GILLETTE — To live in Wyoming is to face a fundamental existential question: Does the state exist? If not, what does that mean for those who live here?
Much like Shakespeare’s famous rhetorical “to be, or not to be,” residents of an assumed state may exist on an unconscious level. But does that assumption hold when applied to an entire state?
Wyoming residents reading a Wyoming newspaper, presumably within the rectangular allotment of land labeled on most maps as “Wyoming,” are likely to believe in their own existence. But for a growing subset of the internet — some of whom live in Wyoming, but mostly those who don’t — the idea that Wyoming doesn’t exist is gaining traction.
The r/Wyomingdoesntexist subreddit on the popular online forum Reddit has boomed over the past few years. Standing at about 24,000 members, it has almost twice as many as the subreddit dedicated to the actual state of Wyoming.
“The argument really is, have you ever met anybody from there?” said Wyoming native Dalen Brazelton, 21. “And it being so small, the answer is probably not.”
He is one of several moderators of the r/Wyomingdoesntexist subreddit who patrols the message board.
“I think that’s why it’s so prevalent in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s such a big state but such a small population that it’s really easy to imagine in a far off land there not being anybody there.”
One definition of Wyoming in the online Urban Dictionary says the Cowboy State is a fictional place and that people who try to drive north over the border will find themselves mysteriously transported to Canada, confused and sans clothing.
Theories get zanier the more they are explored. Some of the popular ones involve alien cover-ups, residual Cold War oneupmanship and general befuddlement at the absurdity of a state so big, with such a relatively small population, existing.
When Wyatt Brisbane, 21, was a high school student in Delaware — or as he calls it, “the other mostly forgotten state” — he and his friends had an epiphany.
“It started off completely away from Reddit,” said Brisbane, another r/Wyomingdoesntexist moderator. “We just had a running joke of, ‘Wyoming, it’s not real. Lowest in population, last in the alphabet, lowest of all the lists ... it’s not real, it’s all a big conspiracy.’ ”
After high school, he discovered he was not alone in his thinking. In a moment that supports the possibility of a collective unconscious, he learned that there were others all around the world who came to the same conclusion.
“It was just our own little inside joke and then it just kind of blew up,” he said. “I found this whole other community of people who have independently gotten there as well.”
There are many possibilities as to why those who are drawn to conspiracy theories buy into them. Sometimes a conspiracy provides an answer or some sense of closure for something that is unanswerable or unresolved. In Wyoming’s case, it comes from a natural sense of mystery about the state because of how little so many people know about it, Brazelton said.
“When people are thinking of Wyoming from an outside perspective, it is the most stereotypical answers that you [can] think,” he said, drawing on his years of experience entertaining theories about the state. “Some people still think that we go to school riding horses and they’re being dead serious. Very empty, very deserty. Lots of cows, which, yeah, given that’s true. But it’s just a very stereotypical, almost Wild West feel from people that are out of state looking at the conspiracy stuff.”