Best Book of 2014: Wait for Signs, by Craig Johnson

Good books mark my life by chapter and verse. I own many of them. We moved last spring, a little deeper into the forests of Horse Butte. When we bought our new place, I refused to consider living there until I found a place for my bookshelves. Joe and I packed up Pony, Stella, and Oscar, along with everything else which makes up Big Sky Anglers: rods, reels, hackles, hooks, flies, hoodies, hats, wading boots, computers, printers, fax machines, boats, kayaks, oars, old Toyotas, scanners, filing cabinets, waders with holes, waders without holes, rod tubes, books about trout, photos, articles, cameras, bird dog collars, kennels, shotguns, the Dirty Harry pistol (which Joe used to hide in my magazine basket until I pitched a fit), fishing shirts, Joe’s dress shirt, socks, jackets, leaders, tippet, fly lines, and two broken guitar cases. In addition to my books, I brought along a small suitcase of clothes, two NPS flat hats, and 24 pairs of skis.

Almost as important to me as my books is Wyoming.  The land speaks through sagebrush, cowboys, broken china tossed off Conestoga wagons, and abandoned sod dugouts in the middle of the prairie. Wyoming is full of elk, pronghorn (antelope), cows, cowboys, deer, and wind. Lots of wind. Mountains, bluebirds, and crisp fall mornings soothe the wounds created by its harshness. Since a lot of great authors also enjoy the state, I possess a fine collection of Wyoming writers, including Craig Johnson, Annie Proulx, Mark Spragg, Gretl Erlich, and CJ Box.  They write about the rowdy surroundings and the survivors who call it home.

Between Meeteetse and Thermopolis, Highway 171 cuts through the rough country in a futile attempt of control and symmetry. All around are ridges of rock hiding coulees, dips, and valleys full of antelope, red-tailed hawks, and golden eagles. Geology takes precedence over the engineering egos of the WY Department of Transportation, as the narrow road winds its way south. I love this stretch. Austere in its presentation of natural wonders, it’s a far cry from the in-your-face drama of Glacier or Yellowstone. Wyoming begs you to look for the unknown, hidden at first among a seemingly boring setting of dirt, sagebrush and drab color.  But watch for morning sunlight or evening fade, and the earth turns pink and purple. Walk around until you stumble upon the Legend Rock petroglyphs, where people used stone walls into artistic canvases for thousands of years. Hear the stories of the people of Wyoming, hacking a life out of the wilderness and bearing their children along the way. And wait-just wait-until you meet Wyoming personified, Sheriff Walt Longmire.

In Craig Johnson’s Wait for Signs (2014), twelve short stories give personal profiles of America’s favorite sheriff, Walt Longmire.  Walt is the main character in a series of novels, recently adapted into A&E’s Longmire. Johnson originally wrote these short works as Post-Its, annual Christmas gifts to readers that subscribe to his email newsletter. Amidst a wintry holiday backdrop, Walt rescues hitchhikers on Christmas Eve, hands out presents from the back of a wrecked Toys-R-Us semi, and investigates miscreant residents of the local old folk’s home. Like the main character in any good crime series, Walt Longmire is always in the thick of a case, even if his jurisdiction is the middle of nowhere, Absaroka County, Wyoming.

Several years ago I first met Walt Longmire one cold night in Lamar Valley. Actually, I was attending a weeklong course at the Yellowstone Association Institute-Lesser Known Scats of Porcupines, Mating Calls of Bison, or some other such awkward and intimate animal knowledge. While wolves howled outside, I huddled in my tiny log cabin with a headlamp and a bottle of wine and read almost all of The Cold Dish.  I laughed, I cried, I had to replace my headlamp batteries, and I fell in love with Walt and his perspective of the world. Thankfully I know a thing or two about Yellowstone, because the next morning I was worthless.  Walt says, “It wasn’t that revenge was a dish best served cold, it was that it was a dish best not served at all.” Cold Dish is the first of ten in the Longmire series.  Set in the fictional town of Durant, Absaroka County, Wyoming, his jurisdiction covers the least populated county in the Lower 48. Born and bred in Durant, Walt was elected sheriff shortly after playing all-state tackle at USC and serving with the Marines in Vietnam.  He’s a big man, nearly 6’4 and 240, although his intimidating physical presence is often balanced by a friendly smile. He wears blue jeans and a cowboy hat with his sheriff’s star and sidearm. His department includes Ruby, who mothers Walt as much as she dispatches calls; Double Tough, a former oil rig welder, the Ferg, who ties flies and scouts good fishing holes while on duty, and Vic, who gave up a fast-paced career with the Philadelphia police department to follow her engineer husband for job in the Bighorn Basin oil fields. Henry Standing Bear, Walt’s best friend since childhood, steers Walt true with constant companionship.  Walt’s daughter Cady is an East Coast trial lawyer and constant reminder of her mother Martha, who dies of cancer before we ever meet Walt for the first time.

Longmire is a hero, a comic, a ladies’ man, a lawman, a father, friend, and completely infallible.  Propelled by a clear sense of right and wrong, his heart usually finds the right way to get there. In my favorite story, “Ministerial Aid,” Walt confronts a domestic abuse situation. A few things are a little odd about his approach- he’s hung over and wearing a bathrobe. Its New Years day and Walt finds himself in between the troubled couple, all the while still confronting his grief about Martha’s recent death. His own redemption emerges from helping others besides himself.  He thinks, “Just then, I thought I might’ve caught sight of that first ray that shoots over the edge of the earth like a hopeful thought, and maybe, just maybe I might’ve felt something. ‘Well, like the rest of us…’[Walt] sighed. ‘She’s just waiting on something.’”

Walt’s way with women follows him on most cases. In the “Divorce Horse,” he and fellow Absaroka County heartthrob and his best friend Henry Standing Bear look for a stolen pony. Walt muses,  “The much-storied case of the divorce horse was the kind of situation familiar to most rural sheriffs, one of those disputes you ended up getting involved in even thought it had nothing much to do with law enforcement.” Johnson inserts hints of his involvement with Undersheriff Victoria Moretti, who is half Walt’s age and moves twice as fast.

Faithful BSA readers might feel tricked by my post, as they realize I’m not reviewing a book full of fish. Ha! Gotcha. In a scene from “Messenger”, Henry and Walt catch a few creels full of brookies, with designs on releasing them into the frying pan for dinner. Ok, so it’s not Isaaz Walton. But it is full of wit, humanity, and most importantly, Wyoming. Not ready for a full book of Walt just yet? Dip in slowly with Wait for Signs.