Alone in Wyoming, I Found My Place Through Karaoke
As a woman of color moving to Laramie, Wyoming, I was afraid that I wouldn’t fit in, that I would be unsafe. But at karaoke night at The Ruffed Up Duck, I found my place among the the defiant.
When people find out I live in Wyoming, one of the first questions they ask is, “What do you even do there?” I don’t blame them. The thing about Wyoming is that no one really knows what it is. It’s not one of those states you conveniently forget about (sorry, Rhode Island!), but more so a state you can’t believe still exists in today’s world.
Wyoming is the tenth largest state in the United States. At roughly one hundred thousand square miles, it’s almost twice the size of New York state. But Wyoming is also the least populous, with 579 thousand residents; DC has more people living in its modest sixty-eight square miles. Suffice to say, in Wyoming, there’s a lot of space and not much in it. For example, there are only two sets of escalators in the whole state. The tallest building is a twelve-story dorm, belonging to the state’s only four-year university in Laramie.
I live in Laramie. I moved here in the fall of 2017 to get my MFA in creative writing at the University of Wyoming. Before becoming a grad student, I was a content marketing manager at a startup in Austin. My weeks were filled with happy hours, late-night dancing, and late-start mornings. There was always a new Eater-approved New-American/Pan-Asian/Tiki Bar restaurant to try. Always more traffic on I-35. Always more people. I worked for the weekend, though I didn’t admit it, trapped on the same hamster wheel I promised I’d never be a part of. Only this hamster wheel was obfuscated by work “perks” like unlimited snacks and free lunch, and the quick joy of knowing that I was in my twenties and had money for the first time in my life.
There was always something to do, because being in Austin makes you feel like you should always be doing something. I wanted to write about all the complexities, nuances, and traumas I felt as an Asian American immigrant, but in my young-professional bubble in Austin, I felt stymied. What I needed was absolute nothingness. So I looked to Wyoming: Outside of getting to work with literary stalwarts like Brad Watson and Alyson Hagy, there was something about the landscape of this mysterious state that appealed to my writer sensibilities.
But I also had a few concerns about leaving the city where I’d lived for almost eighteen years. There are undeniable perks about living in a place like Austin. You could never get bored with the food here, because there’s so much of it. A quick Yelp search told me that Laramie had about twenty restaurants, ten of which were pizza places. Could I survive without ramen and pho and Korean barbecue? And how do you look cute in six-degree weather? Did I really have to drive two hours for the nearest major airport? (And that was only if the weather permitted, which it often did not.)
While I was freaking out about my impending move to Wyoming, we were already one year into the Trump presidency, a few years into a major surge of the alt-right, years and years into growing gun violence, and almost twenty years into Matthew Shepard’s murder, which happened in Laramie. Furthermore, the state hadn’t gone blue since 1952—its one and only time.
At the time of my move in 2017, there were only 4,426 Asians living in Wyoming, according to the census. I was going to become the 4,427th. For every one person that looked like me, there would be 130 others who didn’t. As a liberal, a Chinese American, an immigrant, a woman—was Wyoming a safe place for me?
I got to Laramie in August. The first thing I noticed was the lack that touched every corner of a day-to-day. There was no Indian food. There was no French food. There was no Vietnamese food. There was just pizza and burgers and one vegetarian restaurant, which even felt like one too many. I couldn’t find a Target or a Home Depot or a Trader Joe’s to save my life. I couldn’t even find a Chipotle, which, from my Texan perspective, seemed like the bare minimum.
What I did find were bars. Bars with drive-through liquor stores. Bars boasting excessive taxidermy and bullet holes. Bars crowned with proud western heritage, like The Cowboy Saloon & Dance Hall, The Buckhorn Bar & Parlor, and The Ranger.
These bars were for quiet conversation and stiff drinking. Unlike in Austin, there was no place for dancing and frivolity, unless you counted the upstairs of The Buckhorn, where you rubbed shoulders and other things with wasted undergrads, wondering what you were doing with your life.
There was one quirk, though: Almost every bar hosted a dedicated karaoke night. Wednesdays belonged to Bud’s Bar, which was designed to look like Moe’s Tavern from The Simpsons. Thursdays were at Roxie’s on Grand. On Fridays, you could choose between O’Dwyers or The Cowboy Saloon. Saturdays were reserved for the most infamous of them all: The Ruffed Up Duck, which the locals referred to as “The Duck.”
I couldn’t wrap my head around it. For many people, karaoke can be a humiliating experience. It asks you to perform in front of complete strangers and sing, knowing you’re probably not that great at it. Karaoke forces us to expose our mediocrity to others—an act most people fight against every day. In Austin, my friends and I only ever did karaoke in private rooms with binders full of K-pop, knowing that even if we looked ridiculous, we’d only have to answer to each other.
As a liberal, a Chinese American, an immigrant, a woman—was Wyoming a safe place for me?
But Wyoming? This was a state with a bison on the state flag, a state that officially adopted the image of a cowboy on a bucking horse as its symbol. This was a place shaped by its rugged, unforgiving landscape, one perpetuated by films like Unforgiven, The Hateful Eight, and Wind River. This was also a state that resisted outsiders and those who were different, as interrogated in works like Brokeback Mountain, The Laramie Project, and The Matthew Shepard Story. As I understood it, you had to be careful in Wyoming. How could public karaoke—one of the most silly and vulnerable forms of entertainment—be so popular?
In Wyoming, you have to take what you can get. You make the most out of it. That’s the Wyoming way. All we could get in Laramie, it seemed, was karaoke. And as someone told me a few weeks after I arrived, “you can’t not go to The Duck.” So I did.
It’s only 10 p.m. when we walked into The Duck, but the place was already reaching maximum capacity (seventy-eight people, max). There was a small raised stage near the entrance. To its right, a karaoke jockey was taking song requests from a line of four people. A pool table occupied the space in front of the stage, shrinking as more and more people crowded around it.
There was also a back room where people were ordering drinks and hanging out. It was sparsely decorated with two round high-tops, a jukebox that didn’t work, an aging dart board, and a carpet so dark you could spill anything on it. Also in the back was a smoking room, from which a thick cloud of cigarette smoke emerged anytime the door slid open.
A man was singing a Garth Brooks song on stage. He had two hands glued to the microphone, eyes never leaving the lyrics prompter. His voice shook as it slid up and down to find the right pitch.
It did not sound good, and everyone knew it. He knew it. I braced for the jeers and taunting that years of childhood bullying taught me to expect.
But someone from the crowd shouted “Whoo!” and then someone else chimed in with “Yeah!” It was not sarcastic. It was the kind of passionate cheer I’d only ever heard from manic sports fans for their favorite team. That’s when I looked around.
Cowboys and grad students and punk rockers and ranchers and bikers and elderly gentlemen sitting alone in their high-waisted pants. These were the folks of Laramie, Wyoming. On this Saturday night, they could’ve chosen any of the twenty other bars in town. But they chose to be here, giving witness to grown men and women singing along to a melody.
We watched one brave soul after another pass through the stage. We heard karaoke staples like George Strait, Adele, Linkin Park, ABBA, Bon Jovi, Eagles, and Coldplay. But we also heard deep cuts and bizarre choices, like Kate Bush, The Alan Parsons Project, Liz Phair, and Tyler, the Creator. We heard wrong notes, wrong keys, wrong rhythms, wrong everythings. We heard the occasional superstar who made our jaws drop.
More than once, we were surprised by the gulf between what we expected and what we got; a formidable, heavyset man breaking out with Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” a bookish woman leaving everything on the floor with Outkast’s “Hey Ya!,” a shy emo-looking kid exploding with Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold.” Through it all, the crowd whooped and hollered and smiled and gestured for more.
Here’s another fact about Wyoming: It prides itself on a “live and let live” mentality. For the first time since moving to Laramie, I was seeing a glimpse of it. And I wanted in.
My go-to karaoke song is “Goodbye Earl” by The Dixie Chicks. It’s a hit in Austin, where pretty much everyone can agree that Earl is a good-for-nothing, abusive sonuvabitch who deserved to die, and that the Dixie Chicks are heroes of justice and truth. But I wasn’t sure how that would come across in Wyoming, where even my optometrist wore a gun during my eye exam.
Tequila helped. When they announced my name, I stepped on stage and apologetically warned the karaoke jockey that I wasn’t a good singer.
“That’s okay,” he said. He was wearing glasses and his bangs looked like they had been cut against a ruler. “It’s just about having a good time.”
If you’ve never heard “Goodbye Earl” before, its plot goes like this: Mary Anne and Wanda are the best of friends. Wanda ends up marrying this guy named Earl, who turns out to be extremely abusive—to the point of almost killing her. Mary Anne hears this and comes back to town, where she and Wanda hatch up a plan to kill Earl. Spoiler alert: They do and manage to cover it up. They live happy lives selling Tennessee ham and strawberry jam. The song ends with an outro taunting Earl and asking if it’s alright that they’ve stuffed him in the trunk. It’s glorious.
So yeah, I sang that song to a room full of Wyoming strangers. I was very aware of what it must have looked like: an Asian immigrant woman who was clearly making a statement with her “misandrist” song by an all-female group that publicly opposed former president George W. Bush. When you don’t look like anyone else in the room, you’re always on alert for someone to hold that against you. Even in Austin, a supposed “blue dot in a red state,” I heard “go back to where you came from!” more than enough times. In Wyoming, this unknowable, wild place, I expected half the crowd to pull out their hunting rifles at me for daring to exist at all.
But instead, the cowboys and grad students and punk rockers and ranchers and bikers and elderly gentlemen sitting alone in their high-waisted pants gave me the same response they gave everyone else: Cheers and applause.
And that was when I fell in love with The Duck.
Now, my friends and I go to The Duck when we’ve had long days of grading undergrad essays. We go to the Duck when we haven’t socialized with anyone for days because of the endless snow. We go when we feel like we deserve something great. We go to find and rid ourselves of something at the same time.
We go to find and rid ourselves of something at the same time.
We screamed “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes after the Kavanaugh hearing. We rejoiced with “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers after the 2018 midterm elections. Once, we listened to our friend sing a prog-rock version of “Video Games” by Lana Del Rey; the only thing better than hearing him do it was also hearing the respect and awe from the audience during his performance.
Look, I get it. By now, karaoke isn’t new or novel or life-changing. But before I moved to Laramie, I expected a stream of fear and hatred to permeate Wyoming and its attitude towards outsiders. Instead, what I found was unapologetic inclusion through karaoke. On Saturdays, The Duck transforms into a place, environment, and community that requests all your vulnerability and courage once you step through that door. It forces us to also let go of our fears about where we live and the people we are trying to be. On Saturdays at The Duck, we are all just trying to do “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler justice.
The Duck has its regulars. There’s the Great Googly Moogly, an intimidating dude who looks like he might be part of a biker gang. His go-to song is “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor, which he alters with interjections of “Great googly moogly, I will survive!” There’s Mosier, a country boy so tall that when he gets on stage, he has to crouch down to avoid hitting the ceiling. He has long brown curls and a sprinkle of ‘stache, and exclusively sings country songs. He should be famous, he’s that good.
There’s Kuma, a part-time bartender with gauges who croons out acoustic renditions of pop songs. Dave, who spends his entire week driving one of four Ubers in town, takes off early on Saturday so he can make it to karaoke. Darren the Younger, who looks like someone you’d find at a board game convention, only ever shouts Flogging Molly songs. Daryl, an older gentleman who looks like a Labrador, has one song in his pocket: “Brown-Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison.
There’s a seventy-year-old man who dresses in full cowboy regalia, complete with spurred boots and a black hat. All he has to do is walk up to the karaoke jockey to get his country ballad played, no queuing or waiting necessary. We consider him Laramie karaoke royalty.
Then, there are the passersby who stop in for one night only, like the rugby team from Cheyenne that ended the night with “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by The Righteous Brothers while hugging and telling each other how much they loved one another.
No matter who is singing or what they’re singing about, there is no shaming, no snide laughter, no booing from the people who agree to be at The Duck on Saturdays. There is just simple encouragement and happiness. If you get on stage and try, you’ve already won. It’s the closest we’ll come to being kings.
I don’t pretend that Laramie doesn’t have its problems, because it definitely does—especially when it comes to diversity. The University of Wyoming enrolls 13,500 students, a little less than half of the actual population of Laramie, with only 10% minority enrollment. That’s 1,350 students of color. If that’s just the university, you can imagine what the town looks like. Sameness pervades the ecosystem.
But occasionally, very occasionally, someone who is not the same will show up at The Duck. It could be as subtle as a lanky kid with cyan nails or as obvious as a person of color. You see it in the way they walk up to the stage, in the tight posture of their body, the gentle defiance on their face as they gaze out into the crowd. They know that they are electric for simply showing up in Laramie, Wyoming and, like me, daring to exist at all.
Some might argue that the “acceptance” that happens at The Duck is only surface level, that it is only a product of the unspoken etiquette of karaoke. I would be inclined to agree. But I also think that in Laramie, it takes a special breed of human to step on a stage and sing to strangers. It takes an even more special breed of humanity to cheer that person on. At the Ruffed-Up Duck, something happens when you see a dude with a long beard, boots, and barbed-wire tattoos singing Gloria Gaynor, or a person with a mental disability belting Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” or, hell, a Chinese immigrant head-banging to “Sugar We’re Going Down” by Fall Out Boy.
It might be the alcohol, sure. But it’s also the understanding that we all want to be more than what we are. We all want to be heroes (?forever and ever?), and for one brave four-minute stint, we can be. That’s what people are celebrating when they choose to go to The Duck. They are celebrating someone’s choice to be defying.
Not too long ago, we went to the Duck on a Saturday when the owners had booked a metal band instead. There would be no karaoke that night. As we sat glumly at the bar, one of the karaoke regulars, Great Googly Moogly, came in. He immediately deflated upon seeing the metal band setting up on stage.
Great Googly Moogly sat down alone at the bar and ordered a beer. I asked if there was any other karaoke in Laramie on Saturday.
“This is it,” he said morosely. “This is all there is.”
“What are you gonna do?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Just go home I guess.”
That was all any of us could do. Just go home. Hold our eagerness and wildness and audacity at bay until next Saturday, when we could once again transform ourselves into the best people in the world.