In the summer of 1944, Willard G. Wyman ’56 was 13. His father, an Army cavalry officer, was in Europe, preparing to wade onto Omaha Beach. His mother, “undone” with fear and sickness, entered a psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C. And young Bill Wyman went west—to a cabin of his own on the Spear-O ranch in Montana, to a summer of wrangling horses, baling hay, and mending fences, to country that captured his imagination, his life, and his soul.
Wyman tells the story of that summer in “The Way Home,” an essay included in West of 98: Living and Writing the New American West (Lynn Stegner and Russell Rowland, editors; University of Texas Press, 2011). And he tells the continuing story of his West in Blue Heaven (University of Oklahoma Press, 2011), his second novel, whose action precedes that of 2006’s High Country.
Wyman read from Blue Heaven during his 55th reunion in June and talked about his love of the West, which began not in the family’s sometime home, San Francisco, but on the Spear-O. The ranch experience led him to a dual life—winters as a dean at Colby and Stanford and, finally, as the longtime headmaster of the Thacher School, summers leading mule-assisted trips into Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness and the High Sierras of California.
For Wyman, the West is both a physical place and a myth, and in his writing, fiction and nonfiction, the tension between the two is profound. This is a writer saying goodbye to something he loves, not because he feels the pull of age and reflection, but because the West he knows is almost gone. “I can’t seem to leave the land, even as it seems to be leaving us,” he writes in “The Way Home.” “It’s stuck in me like a first love, holding on even as I watch it pillaged, its waters diverted, its mountains torn open, its solitude violated—all of us using it up because we can’t teach ourselves what the Sioux and the Cheyenne knew in their hearts: we belong to the West more than the West belongs to us.”
The characters in Blue Heaven belong to the West as well. The action in this novel begins in 1902 and ends a few years before the story told in High Country begins. The young mule packer Ty Hardin and his friend and fellow mountain guide Special Hands, who are central to High Country, are here, too, but this novel’s core is Fenton Pardee. An adopted son of the Swan Range, Fenton finds his blue heaven in his work—leading hunters and other dudes into the high country at the back of strings of pack mules and horses—and in Cody Jo, a young woman trying to recover from deep troubles in her past who falls in love with Fenton and, as he says, “completes” him the way the country is complete.
The title is important. The Swan Range is Fenton’s heaven, where he and Cody Jo are bruised saints and Ty is all but their immaculately conceived Son, a denizen so preternaturally at home that he seems made of the same stuff as the mountains. But, like Wyman, Fenton is urgently, angrily, aware that his West, his heaven, cannot be saved.
Wyman says people tell him he should write a memoir, and “The Way Home” gives a taste of how magnificent that book could be. In his novels and in the essay, Wyman’s writing is spare when it should be, honed and clean and perfectly formed. He tried to write his life’s story as a memoir, he said in June, but it didn’t work. “The minute I invented characters I found a higher truth,” he said. “I could write about how people discover the West.”
And how they grieve over its passing.