I'm always searching for omens, like any fool. As we left Missoula, Mont., in 1995 for Campbell County, Wyo., and as our moving van came into the orbit of Gillette, I fiddled with the radio dial and happened onto the Tennessee coon hunter, Jimmy Martin, singing the Bill Monroe chestnut, "The Old Crossroads." The chorus goes like this:
old crossroads now is waiting/ Which one are you going to take/ One
road leads to destruction/ The other up to the pearly gates."
This was music from home, music I'd never found
on the radio outside the Appalachians, where I was raised in a
coal-mining family, where Grandpap Smith said he had dodged bullets
to sprawl himself before trucks loaded with scab coal back in the
It was the best of omens: We were moving
to the austere expanses of the High Plains; we were moving to coal
country; we were moving to a place where great hillbilly gospel
music came in over the radio.
Just a week
before, Lisa had been hired to teach German in the Campbell County
School District. And now we were leaving our small house at the
base of Missoula's Mount Jumbo. We were leaving "the Paris of the
West," a national newspaper story called it.
were leaving because we wanted to live in the Intermountain West
and not in France. Missoula was losing some of its hippie funk;
rents had nearly tripled just in my three years there. We were both
working full time and more at minimum-wage jobs. In Campbell
County, where the living was surely cheaper, Lisa would teach and I
would work part time and write.
landscapes reminded Lisa of her childhood home in eastern Montana,
and I was going back to coal country and my hillbilly origins and
such songs as "Nine Pound Hammer" and "Sixteen Tons." I grew up
singing those songs, and I looked forward to again being around
those people. They had to be there. In 1989, the Black Thunder mine
in Campbell County broke the world record for monthly
coal-production. It displaced as record holder the #7 mine in
southern Ohio, where my father and grandfather had
First stop, Mustang
The first week in Gillette we parked
ourselves in the Mustang Motel, under the I-90 overpass. While Lisa
was at school getting oriented, I sat in a vinyl chair outside our
room, reading Chris Offutt, with the boom box blasting out Dwight
Yoakam, and watching the miles and miles of coal cars pass through
the switching yards across the way. I was giddy with our great good
fortune. Not even our motel's Saudi proprietor, who informed me
that the last person who'd stayed there while apartment-hunting had
died before he managed to find an affordable place, could dim my
"His dog died, too,"
Mbark said over my disbelieving laughter.
Lisa and I went looking. Rents were as high as in Missoula, but the
apartments here were drab, with stinking shag carpets, uninsulated
exterior walls, windows that rattled in the wind, and woodstoves,
even though there wasn't a tree anywhere except on people's
We finally found a basement place on
Rockpile Boulevard in downtown Gillette, in what had been an
auto-repair garage. We emerged from this cave into the blaring
August light, the streets screaming with Muscle Wagons,
multicolored flames painted back onto the hood.
Ah, ha, you say: boomtown rednecks, big boys and their toys. That's
the Gillette you read about, in the late 1970s, when the town's
population doubled, tripled and quadrupled, as it struggled to
accommodate an oil, a coal and even a (stillborn, as it turned out)
The spouse abuse, the people
living in tents in 35 degrees-below-zero winters and violent crime
got the city a complex named for it: "The Gillette Syndrome."
Researchers, shrinks and journalists were
Twenty years later, they would
scarcely recognize the place, except maybe for our neighborhood. As
soon as we left downtown, we found strip malls and office buildings
done up in that industrial-institutional architecture of the 1970s
and 1980s: low-slung, flat-roofed, ungainly brick rectangles. Then
there were the housing developments: "Antelope Hills," "Sleepy
Hollow" and "Indian Hills' with green lawns, minivans and centrally
located soccer fields.
In 25 years, it seemed,
Gillette had gone from cowtown to boomtown to working-class
suburban, interchangeable with the rest of America, and bearing
absolutely no relationship to the High Plains of Wyoming. On the
other hand, it has wonderful recreational facilities, and for a
mid-size city, a fine public library.
first weekend, we found a flyer for a Saturday morning Farmer's
Market. We had visions of fresh produce and tips on how to garden.
Instead, at the Rockpile Community Center that Saturday morning we
found only a rummage sale. When we asked where we might find the
Farmer's Market a woman grinned and told us: "It was a busy one
today. There was a guy here at 7 a.m. He had a few dozen eggs and
he sold them and left. That's the Gillette Farmer's Market."
We soon discovered that people drive two hours
or more to shop in Rapid City, or Billings or Sheridan. But who
cares about shopping? I loved what I saw outside of Gillette: the
softly rolling sagebrush grasslands set about with buttes and
pinnacles and pronghorn antelope. I read everything I could find
about the High Plains, and then I tried to get onto the land. On a
map the county includes numerous large tracts labeled "Thunder
Basin National Grassland."
they're all leased to coal companies and closed to the public. I
learned that any extended walking would require an 80-mile
round-trip from Gillette.
During that winter,
thanks to the Casper Star-Tribune, I came to know something of
Wyoming. The letters-to-the-editor page showed that the Wyoming
character is irascible, conservative and opinionated. I disagreed
with much of what I read but relished the letters. They were like
nothing I heard in Gillette; they expressed the genius of a
sparsely populated state.
There was lots of
crankiness expressed toward the federal government, and toward the
values Lisa and I hold. But there was also intrastate crankiness.
Some of it was aimed at Jackson Hole, because it is liberal and
tony. I understood that.
But then there was the
crankiness aimed at Gillette, which is 75 percent Republican and
anything but foo foo. Was it envy of Gillette's high standard of
living, its recreation centers? I didn't think so. Late that winter
the Campbell County (really Gillette) girls' high school basketball
team won its third consecutive state championship and was ranked
nationally in several polls. No one outside of the town showed any
Here are some scores from that
season: Gillette, 110, Tongue River, 33. Gillette, 94,
Newcastle,42. Gillette, 96, Sheridan, 26.
Gillette girls had shown no mercy, which may be the native genius
in Gillette. That got me thinking about corporate culture. In place
of community and cooperation, corporate culture would uphold a
winner-take-all competition. Thanks to its large (for Wyoming)
population of 30,000 and its ability to hire top coaches, Campbell
County High School routinely collects state championships in just
about every sport, and the scores are nearly always unforgivably
The dominance comes at a price. The
high school has long been overcrowded, and for years administrators
refused to build another. They were frank about why: Heedless of
the educational benefits such a split would bring, they feared
losing the school's edge in sports. Recently they've agreed to open
another school - but only with the proviso that the two schools
reunite after school each day to combine forces for athletics. So
much for everybody getting a chance to play.
Outpost of corporate America
If Gillette is a colony of corporate America, it is largely the
work of Mike Enzi, a shoe salesman who took over as mayor in the
boom years. Enzi got the city a long-lasting water supply; he saw
to the construction of recreation centers and medical facilities
and Cam-plex, the multipurpose civic center. And he got federal and
state money to subsidize development. He did it all with help from
the mining companies.
After several years, he
was elected to the state legislature, and in his years in Cheyenne
he authored numerous bills that let the mining companies do less
and less for Campbell County and the state of Wyoming. He
consistently opposed raising their severance tax, and sponsored an
"industry self-audit" bill which allows mines to monitor their own
compliance with federal environmental regulations. It's no secret
that the bill, which handily passed, was written by coal
Last fall, he was elected to take Al
Simpson's seat in the U.S. Senate. Whatever you think of Simpson's
politics, his character was piss-and-vinegar Wyoming-true. Enzi's
are American corporate, and the mining companies recognized his
colors, and contributed enough to his campaign to make it the most
expensive political race ever waged in Wyoming.
Enzi won out over Kathy Karpan, a tough and principled Democrat who
had served as Gov. Mike Sullivan's Secretary of State.
Interestingly, President Bill Clinton recently appointed Karpan to
direct the national Office of Surface Mining, which has oversight
of the mines in Enzi's backyard. This could be a competition worth
It may have been unintended, but
Enzi's development of Gillette swept away whatever had been
authentic about the city. Old Gillette has been tamed not by the
sheriff or the Women's Christian Temperance Union but by the suits
from ARCO and Kerr-McGee and Kennecott. The town seems to look down
on anything local. If it's going to have a restaurant, it will be a
"Gillette is a
good place to be from," a barkeep in Sheridan told me last March.
"A good place to be away from." He didn't grin. The son of miners,
he'd grown up in Gillette and then left five years ago to study
English at Sheridan College. He rarely drives the 100 miles to
Gillette. His folks, he says, "would rather come here."
When I ask people why they stay, they say,
"It's a safe place to raise kids." That may explain why there are
virtually no single people, few childless couples and hardly any
elderly. Yet despite all the families, family values do not do well
here. The old Gillette Syndrome has passed, but rates of alcoholism
and depression and spouse abuse remain high. The per capita divorce
rate is the third highest in the country. My informal, unscientific
survey shows that one out of three people are planning to move "as
soon as the kids finish high school."
I spent most of that first summer away from Gillette, visiting
friends and family. Since we didn't have kids to finish high
school, when we returned the following August, we moved to Wright,
the 1,200-person town 40 miles south of Gillette, where Lisa had
been teaching at the other Campbell County high
Twenty years ago, Wright was part of a
bison ranch at the intersection of Wyoming 59 and 387. ARCO bought
the square-mile section in 1976 and developed it as a planned
community, so that miners at its Black Thunder mine wouldn't have
to drive 90 miles roundtrip from Gillette.
Wright works hard to distance itself from Gillette, even avoiding
mentioning the larger city by name while it touts Wright's
proximity to the airport, and medical and entertainment facilities
available in Gillette. Wright has a sense of itself and its place
on the High Plains that seems to be missing in Gillette: Local
ranchers serve on the school board and chamber of commerce and seem
well-integrated into the community.
Nevertheless, we're leaving Campbell County this July. We're
leaving some good people and a beautiful landscape, and
decent-paying and reliable work in a place that's always been short
of that. We're leaving because we wanted a home, a place rooted in
a landscape. I'm not about to bemoan the windfall that the mines
have brought. Only what that windfall has cost - a sense of
The coal companies enjoy an almost royal
hegemony here, unchallenged by unions, by the subservient and
almost groveling state legislature, and by environmentalists,
except for the small and vigilant Powder River Basin Council.
Also, I discovered that "The Old Crossroads'
tune I heard that night wasn't coming from a Campbell County
station but from an all-night show out of Salt Lake City. It was
aimed at over-the-road truck-drivers - a tribe made up mainly of
people from Appalachia.
So much for
recently wrote about evangelical Christians preaching a "green
Gospel" in High Country News, April