The Stars Were Mighty Close
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 by Frank Shortt
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The great expanse, known as the American West, still consists of miles and miles of wasteland, land too arid and with no topsoil to maintain vegetation.

Some areas of the Golden West will sustain livestock and vegetation. It was in one of these areas in Wyoming that my grandfather built his cabin below a mountain’s crest. The log cabin, about twenty by twenty feet became first home to Grandpa John and my Grandma Louisa.

I was from the eastern United States, and was often told that I had grandparents in a western region. As I bloomed into a teenager, I yearned to visit my kin living in the west.
During high school, when time allowed, I would go visit these hardy pioneers. It was there I learned how to round up cattle, help with the branding, and even how to nurse sick cattle back to health. This was probably a precursor to my eventually becoming a veterinarian, my chosen profession.

Late evening, after chores were done and supper was a cherished memory, I would go out behind the house, once a cabin, and lay out on the hill looking up at the stars. Just before the sun settled behind the last ranges of the west, the whippoorwill would begin his plaintive refrain. The first coyotes would begin their mournful whines and moans, and sometimes a lonely lobo would join in the chorus of the evening. As I lay there looking up at the first stars of night, it seems that all my burdens left me and all my fears of the future were cast aside. If the stars had been any closer, I would have picked a few for souvenirs!

Times changed as I left high school and entered college with all the cramming for exams, the experiments in lab, and just plain torture to the mind. The only lights I saw were the streams of city neon signs and traffic signals. This was no substitute at all for the stars that were so close out in Wyoming that you could almost reach up and pick a few. How my heart yearned to be back in the wide open spaces where a man can be free to ride a hundred miles one way if he chooses to do so. It seems that I was only born for the cowboy life.

I was a displaced cowboy! As my practice as a veterinarian grew, caring for cats and dogs instead of cattle, I yearned for the freedom and the joyful day when I could return to Wyoming and the cattle country. Unfortunately, I was never able to go back, due to circumstances of my own choosing. I married and from this marriage, three wonderful boys came into being. They too had itchy feet and as I told them of the wonderful land in Wyoming where stars could be picked as souvenirs, they too could hardly wait for the day to travel there and see their great-grandfather’s spread.

It was on a crispy, clear evening when I finally arrived with my three sons who were eight, ten, and twelve, for their first visit to Wyoming. Their mother chose to stay in Chicago to care for a sick aunt. We drove out from Casper hoping to view a vestige of the old place. We had been told that Grandpa and Grandma had gone on to their great reward and that the place was up for auction. I had even dreamed of owning the place for a second home out in the west.

As we approached, the barn roof, once strong and stalwart sagged inward. The corral fences were all askew, as if a giant hand had come along in one fail sweep, casting them from side to side. This was the result of many winter winds. The great house, once a beacon in the night to many travelers, was now weather-beaten with porches sagging, and in some places already caved in. I could almost hear Grandma Louisa’s voice saying “Come on to dinner!”I was aching in my heart for my three boys as I had told them many times of all the good times I had experienced visiting my grandparents. I cringed as the oldest boy spoke, breaking the silence that permeated the place, “Wow Dad, what a great place to camp out!” What a relief I felt as if a ton of bricks had fallen from my shoulders.

We had come prepared for just this occasion as my industrious wife had made the suggestion that we take along camping gear. She must have envisioned this very calamity. We soon had cleared enough space in the weed-infested front yard to camp for the night. As we finished, stars began to appear. I led the three boys up on the hill where I used to lay looking up at the stars. The whippoorwill began to tweet, coyotes began yipping at whatever they yip at in the evening, and somewhere, far off in the mountains, a lone lobo began to howl for his mate.

As we lay down on our backs looking upward, a shooting star shot outward and seemed to land somewhere near the old place. My youngest son exclaimed, “Dad, if those stars were any closer, we could take some back for mom as souvenirs!”

A nocturnal breeze came wafting up the hill as we lay there enjoying the cool night air. Isn’t it funny how that the thing we most yearn for is right at our fingertips, if we care enough to see the closeness of the stars in the ones entrusted by the creator to our care. I reached over and gave each of my stars a great hug, meanwhile whispering, “The stars are close enough for me to pick a few!”