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East from Bill
An appreciation for Merrill Gilfillan.
Bill, Wyoming (2017).
Too much at once.
Although it felt special in some way from the very first, this photograph didn’t develop its full meaning for me until some time later.
It is an image I made in Bill, Wyoming 6 years ago. On that trip, I had planned a route through eastern Wyoming, pinpointing Bill as perhaps the most remote and isolated spot I could find on the map.
When I got to Bill late on a summer afternoon, a towering wall of thunderstorms had just swept through pushing east. There was no ceiling to the gray sky. The cool air still held its energy and vulnerability, and the plains seemed massive and wide. To the west, cliff swallows swirled in a light drizzle, pouring over the ground from underneath a narrow iron bridge. And under the bridge passed three straight and unending lines of railroad tracks. The tracks ran north and south, parallel to the highway, and from the rise on the bridge one could see the exact place where the heavy, clouded skies met the horizon in every single direction.
With everything so flat, and with the sky so dark, it was easy to spot the headlights of approaching trains. But these were not normal trains. Instead, they seemed to stretch endlessly, as if made to travel to and from the edge of the world. They were ferrying countless tons of high quality Powder River Basin coal. Ancient carbon being readied for release back into the atmosphere. I was the center of it all. I felt small and far from home. And I was overwrought with the need to stop, walk out into the wet grass, lie down, and disappear under the sky.
Below is a video, edited on YouTube with groovy music, from that day.
A few years later, at lunch one winter day in Maine, my friend Peter, an expert sailor and philosophical thinker, and I, more of an experienced driver and simple sightseer, were comparing sailing on the open ocean with driving across the open plains.
He said there sometimes comes a point where big skies and endless horizons can overwhelm. The wide open spaces become too much. Yes, I agreed, one can be consumed with the wish to simply dissolve into the scene. But unlike a sailboat, one can easily stop their truck on the prairie, get out, and search for a place where one feels grounded again. Maybe it’s loneliness that overcomes one out there, maybe it’s something more.
I told Peter about that Wyoming afternoon.
“Do you know the writing of Merrill Gilfillan?,” he asked.
I replied no, so the next day he brought me his own treasured copy of the book Magpie Rising to borrow.
That evening, I immediately found a passage where Gilfillan himself is driving alone through Bill, of all places. He shares how he sometimes needs to stop the car when he is overwhelmed by “the Loneliness”, getting out when he is consumed by the wide open landscape. As I read his words, I didn’t feel so alone in my memories any more…
”It is too much at once…” he relates.
“East from Bill, north of Bill, the dirt roads north and east of Bill - whatever exactly it is, it is potent up there: unadorned curve of the earth.” - Merrill Gilfillan, Magpie Rising.
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