GILLETTE, Wyo. — To live in Wyoming is to face a fundamental existential question: Does the state exist and 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?
Can we be, but still not be Wyomingites?
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. And to that point, they would probably be right, the Gillette News Record reports.
But for a growing subset of the internet — comprised of some who 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? And it being so small, the answer is probably not," said Wyoming native Dalen Brazelton, 21.
He is one of several moderators of the r/Wyomingdoesntexist subreddit, who basically patrol the message board and make sure users are following the rules.
"I think that's why it's so prevalent in the U.S. is that 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," he said.
The argument almost becomes metaphysical. There are people who argue strongly for and against the existence of higher powers or religious certainty, but whether or not those beliefs are true, when the argument is broken down to pure reason and language, there are holes to be poked.
Those who conspire about the Cowboy State not existing are the hole-pokers.
Have you ever been to Wyoming?
Do you know anyone from Wyoming?
Then it must not exist.
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.
The glory of the theory is that it can't be disproved, Brazelton said. There are many Wyomingites or rhetoricians who would argue against the claim, and many "Wyoming doesn't exist" truthers who would gladly take up the debate.
The theories get zanier the more they are explored. Some of the popular ones involve the likes of alien cover-ups, residual Cold War one-upmanship and general befuddlement at the absurdity of a state so big, with such a relatively small population, existing.
"This is the only thing that Wyomingites have," Brazelton said. "We're not super prevalent in the media for anything else. This is our thing. I know a lot of people from Wyoming are super interested in this idea because it's finally our chance to be in the spotlight, but I also think it's just fun for people to be part of a quote-unquote 'conspiracy theory' that doesn't harm anybody."
Throes of conspiracy
When Wyatt Brisbane, 21, was a high school student growing up 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.
"When I was in high school, me and my friends, we just had a running joke of, 'Wyoming, it's not real," he said. "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 that 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 into I found this whole other community of people who have independently gotten there as well," Brisbane said.
There are many possibilities as to why those who are drawn to conspiracy theories buy into them.
In an internet era where misinformation can be easily manufactured and spread, new conspiracy theories from innocuous topics such as Wyoming and the JFK assassination to more serious dot-connecting about Jeffrey Epstein's fate and the possibility of voter fraud have become fairly common.
Sometimes, a conspiracy may be constructed to provide an answer or some sense of closure for something that is unanswerable or unresolved. The Wyoming doesn't exist theory is much less serious than that.
In the case of Wyoming, there is simply a natural sense of mystery about the state because of how little is known about it from people who live in the other 49 states and beyond, 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," he said. "But it's just a very stereotypical, almost Wild West feel from people that are out of state looking at the conspiracy stuff."
Douglas Reitinger is a professor of English and Humanities at Sheridan College who has lived in Wyoming off and on for about 30 years.
"To me, personally, philosophically, it exists in the same way everything exists or doesn't exist," he said. "There are some postmodern philosophers who would say it's all a construct, so there is that line of thinking."
There are stereotypes and preconceived notions of the West that still persist in parts of the world. Overall, Wyoming does not pop up in the national consciousness very often, Reitinger said. When it does, antiquated and inaccurate ideas of the Wild West are not unheard of.
"They hold in their mind a sort of mythical quality of what Wyoming is," Reitinger said. "So maybe that's what it's making a joke of too."
Brazelton said most of the people who join the Reddit community and share ideas about what's really going on in the alleged state of Wyoming are in on the joke.
Still, there are some who sincerely believe the state does not exist.
"It's usually people from the East Coast or Europe and they're thoroughly convinced," he said. "I can kind of understand with people from Europe because they haven't been here, so they're not entirely sure, but we will get people who vehemently deny its existence for real."
The birth of Wyoming denial
Oddly enough, the theory that Wyoming does not exist may have originated with a 1980s television cartoon.
In an episode of "Garfield and Friends" that aired in 1989, the titular cartoon cat explains to an audience that the square on the map labeled "Wyoming" does not denote a real place, but rather expresses an Italian word for "no state here."
Wyoming is not an Italian word and Garfield did not help map the United States. Nonetheless, the movement either began or gained national exposure at that time, when it implanted into the passive minds of kids watching television who grew up to be adults who ponder the reality of state borders on the internet.
Eventually, the idea that Wyoming does not exist took on the shape of a similar conspiracy regarding a small German town named Bielefeld.
The Bielefeld conspiracy may sound familiar: Have you ever been to Bielefeld? Do you know anyone from Bielefeld? Then it does not exist.
"That one is a lot less serious," Brazelton said. "Everyone is in on the joke. Germany is, like, the size of Wyoming, so it's a lot smaller than the U.S. So, I feel like everybody in Germany is like, it's an inside joke almost, whereas Wyoming not existing has become this global thing."
In addition to moderating the subreddit, Brazelton also has made a short film on the topic of Wyoming not existing, which is on YouTube. He said people from Germany have reached out to him over the shared connection between the Wyoming and Bielefeld conspiracies.
"Germans don't take the Bielefeld one too seriously," he said. "I've actually had people from Germany messaging me after they watch my video or they check out the subreddit."
The subreddit formed in 2016, but it wasn't until 2018 that its popularity took off. After a couple of years of growing among the "meme community," the theory spread more widely when it was discovered by another, more popular subreddit and shared across the internet. The combination of the online word of mouth and his video serving as an introductory course to the theory helped it proliferate, Brazelton and Brisbane said.
"Within about a week of that video coming out, the subreddit exploded to about a couple thousand people and now, four years later, we're at almost 24,000 people," Brazelton said.
The idea even reached the Wyoming state Legislature, when a Wisconsin high school student decided to test the theory by asking the state's 60 legislators via email whether their state — and presumably the people who elected them — exists.
Rep. Sara Burlingame, D-Cheyenne, hit him with discourse on Plato and the Great Chain of Being, positing in a response email that if existence cannot be proven for anyone, then not only may the state not exist, but he and his snarky homework assignment may not exist either, as reported by Cowboy State Daily earlier this year.
But does it exist?
The fact that more than 20,000 people are part of an online community that claims the state he grew up in is an illusion does not come as a complete surprise to Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell.
"Nothing on the internet would surprise me, I don't think," Bell said after learning about the theory. "It would not surprise me that there are 20,000 people on a site that (think) Wyoming doesn't exist."
Between the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn, it has been a difficult year for the Cowboy State. Like the rest of the country and most of the world, the state faces a lot of uncertainty ahead.
"Obviously, we're in a challenging time, no question," Bell said. "But interestingly enough, it seems like more people want to live in Wyoming from other places, maybe because of our values and what we believe and we seem like we're living in a freer place than other places."
Bell said that he has been hearing from Realtors that despite the pandemic and economic uncertainty, more people are moving to Wyoming.
"Apparently more people are finding out that it does exist and are wanting to come here," he said.
With heels dug in the ground, both sides of the debate over whether Wyoming exists remain firm.
Regardless of where one stands on the divide, it is becoming an idea more and more people are at least exploring, if not adopting.
So, does Wyoming exist?
"It's kind of a contentious topic," Brazelton said, on behalf of the Wyoming doesn't exist community. "There's a lot of theories as to what's actually going on there.
"We're pretty convinced that at the moment, no, but we're looking into it."