by Laura Bell
reviewed by Erica Wetter
Knopf, 2010. $24.95, 256 pages.
Review published in the May/June 2010 issue of Orion magazine
IT IS FEBRUARY, snowy, and twenty degrees below zero when Laura Bell, recently graduated from college, takes up residence in a sheep wagon in northwest Wyoming. “I’d headed west to find refuge in the empty spaces of this land,” she writes, recalling her decision to relocate from Kentucky in the 1970s. “I didn’t think I knew how to live in the world.” In this deeply felt memoir, Bell traces the journey she’s made—back and forth across Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin, to Utah, and then back—in search of belonging and home.
Her story begins “between timberline and sky, [where] drifts of snow gave way to pools of wild sweet arnica and sheep spread across the earth like clouds run to ground.” Seeking solitude, Bell takes a job herding sheep, “an odd woman’s vision of romantic life.” The experience is bracing, and far from pastoral. During her first ride out with her flock of a thousand she becomes lost and is forced to spend the night curled up between her dog and horse. Later, her horse runs off to join a feral herd. “The bare-bones immensity of Wyoming can make you feel like a sacrifice left on a slab for the gods to pick clean,” she writes, and you wonder if she isn’t more sacrificial lamb than shepherd.
After a few years herding, Bell turns to ranching, and then to a job with the Forest Service. She gets married, becomes a mother, divorces her alcoholic husband. Ever restless, she travels to Utah to study massage. But Wyoming’s sage and rocks beckon her back, and she begins splitting her time between the two states, until eventually settling in Cody. Meanwhile, accidents happen, friends get sick, and funerals take place—each twist of the story viscerally evoked by Bell’s wrenching, raw, and honest prose. Throughout all the changes, Bell takes solace in the land, her family, her dogs, and hard work done with care and attention. And yet she worries that her life path has been “haphazard,” and yearns for her past to shape itself into a narrative with a plot and a happy ending.
At one point, Bell hikes Heart Mountain, just north of Cody, and from its summit she imagines she can see the tracks of her last thirty years etched into the landscape. Just about everything life can throw at a person—love, heartbreak, death—has happened to Bell within view of the constant and steadying presence of Heart Mountain. “I want to be this mountain, but my life feels more like a hall of trick mirrors with a different view in each one,” she confesses, and herein lies the beauty of Claiming Ground. From out of her experiences, Bell doesn’t draw tidy realizations, nor black-and-white morals, but rather she discovers something more basic: an understanding of herself. She may have moved west looking for empty space in which to hide, but she’s filled that space with memories, thereby claiming the windblown ground of Wyoming as home.