One summer day in the ’90s, a newly out transgender Harvard student named Ron Bancroft hops off a Greyhound bus in Cody. Ron’s experience in the West is limited to the tales of fur trappers and explorers he read obsessively when he was growing up as a girl on the East Coast, but it seems a good place to find what he’s looking for:
“A new start, a rugged life, a sense of the physical and real rather than the theoretical.”
So begins “Continental Divide,” a new young-adult novel by author Alex Myers. The book, a page-turning coming-of-age tale packed with bruising life lessons, romance, self discovery and uniquely Wyoming scenes, is informed by Myers’ own experience.
In the summer of 1995, Myers, who was the first openly transgender student at Harvard, came to Wyoming, where he found a job on a dude ranch. This was well before the transgender rights movement had much of a profile in America. It was a heady time in Myers’ life, and he was seeking to escape some of the issues that came with being transgender in an era when it was still an unfamiliar concept.
“This word, as much as it freed me, it also confined me,” Myers said. “I had this real impulse to go somewhere where being transgender was not a thing. Wyoming was one of those places.”
His transformative experience became the inspiration for “Continental Divide.” In the book, protagonist Bancroft tries on his new identity as a man while working on a dude ranch and later for the U.S. Forest Service. He explores Wyoming’s rugged mountains, rides horses, meets a girl and tries to blend in at a ranch staffed by hypermasculine wranglers — all while hiding the fact that he grew up as a girl named Veronica.
That major omission threads the story with tension. Myers’ apt descriptions of Wyoming landscapes and people, meanwhile, imbue it with the genuine knowledge only accrued through experience. And as Ron stumbles, corrects himself and learns how to inhabit the identity he has long yearned for, it’s hard not to become invested in his journey. Figuring yourself out, after all, is a universal experience.
Myers kicks off a Wyoming book tour today in Laramie. The tour, which is being organized by Better Wyoming and Wyoming Equality, will also entail meetings with Gay-Straight Alliance chapters at schools along the way.
Myers sat down with WyoFile to talk about Wyoming masculinity, the novel and the symbolism of the Continental Divide.
WyoFile: Tell me about your own experience traveling to Wyoming in the summer of 1995.
Alex Myers: I think there’s a lot of contact points with the novel. I had just finished my freshman year in Harvard and I very much wanted an experience that was not the East Coast, where I was born and raised. I got a job as a cook at a dude ranch and headed out. I was just excited to try a different part of the country and to see more or less what I would make of it and what it would make of me.
I worked for a couple weeks at that dude ranch. Then a friend of mine sent me a postcard there, and the back of the postcard asked, “How’s your summer going? I hope it’s not a problem being transgender in Wyoming.” My boss read that and fired me on the spot.
So that was sort of a wake-up call. I had that moment, saying, do I want to just head back to the East Coast, or do I want to stay? But within two weeks of being there I was totally enchanted. I had gone for a couple hikes, I just loved the terrain — it was like nothing I had ever seen before. So I called around and looked around for a job in Cody and I got a job with the Forest Service with a wonderful ranger named Mick.
By a total fluke, the station that I worked at, it was all guys, there were no women, so it was this super saturated masculine environment. But I had just an amazing time.
WF: Why was Wyoming a compelling place to explore the concept of masculinity?
AM: Unlike Ron, I actually did some advance work. I applied to ranches in Utah, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming, and truly I was looking to get far off of the East Coast. But I have to say, when I got to Cody, it hit sort of what I had imagined the American West to be, and a somewhat dated version of it. Ranches and cowboys and that sort of thing. But I found a lot of people who live a lot of their lives outdoors and had a sort of ruggedness to them that I associate with American masculinity of the West. And it still felt largely like a frontier compared to Boston. I grew up in a rural area, an apple orchard in Maine, so I know rural life. But that is different than the sort of wide-open spaces and the distance between people that I found out West.
WF: At what point did you recognize that this experience was the inspiration for a novel?
AM: I started thinking about writing about it pretty soon after I came back. Because Matthew Shepard was murdered not long after I had returned. That was sort of the wake-up call to me that I had done something that was exciting and that meant a lot to me, but that was also risky. I’m not a person who takes a ton of uncalculated risks. And I wondered at that moment why I had been willing to take such a risk, and why it was worth it.
So I wanted to answer that question, and to me that’s where writing comes from, especially fiction writing: having a question that you want to answer.
WF: What was the answer to that question?
AM: I think in part being young, but I really think — to me, and to cisgendered people as well — gender is a really fundamental core part of who we are and how we organize ourselves in the world and how the world puts us in a place it views as appropriate for our gender. I had a really serious case of self-doubt and desire or need even to prove that I was a man on my own terms. I think what going really far from home to a place that didn’t know transgender, and that didn’t know me as anything except how I presented myself, gave me the confidence to say, ‘Yep I can do this as who I am.’ I think that need to prove myself was so compelling that it kind of overrode any concerns for what could be the worst possible outcome.
WF: To me, there are two symbols that stand out. One is the Continental Divide, the other is the jackalope. Can you talk about what interested you about those symbols and what they stand for in the novel?
AM: Ron is obsessed with maps and he’s obsessed with this question of where is he and where does he belong, existentially as well as physically. So I wanted to look at maps as a way that he’s trying to orientate himself until he realizes maps have limitations. As a feature, the Continental Divide is mysterious. It’s definitely real, but you can’t necessarily see it. But maps will still put it on there. To me, that’s kind of how gender kind of works as well. We see gender, we experience gender, we put words to gender. But can you tell me what that really means?
Jackalopes seem to be this other mystical thing. They don’t really exist, in flesh, but they do really exist in this bone form. And they are kind of this thing that’s real and unreal, again like the Continental Divide.
WF: Were you writing for a particular readership, and what do you hope readers take from the book?
AM: I do a lot of talking at schools and schools are always asking me, “What are good books? What should we have on our library shelves?” And I can rattle off a bunch of really good nonfiction books about trans and nonbinary characters. I cannot name that many, especially YA, fiction books. It doesn’t exist, and what does exist is not that good. And it’s also not written by trans authors. The audience I was writing for is people who want that. That is going to be queer people, but it’s going to be teachers, it’s going to be parents, it’s going to be allies. It’s people who want to understand not just “what does being transgender mean,” which is a lot of what the non-fiction addresses, sort of the practicalities of coming out and getting support. To me the more interesting question of: How does a transgender person live their life in America? It doesn’t stop when you come out. That is where the story begins.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.