laramie

I left Rawlins this morning at 10am and continued east. An hour later I wasin Laramie.

I stopped at Jeffrey’s on 2nd for lunch. Jeffrey’s is an anachronism on therangeland of eastern Wyoming… a restaurant that serves tempeh and ‘Thaibaked tofu’. A really good-looking guy seated me, smiled, and said “You’reseated in my section. It must be my lucky day.” He was slim, with spikeyblonde hair and blue eyes. He had a beautiful smile. He looked likeMatthew Shepard.

On the evening of October 6th, 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was luredout to the hills northeast of Laramie by two guys he’d befriended. Therethey pistol-whipped him, stole his wallet and shoes, and then proceeded tobeat and torture him for several hours. They tied him to a fence and cuthis boy-next-door face with knives. They crushed his skull. Then they lefthim there and went to rob his home.

He lay there for 18 hours. Two bicyclists found him the next day. He wassuch a mess, so small and so lifeless, that they at first thought he was ascarecrow, rags left from Halloween. The sheriff first on the scene saidlater that when she arrived, a doe got up and left Matthew’s side. Thesheriff said she believe that the doe had kept Matthew company through thenight.

One of his killers tried to pick a fight with a couple of Hispanic guyslater that night. He brandished a gun, but they got the better of him,clubbing him and leaving him with a bloody gash on his forehead.

Matthew was found and brought to the hospital, where he lay in a coma forseveral days, his head misshapen from the blows he’d taken. Several roomsaway, one of his assailants lay with stitches in his forehead. Matthewnever recovered. He died there.

I wish I could have known him. I like to think that we could have beenfriends. I know I would have found him physically attractive, but more thanthat, he seems to have been a loving person, quick to open up to new people.I never knew him, but I love him. I wanted to make some sort of pilgrimageto the place where he was killed. I wanted to leave a note to Matthew.

I asked my waiter, my voice breaking, if he knew where Matthew Shepard hadbeen killed. He said that he thought it was out by the center range southof town. He told me that he would ask around. He later returned, tellingme that it was out by the Wal-Mart on Grand. He smiled apologetically andtold me that he moved to town after the event. “Ask around,” he said, “I’msure someone will know.”

My search led me to Jim Osborne at the University of Wyoming. He wasassociated with the gay student group, and I later learned he had been afriend of Matthew Shepard’s for a long time. Jim told me that the fencethat Matthew was tied to had been torn down, and no trespassing signsposted. He suggested that I could go by the American Heritage Center oncampus and read through the Matthew Shepard Archive.

The archive consists of just under 2.5 cubic feet of material, collected byJim and other concerned people at the University. While I waited for thearchive materials to be fetched from storage, the librarian told me about amountain lion that was prowling the streets of Laramie near the campus. “Itate my friends cat!” she said, smiling. The lion was said to be over 6’long, and had been in town since the previous evening, playing hide-and-seekwith the police. It was the first time a big cat had been seen in the cityin 23 years.

I read through three boxes of stuff, flipping through folder after folder,my hands shaking. There were letters, both hand-written and emailed,newspaper clippings, and sympathy cards. Many people were deeply affected,both in love and hate, by Matthew. He was both man and boy at the sametime, and we wanted to both love and protect him. He was every mother’sson, every man’s tag-along kid brother. He was gay, but he was crucifiedlike a Christian martyr.

Matthew’s death triggered all sorts of feelings in people. One 10-pageletter in the archives argues that the death was the result of a failededucation system in the United States. Another, equally-long letter arguesthat Matthew was not human, but an empty shell occupied by aliens.

One of the theories about people who hate gays is that they’re strugglingwith gay feelings themselves. This was certainly true with one of Matthew’smurderers. Matthew, even dead, was clearly very disturbing to many people.”Congratulations again on the faggot being beaten to death there in Wyoming.God is, indeed, working his magic.” wrote (email hidden in RSS feeds). TheTopeka Baptist Church picketed Matthew’s funereal. Their web site todayreads “Matthew Shepard has been in hell for 1341 days.”

The grandmother of one of the killers wrote to the president of theUniversity Matthew attended. She said that her grandson was a sweet andkind-hearted person. It concludes “I feel sorry for Matthew’s family. Gaysshould not push their lifestyle on others. Thank you.”

Donald Daniel in Alexandria, Virginia wrong a long, hand-written letter. Hequoted Shakespeare (from Romeo & Juliet):

When he shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

From the archives, I got a better idea where Matthew had been killed. Ithad happened on Snowy Mountain View Road, just past the Sherman Hillshousing development across from the Wal-Mart. I drove down the dirt roadsof the development, past signs that read “Private Road. Stay Out.” I droveout until I felt that the spot was remote enough. I got out of my car,wrote a note to Matthew, lit it on fire. Though I could clearly see theUniversity in the distance, the only sound was the wind. After a while, Idrove back out to the highway.

As I drove out of Laramie, I tuned into public radio out of Cheyenne. Theyreported that a mountain lion had been killed on the streets of Laramie.

Coyote

Reference: The Matthew Shepard Collection, 1983-2001, Accession number300014, Boxes 1 (folders 7, 16), 3 (folder 6), and 5 (folders 1,2), AmericanHeritage Center, University of Wyoming, Larmie, WY.

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