Cowboys and Immigrants: An African Emigre’s Jackson, Wyoming

Home is a sense of knowing where you are in relation to everyone else, says Alexandra Fuller.

In our series My Town, writers and photographers from around the world reflect on places that hold special meaning for them.

At 25, I was a lot of things I wasn't expecting, and some things I should have seen coming a continent away.

On the unexpected side of the ledger: I was married to a U.S. citizen. We'd moved from Zambia to Jackson, a town of then just over five thousand souls in the 48-mile-long (77 kilometers) valley known as Jackson Hole, on the very western edge of Wyoming, with a climate that fell just short of being classified as subarctic. We had an eight-month-old daughter, a retired hunting dog, and a hefty mortgage.

On the other hand, as might be sensibly imagined, I had a minor case of PTSD, left over from my childhood during a war in what was then Rhodesia. Also, as my father had correctly predicted: "B.A. stands for 'bugger all.'" He had said I was, for all intents and purposes, as close to unemployable as someone with a bachelor's degree and the full use of his or her faculties can reasonably hope to be.

So putting that all together, I decided to become a waitress. I used my native cunning, and an amped-up English accent, to ace a job interview at the most prestigious restaurant in Jackson. Like anyone else with bad taste in movies, I had seen Out of Africa, and I let the restaurant's owner believe my life in Zambia hadn't been too far from all those romantic safaris and tragic doses of syphilis.

"I was a barmaid at the Lusaka Gymkhana Club," I said, which was sort of true, especially if you had a very loose idea of what constituted a barmaid—for example, consuming, rather than serving, the drinks. But it would be OK, I reasoned. How hard could waitressing be? Surely, food was food and service was service no matter where you were in the world. "Chimodzimodzi," as we say in Zambia. "Same same."

As it turns out, it wasn't OK. For one thing, whatever Gandhi said about work being worship, I didn't love waiting tables. And coming out of Zambia, which itself was just emerging from nearly 30 years of socialism, the choices on the Snake River Grill menu gave me a perpetual case of culture shock. Who knew there were so many varieties of pasta? Who could pronounce their names correctly? Plus, we were supposed to memorize the menu and have a working knowledge of the award-winning wine list. "Red or white?" didn't cut it, apparently.

Quickly recognizing my woeful skills, the owner put me to work on the restaurant's veranda, overlooking the town square. It wasn't prime seating, not only because it was outside but also because in the mid-90s, Jackson hadn't quite caught up with the fact that three million visitors were surging through its arteries every year, and the sewage system in this corner of town was more Pioneer Days than First World.

So there was that—a persistent, pungent waft. And there was also the way July and August came to the Rocky Mountains: high-altitude unfiltered and desert dry, so that if weather had a sound track, these two months would be written with the frenetic saw of fiddles.

At the Mercy of the Shoot-Out Gang

Also, there was the nightly six o'clock town square shoot-out. Which wouldn't necessarily have been a problem for the patrons if it hadn't been for the aforementioned mild case of PTSD harbored by me, their already inept waitress.

Since 1957, every summer evening except Sunday ("There's no shootin' on Sundays!" the Jackson Chamber of Commerce boasts), the shoot-out gang has gathered in front of the elk-antler arches in the heart of Jackson to reenact frontier justice and lure tourists to restaurants and bars. It is reportedly the longest continually running shoot-out in the U.S., which surely puts it in the running for longest continually running shoot-out in the world.

The show features busty broads and men who walk as if they'd sustained a fertility-threatening injury at the biweekly Teton County rodeo. There are a lot of welcoming folks in the last of the Wild West, and some feel-good talk about Wyoming being the so-called Equality State, since it was the first in the union to allow women the vote in 1869. (All to the good if you skip lightly over the ongoing irony that it is also a state that repeatedly challenges a woman's right to choose and has done little to rectify the fact that it has the greatest gender income inequality in the country.)

And then there's the ordnance, which although blank, gives off exactly the solar plexus punch of live rounds. Over the years, given the inevitable pandemonium of such a show—cast members are more likely to be sober now than in days of yore and lore, but there are still a lot of guns, horses, and characters on the rooftops—there have been a couple of accidents. There was the man who was actually, if accidentally, hanged; another whose black powder gun blew up in his face; and a broken bone or two. Tourists love it. Tens of thousands have seen the show.

But it was the sort of good, clean family fun that most baffled me when I first moved here, and most keenly made me feel my alien status as someone who had come from a part of the world where wars are not outsourced but instead trip on the threshold of kitchens and bedrooms and spill over into schools, hospitals, and churches—those places of supposed nurture, healing, and refuge.

U.S. citizens who have neither served in the military nor live in the drive-by shooting capitals of the nation (places in California, Florida, and Texas hold that tragic distinction) are remarkably sanguine and unflinching in the face of a sudden burst of gunfire in the early evening. But coming as that first shot always seemed to do—no matter how hard I braced myself for it—as the opening gambit in an actual ambush, I reacted badly.

Innocence: War's First Casualty

"Nothing," said Michel de Montaigne, the French Renaissance writer and thinker, "fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as a wish to forget it." War is not the fault of children, but along with truth, their innocence is war's first casualty. Next comes a lifelong inability to reset to calm.

Evening after evening, the first shot went off, and I dropped trays, ducked behind chairs, and barely repressed the urge to pull children off their booster seats and bring them down with me. My children—I have three—laugh at me. "The shoot-out isn't traumatic," my 17-year-old son told a friend when I recently insisted we all go to the event. "But my mother's reaction to it is."

I've lived in Jackson, or in one of the other small towns that dot the valley, for 20 years now. My waitressing career was mercifully short-lived—I was, as they say, let go, at the end of the summer, like a brook trout unhooked—but when my first book was published, of course we ate at the Snake River Grill to celebrate. It was March, two months before the shoot-out, which runs, like so much in a tourist town, from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

But the smell of that kitchen, the familiar baskets of fresh bread ferried to the table, the server expertly reciting the menu with such aplomb the words washed over me like poetry—they made me feel I had in some small way worked myself into the fabric of this sweet town with its wooden sidewalks and unconscious reenactments of violence, its rubber tomahawk shops.

Home isn't a fixed place; it's an earned idea, a belonging, a growing sense of knowing where you are in relation to everyone else, and it's the knowledge of the truth that everything exists in relationship.

What had seemed fake and gratuitous to me when I first arrived is now defensibly real to me. After all, my children are robust feminists, and one day Wyoming might live up to its moniker and become the most equal state in the union, or at least not so grievously unequal, because of their having been nourished by this place and their feeling of being rooted here and responsible for its social culture.

Knowing a place, and delivering children in it—"The blood shed in birth is stronger than the blood shed in war," a Shona midwife had told me at the delivery of my eldest daughter in Zimbabwe—makes it feel safer and kinder, even if that sense of safety and kindness is nothing but a beautiful illusion masking a more troubling reality.

"Don't worry," I told my staid uncle and aunt from Yorkshire when they came to visit. "The gun slinging is just for show. There aren't really grizzlies behind every rock."

But there was a small black bear reaping huckleberries next to their cabin at Trail Creek Ranch. And they returned from breakfast at Nora's Fish Creek Inn one morning as flushed and as excited as the British can get. "A woman pulled a gun on her husband in the parking lot," they reported. "The sheriff had to come!"

Home Becoming

I've learned the mountains here, their features as craggy and weathered as beloved elders. I'm on first-name terms with the checkout staff at the Jackson Whole Grocer, and they know by my cart—frozen food and boxes of soup—when I've overshot a deadline and am no longer cooking. A local cop, seeing me in the rodeo grounds after a long, hot horseback ride in which I'd taken a wrong turn up a mountain canyon and ended up riding down Snow King, the town's local ski hill, offered me a bottle of water. "How's the writing going?" he asked, before tipping back his hat to reveal the face of a friend of a friend's ex-boyfriend.

But here's the really shocking thing: I now personally know some of the cast members of the shoot-out. They're classmates of my children, the children of the women I know from church. "Doesn't it freak you out?" I asked them. "All that shooting at your friends?" I showed them my clammy hands.

"It's not for real," one young man replied, bestowing on me a smile of such tolerant joy my breath sank out of me. "Except for the fun part. That's for real. We're all cowboys and Indians at heart." And I thought then of the canvas chaps, leather holster, and popgun Mum had given me on my eighth birthday, in 1977, three years into the worst part of our war, and the way in which the gift separated play from what my sister and I called "for-realsies."

Suffering and violence morph over time, take different shapes, and require of us new and ever more creative forms of resistance and acceptance. As an immigrant, even with my tray-dropping propensities when the shoot-out took me by surprise, I was nonetheless accepted as the kind of immigrant the States takes in without resistance: blonde, white, my insecurities masked by a better-than-average, if feigned, English accent.

But on the other side of that easy acceptance, Jackson Hole's Hispanic population has more than doubled in the past eight years, so that Mexicans and Central Americans make up as much as 15 percent of our population.

"Recognize yourself in he and she who are not like you and me," the Mexican writer and diplomat Carlos Fuentes said.

In 1996, two years after my arrival in the valley, teams of federal agents and local police stormed Jackson hotels and restaurants, asking dark-skinned workers for their immigration papers. "Those who couldn't produce them were taken away in police cars. One group was hauled off in a horse trailer," reported Lisa Jones in the High Country News, a regional paper that focuses on environmental and social news. Numbers were inked on the forearms of the detainees while their paperwork was processed.

At 45, I'm a lot of things I expected, and some I could never have seen coming. On the unexpected side of the ledger, I'm divorced from the man I married in the front field of my parents' Zambian farm. And although I'm still, for all intents and purposes, unemployable, I keep body and soul together by writing, which is to say I do my life for my living.

And I guess this was always in me: I've become an advocate for the rights of women, immigrants, and workers in Wyoming. On a recent visit back to Zambia, Dad surveyed me calmly over the cloud of smoke emitting from his pipe. "Well," he said at last, "I guess Jackson Hole is as good a place as any for a bloody Commie agitator like you—at least they've got the firepower to cope with it."

Alexandra Fuller was born in England and moved with her family to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when she was two. She remained in Africa until her mid-20s when she moved with her husband and young daughter to Wyoming. She lives and writes there now. Fuller is the author of five books of nonfiction, most recently the best-seller Leaving Before the Rains Come.

Next stop for My Town: On March 22, writer Jeffrey Tayler, who's lived in Moscow for 22 years, gives an insider's view of the Russian capital.

Read This Next

Clothing from 1600s shipwreck shows how the 1 percent lived
A Q&A with Nikole Hannah-Jones on ‘The 1619 Project’

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet