"You want to go where? There's nothing out there, you know." That's what my friends from the Midwest said about Wyoming 15 years ago, when I bolted the crowds and moved West. To mark that occasion, I recently spent the anniversary of my escape in a vast desert that even Wyomingites forsake for mountains and forests and streams, places where there is, well, something.
I rose that morning at the crack of dawn and headed west toward the Big Empty. Look at a map of Wyoming. See that spot so apparently devoid of human influence they place the state seal over it? Now head south, below the heavily trafficked interstate, south of the clamorous energy fields and gravel-dust roads.
Welcome to Adobe Town, the location of Wyoming's newest proposed wilderness in the southern Red Desert of Sweetwater County.
Unlike my native suburbia, this is a town that geology built. Its stony spires and promontories have oriented travelers during 12,000 years of human habitation in the region. In 1869, when the government's Geological Exploration of the 40th Parallel crossed the continent, the group fancied it saw remnants of a vanished civilization in window rocks and stone facades. Most likely, they gave Adobe Town its name. It's an inhospitable place, and today, the 180,910 acre-tract is unmarked by human hands - unless you count the fingers of roads and well pads that have crept into more than half of this stunning and ecologically sensitive area. If energy developers have their way, bulldozers and drilling rigs are ready to claim an even greater portion of the area.
I knew a move was afoot by conservationists to urge wilderness protection for Adobe Town, but so far only a smaller wilderness study area has been designated by the Bureau of Land Management. I wasn't sure how I'd explain this desire for protection to folks who want our nation to develop more domestic energy sources. After all, it takes at least an hour of rough driving from the nearest paved road to reach Adobe Town. If the energy developers want a piece of land that few people ever visit, why not let them have it?
I put that question to Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist whose organization, the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, is working with the BLM and Wyoming's congressional representatives. His group's goal is wilderness designation by Congress, because that's the only option that would permanently protect this landscape that combines spectacular geological formations and abundant desert wildlife.
Opening up Adobe Town for development, Molvar said, would likely transform it into just another industrial wasteland, where the scars of drilling and bulldozers carve up the landscape into a maze of roads and pipelines that could take centuries to heal. And if the wilderness study area is protected but the rest of Adobe Town is left open to further industrial use, then people visiting lofty overlooks atop the spectacular thousand-foot height of the Skull Creek Rim could be looking out across a landscape defaced by intensive oil and gas drilling.
I took a break from my quest for nothing and sat chewing a cheese sandwich with wilted lettuce under the hot desert sun not far from a dry streambed, which later that day would swell with raging water from an afternoon thundershower. I remembered the wild mustangs I'd seen flicking flies from their companions with their tails, and the two antelope racing back and forth in the desert, apparently for the sheer heck of it. I listened to the profound silence that made the wind chime through the rocks like a handbell choir and wondered how anyone could find "nothing" in the sunset behind Adobe Town Rim.
I drove out along a high ridge overlooking the vast rose-and-green striped badlands, which formed a kiln where surely the West's rainbows are born. I idly clicked on the car radio and was startled to scan in more stations than I could find in Laramie. That's when I realized the truth of Wallace Stegner's statement that wilderness lands are "islands in a tamed continent." Once we lose those islands, we'll never get them back. Then we really will be left with nothing.