Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "When a Boom is a Bust."
Mike Smith has put in nine and a half years as pastor of Wamsutter Baptist Church, the town’s only surviving church (four others have closed in recent memory). He used to mine uranium in Jeffrey City, Wyo., until that industry busted and Jeffrey City disappeared. He gets a roof over his head for preaching — an aging, trailer-home preacherage that, like the church, backs up against Interstate 80 — but supports his family by doing janitorial work at night. At the church, Smith runs the Sunday worship service and various church groups for his small but determined congregation (about 45 people attend regularly), and he’s performed four weddings this year. "We need something to give us more sense of community here. A lot of the needs are family-related, a lot of dysfunction, but people need the Lord, that’s the bottom line," he says. "Any place has its difficulties, no one place more than another, just different kinds."
Verne and Emma Waldner are the leading landowners in Wamsutter. Emma came in 1952, when her father took a job with the Colorado Interstate Gas pipeline; Verne came to work for the Union Pacific Railroad in 1957. When the railroad no longer needed Wamsutter, Verne started buying property during busts, including the Conoco station, where he made money servicing oil-patch trucks. Now, the Waldners own about 100 acres, one-eighth of the land in town, on which about 70 rental trailers are located, including "man camps" for oil-patch workers. The Waldners raised four kids here; one, an engineer, now lives in a Denver suburb, Highlands Ranch. The hollyhocks blooming beside their modular home are descended from flowers that Emma’s father brought; when the company cut the pipeline jobs and pulled the workers’ houses, "someone rescued the flowers." Emma says, "They’ve been transplanted many times over the years," and grow all over town now.
Rob Asay "drives" rig #23 for Caza Drilling, on a gas-well site owned by multinational Questar Corp., in the desert outside Wamsutter. There are about 20 rigs drilling in the area, and it takes more than 400 roughnecks to keep them going 24 hours a day. The roughnecks work 12-hour shifts, seven days straight, then take seven days off, while fresh crews come in. During his work week, Asay lives in a "man camp" trailer his company provides in town; men bunk two to a bedroom, with satellite TV and a microwave. Like the others on the drilling crews, he leaves Wamsutter on his week off, in his case, to visit his wife and kids in Powell, Wyo. He’s been doing oil-patch work since 1989. It’s dangerous work — four men have been crushed to death on rigs this summer in Wyoming and northwest Colorado. But the pay is up to $30 per hour for experienced roughnecks, with guaranteed overtime on top of that. "Listening, feeling, smelling, gut feeling — you use all your senses" drilling two miles deep, through layers of different stone, Asay says. "There’s a lot of work around here. Looks like it’ll last, as long as Republicans stay in office anyhow."
The saloon owner
Rosemary Rowe runs Wamsutter’s only surviving bar. She bought the Desert Bar in 1980 and has weathered busts and cashed in on booms ever since. Some roughnecks come off the graveyard shift and buy shots of whiskey at 6 a.m. The decor is oil-patch chic, including bumper stickers behind the bar such as "Hungry? Out Of A Job? Eat An Environmentalist." Rowe used to keep the bar open all night four times each year. But last summer, itinerant railroad workers kicked in the door at 4 a.m. and started fights with the roughnecks; four were hauled off to the hospital, and the town cop was kicked in the head. So she canceled the all-nighters. In early August, she sponsored Wamsutter’s annual softball tournament, street dance and barbecue, attracting teams from as far away as Cheyenne; she gave free ribs-and-beans dinners to all comers. What does she like about Wamsutter? "Everything!"
Bill Hunter is the head cook at the Broadway Cafe, the only restaurant in Wamsutter that isn’t part of a gas station. The cafe is 11 tables wrapped around a fry grill, with squares missing in the linoleum floor, a hole in the front door where the doorknob should be, and energy-company decals as decoration. He and his wife bought the cafe a couple of years ago when the previous owner moved to New Mexico. Bill has crude jailhouse tattoos on his arms; he says he did five years in prison for dealing marijuana. Why is he missing some upper and lower front teeth? "My ex-wife clocked me in the face with a cast-iron skillet." His workdays run as long as 17 hours, and he says, "I don’t like Wamsutter, but I like my restaurant. This is where the money is."
Wamsutter has had seven police chiefs in 11 years, but one local lawman, Don Taylor, has been steady. Taylor is in his fifth year as the Sweetwater County sheriff's deputy based in Wamsutter, and before that, he was the police chief for six years. Anybody he arrests, he hauls 85 miles to the county jail in Green River. In one of his recent cases, he got into a scuffle with a 300-pound trucker who was allegedly high on methamphetamine. In the Wamsutter tradition, he juggles several jobs — he and his wife, Arlena, run the bare-bones Wamsutter Motel, where workers and I-80 travelers land. He hunts game in the desert, and enjoys seeing pronghorn graze beside the motel. "I’m a country boy," he says. "Here, you’re in town, but you’re in the country."
Joani Harris runs the Wamsutter library in a singlewide trailer. The trailer was donated by a gas company, BP America, in an effort led by a company administrator. The town provided the lot, Boy Scouts collected donated books, and eventually, the locals persuaded Sweetwater County to fund the part-time librarian. The library has a small stock of new books, books on tape, movies, even computer games and toys for kids. "This is the only thing in town for the kids, especially in winter," Harris says. She’s taught some kids to play Monopoly and blackjack and exposed them to tapes of Broadway shows. She’s also recruited about 10 adults for monthly book-discussion groups. "This is a man’s working town, not much here for women," she says. "This (library) is my sanity."
Bobbie Amos was born and raised in Wamsutter; her father worked for the railroad as far back as 1905. She moved away when she was 21, got an accounting degree, and roamed the West. She moved back four years ago to take an office job with an oil-patch service company, where she works about 70 hours per week. Bill Clinton’s autobiography sits on the coffee-table of her nicely tended doublewide, the first trailer she’s ever lived in; in the old days, the railroad provided wood-frame houses for its families. She says the oil and gas industry is a good living, "but it’s sure ruined the desert." She laments how Wamsutter has changed, too. "I’ve never seen a town turn into a trailer court so fast. ... Why doesn’t anyone haul their junk away? ... There’s not a lot of enthusiasm here ... it’s hard to get anything organized."