The Red Desert's boundaries have never been fixed; ask five people where they are, and you'll get five different answers. But it's generally agreed that the desert's heart is where the Continental Divide splits and rejoins, creating a basin whose waters never escape to a sea. A few hardy aspens grow in the crooks of low mountains, where snow tends to linger, but otherwise the land is treeless. The soils are streaked white with the alkali and salts that render the little creeks that go nowhere bitter and undrinkable.
"Sage-brush, eternal sage-brush," wrote Robert Louis Stevenson when he traveled by train through the desert in 1879. "Over all the same weariful and gloomy colouring, grays warming into browns, grays darkening towards black; and for sole sign of life, here and there a few fleeing antelopes … Except for the air, which was light and stimulating, there was not one good circumstance in that God-forsaken land."
Despite Stevenson's impressions then and those of most interstate travelers now, the desert is not all barrenness. You just have to get off the highway, preferably with someone who knows where he is going, and then the emptiness gives way to folded badlands and basins; thigh-high hills crawling with ants bearing sand grains like tiny Incan slaves; hidden springs, sometimes soapy and sometimes salty and sometimes, improbably, filled with frogs; badger holes and ferruginous hawk nests more than a meter across, clinging to cliff sides; fossilized tortoise shells littering dry washes like broken purple pottery.
Conservationists have tried and failed to protect this place for more than a century, starting in 1898, when a Lander hunter proposed the Red Desert as a winter game preserve. The dream now is a national conservation area, a level of protection that would preclude drilling. But that would require congressional action, and there is little momentum for such a bill in a state where exporting energy is considered a patriotic act.
There have been a few victories, however. Five years ago, Wyoming environmentalists rallied behind the Red Desert and got national attention. Just over a year ago, the state designated 180,000 acres of Adobe Town -- a place where a high wide plateau south of Interstate 80 breaks away into a jumble of mudstone hoodoos that huddle together somewhat humanly, like awkward cocktail partygoers -- as "Very Rare and Uncommon." The designation protects Adobe Town from the mining of various minerals, but does nothing to limit oil and gas drilling. Now, many conservationists are directing their limited resources toward staving off drilling in the picturesque Wyoming Range, south of Jackson Hole.
This is how we often value places: Beauty and unspoiltness are what make them worth protecting. But that approach frustrates Proulx. She calls it calendar-minded.
"There is an air of unreality about many efforts to protect the Red Desert, perhaps because (conservationists') reasons for wanting to save the area seem to be largely based on beauty, solace of the wild and exquisite ephemeral qualities," she says.