Gaydell Collier was a young mother with four kids and two cats when she and her husband Roy sold their farm in Vermont in 1963 to follow their dreams back to Wyoming. Collier, native to the comfortable suburbs of Long Island, and her husband, who grew up in similarly suburban Chicago, had met at the University of Wyoming, drawn together in part by a shared love of Wyoming's windswept open spaces and "the Western mystique."
Their young family's trek back West in a 1929 Ford Model A and 1932 Chevy roadster was slow. (Roy, writes Collier without irony, "thought America had been in her prime forty years earlier in the 1920s and sliding downhill ever since...if he was forced to drive a vehicle, it had to be at least a quarter-century old.") They landed in a modern tenant house on a ranch west of Laramie where Roy had found a job, among the hay meadows in the shadow of Jelm Mountain on the meandering Big Laramie River.
They settled comfortably into the far-flung rural community called Harmony until the day several years later when Roy came home announcing he had found their "new house," which turned out to be a long-vacant cabin tucked into the cottonwood trees about a mile down the river. A cabin with no running water, a privy out back, heated by a wood cookstove in the kitchen and a gorgeously ornamented potbelly in the living room (it did have electricity, "sort of"). A cabin inhabited most recently by mice, skunks, and other less pleasant neighbors.
Despite the formidable difficulty in making the place home, Collier finds herself charmed by the woods, the proximity of the river, and the chance to live in a way that will teach the kids "self-reliance and responsibility." Although she guesses how much sheer hard work it will take to tend to four growing kids, Roy and assorted pets without modern conveniences, she is nevertheless drawn willingly into the project. Lying beside the Big Laramie River, watching the kids splash about on the summer morning after she and the kids come to begin to set the place to rights, she muses,
"Here by the cabin the river became more intimate, more like a member of the family along with parents, kids, and pets, perhaps a wise elder always at hand to comfort and advise. I suspected I'd need the revitalizing power of the river in days to come. But a decision had been made and the time had come to grasp it with both hands and good humor. Now we had work to do."
That work involved not just sweeping out and disinfecting the cabin and outhouse; it meant repairing the hand-pump for the well (and drawing out bucket after bucket of slimy black goo until the water finally cleared months later), and removing and unblocking the stovepipe, an adventure which spread oily soot everywhere, as Collier writes,
"into my hair and down my shirt collar, lodging in my bra. The [stovepipe] slipped out of my hands and fell against the warming oven, stovetop, and finally the floor, resounding like cannon fire on the western front. It settled. I could hear the dog barking. I peered out beneath soot-laden eyelashes at a young man with longish blond hair standing in the doorway. This was Grand Central Station of the wilderness."
To say that Just Beyond Harmony is the story of the time spent in that not-exactly-idyllic cabin by the river is to sell it very short. This book is so much more: a testament to the power of dreams and the ability to thrive on plenty of love and imagination, if not much money or conveniences; a coming-of-age-story chronicling Collier's blossoming as a mother, writer and a person with dreams of her own; a love song to a harsh and beautiful place. Perhaps most of all, it is a testament to one woman's unflappable sense of humor, clear-eyed wisdom, and steady belief that life will come out not just all right, but wonderfully, improbably well. Somehow. And in Collier's hands, it does.
Gaydell Collier lives on a ranch in the Wyoming's Black Hills where the family moved after leaving the Harmony Community in 1977. Inspired by the beauty of the land and wildlife, she writes, walks the hills with her dog Maxie, and looks forward to visits from children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Collier co-authored three books on horses and horsemanship for Doubleday and co-edited three collections of women's writing for Houghton-Mifflin (including Leaning into the Wind). Her essays, articles, and poetry have appeared in a variety of publications and anthologies, and she has given numerous workshops and presentations on journaling, memoirs, and women's writing in the West. In 2004, she received the Wyoming Governor's Arts Award for Literature. Read more here & on the publisher's website.
Check out our interview with the author of Just Beyond Harmony.
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