile out of town. Six months later, the widened opening started yielding a few tons of coal each day and the resulting mine yielded steadier jobs and better pay than cattle. So over time the cattle drivers drinking at The Mint became the miners drinking at The Mint.

They still drank sugar beet whiskey.

And so on. The mine was spent too, after a while, of course. More kids started growing up and leaving town to go to college to find jobs in things like marketing and consulting and venture capital. Things that sounded like suspiciously coastal occupations to their parents. The kids came back from Laramie at Thanksgiving and drank sugar beet whiskey at The Mint, and joked about drinking sugar beet whiskey as men with cataracts and deep wedges in their faces looked on, and they said bizarre-sounding things to their parents around the dinner table about ambition and upside.

Those parents were excited when the state decided to build a large college right in town, and for a while some of the high school kids did end up staying, but most who turned out to want something still went out to Laramie -- and eventually even farther: to Missoula and Portland at first, but then the far-flung coasts.

There was a brief incursion of office parks next to the widened interstate and talk of a new economy built on technology. Gray cinder buildings housing software companies with names like MineX and xMine and then iMine and iBeet appeared and disappeared. Then all of a sudden shale oil was profitable and the town had some of that. So there were a lot of jobs again. The Mint was sold to a guy named Jerry who had some unpopular ideas about craft beer. He left town for Portland and The Mint went back to the way it was.

Meantime, to stem an enrollment dip at the college in town, the Director of Admissions (Tom Evans, whose father had worked at the mine for two decades, and at the sugar beet whiskey distillery before that) started pushing for applicants from South and East Asia, on the recommendation of his son Tom Jr, who was a consultant for a big firm in San Francisco. To his surprise, a lot of kids took him up on the invitation. And before anyone could even notice, the town had become something of a pipeline into the American Higher Education system. The college built new dormitories on the edge of Bank Street.

One of the new arrivals was a Nepalese kid named Bishal -- with bonafide Sherpa blood, from Patan -- started winning the annual Billy Goat Big Horn Hustle, a 30 mile ultra-marathon through the Bighorn National Forest. While the burliest local weekenders (proud of family histories competing in Wyoming ultras) huffed through the foothills, Bishal found the air rich and creamy, almost sweet. One of the star high school cross country athletes swore that Bishal passed him, running up the mountain backwards, shouting "Hello, my friend!" to everyone who he passed. Nothing made his talent more onerous than the affability with which he shared it -- the nonchalance of his superior lungs and the joy that those lungs brought him.

Bishal was equally affable and smiley when not running, and started regularly visiting Nicole, one of the baristas at the The Sugar Beet Coffee Bar that opened across from The Mint (this was well after Jerry was driven back to Portland).

That, maybe, was where Simone first pulled up when she arrived in her weighed down gray pickup, fresh off a 1300-mile ride from Texas.

"Well," she might have said (looking at the neon cowboy over The Mint and then at the neon coffee mug at The Sugar Beet), "here I am."