In Claiming Ground: A Memoir, Laura Bell opens up 30 years of her life to the reader. In 1977, Bell left Kentucky after
college and came west to Wyoming with her family to visit. She didn't leave.
In a surprising move for a tenderfoot easterner, Bell signed up for the solitary and rustic life of a sheepherder. She
spent three years virtually alone in the rugged north central mountains where her best friends were her dog and her
horse. Other valuable friendships were formed with fellow herders (mostly male and most had alcohol issues) and the
regional traveling librarian. Books were a precious commodity and were treasured and shared in the lonely, dark
Then Bell upgraded her pared-down life into one of a cowgirl working on a family ranch. Her life was still spare and
lean compared to most women living in the West. She learned to tell when a cow was acting funny," which meant she was
either in trouble or hiding a new calf somewhere. It was on the ranch that Bell met her future husband, who was a
recent widower and had two young daughters.
For several years, Bell and Joe Little were happy rebuilding their cozy house with its small acreage. Bell became a mom
and a worked as a forest ranger. Then one night after years of forbearance, the heavy drinking was just too much for
Bell; she packed up and left with a heavy heart. She especially regretted leaving her stepdaughters behind.
Alone again and still searching for a place to put down roots, Bell moved to Salt Lake City and became a masseuse. She
returned to Wyoming during the summers for seasonal work and to be with her stepdaughters.
Bell's narrative is open, honest, strong and unflinching. Her voice is descriptive and straightforward. This makes for
effortless and comfortable reading. Her life translates into one lived to the fullest in the old/new West, especially
for a woman.
In only one small instance does the flow hesitate, and that is in the lack of time frame given to the chapters. This is
only critical in the first third of the book, where in addition to the place name of the events, a time reference would
have been helpful, because she moves back and forth with events.
Moving chapters, bringing this reader to tears, are about profound loss and illustrate how differently people grieve.
In Bell's case, she signs on to be an outfitter to others looking to experience the West, some for the first time.
Looking at her life and her experience with love, she reawakens to the fact that her parents have been a comforting
presence in her life throughout all her choices, both good and bad.
One star in Bell's story is the land. She knows nooks and crannies in the valleys, hills and rivers near Heart and
Burnt Mountain. Bell's knowledge of flora and fauna in the area is impressive. She has lived in the heart of the land
and learned volumes from nature. Now she is living a new chapter in her life, on the road as a published author.
Leslie Doran is a local freelance writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.