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Autumn Phillips: Moving away, changing

Autumn Phillips

“There is an old train car rusting at the end of a rail in Casper, Wyo. There is one window you can climb through. See the sliding doors that open to each compartment. Still red cushions on the seats. Still mattresses in the sleeping compartments. Still sinks in each. Only no water now, and dirt darkening the windows, and graffiti from the high school kids who came there a decade ago and will love each other forever, they wrote.”

I wrote that. Years ago. But I’d like to edit it from the guidebook.

Don’t go there now. Transients discovered that train long ago, which means it’s full of empty beer bottles and piles of feces.

But it was places like that, the abandoned places, that made me love my hometown.

Casper was built on oil. The sprawl was laid out fast and cheap and abandoned just as quickly when the oil money ran out.

Downtown is a maze of empty buildings. If you choose me as your tour guide, that’s where I will take you.

If you don’t mind crawling, I can show you the best way into the Victorian Hotel. There’s still furniture in there and newspapers from decades ago. But don’t breathe too deeply. It’s home to the city’s population of pigeons these days.

I know the good way to sneak into the abandoned Prairie Publishing building. I can get on every rooftop of every building in downtown, and if you get hungry or thirsty while you’re exploring downtown, I know which office buildings have good break rooms where no one guards the doughnuts.

Or, at least, I did when I lived there.

But there comes a time, and it happens to everyone, when you won’t climb through a warehouse window anymore to sit with friends in the dust and abandoned boom-town detritus. There comes a time when you’re too old for Neverland.

I realized it this weekend as I walked through downtown Casper with my dad. I looked up and saw a teenager sitting on the roof of a building — his feet dangling off the edge. I saw myself more than a decade ago occupying that strange in-between space where young people live in Casper.

I never heard any of my friends say, “There’s nothing to do here.” Not until we became adults.

The town looks different from the outside of those dirty warehouse windows.

It’s the kind of town where people happily wait 45 minutes for a table at Red Lobster. It’s the kind of town where they serve iceberg lettuce even at the nicest restaurants. It’s the kind of town that bleeds in every direction into long veins of KMarts and Applebees, while the heart of downtown beats away like a raisin in the wind.

The people who live there love it. I know, because when I lived there I loved it.

In my early twenties, I had a theory we could call the “Return to Hometown Utopia.” I believed that people should go out into the world, explore, collect skills and insight. But when in their 30s or 40s, they should return from whence they came. In my utopia, creative worldly types would give their knowledge and energy to places such as Hays, Kan., and Casper instead of hoarding it all for San Francisco and New York. The Midwest would fill with Indian restaurants, interesting newspapers and arthouse movie theaters.

It was a good theory, but when it became my turn to go back, my knees locked. I couldn’t do it.

Truth: Most people I know feel at least a little discomfort when visiting their hometown. It’s like sitting across the table from an ex-boyfriend who broke your heart years ago. You watch his face as he talks and wonder how you ever fell in love with that person. In him, you see yourself years ago — a younger you, a naive you whom you don’t like to remember.

You sip coffee and thank God that things didn’t work out all those years ago.

You split the bill and leave. Relieved.

On Sunday morning, I filled up my tank with $1.85 per gallon gas. I thought for a while about “what if I stayed.” Instead, I climbed into the driver seat and started the engine.

I don’t think we should see each other anymore, I said.

It’s not you. It’s me.

I’ve changed.


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