The desert that breaks Annie Proulx's heart

by Emma Brown

Annie Proulx does not love the Red Desert in southern Wyoming. That's what she says, anyway, though she's spent the last six years writing and editing a nonfiction book about the place.

"I think it's dangerous to love the desert," says the writer, who is known for telling brutal stories about rough, out-on-the-edge places and the people who live in them. "Because it's a heartbreaker to see what's happening to it. You know -- to watch its destruction."

We are sitting at a narrow table in her living room, two coffee cups on saucers between us, Wyoming sun bending through a wall of windows that look out on the North Platte River and a limestone cliff that captures each day's shifting light. Proulx breathes, taps her fingertips, and leans back.

The Red Desert, which lies just west of her home, is a 6 million-acre swath of federal, state and private land generally left off lists of the state's scenic highlights. To most people, it's just the Big Empty that flanks Interstate 80 for a hundred miles or so between Rawlins and Rock Springs -- a sagebrush ocean where the wind blows hard enough in winter to overturn semi trucks. From the road, it appears poorly named. There is little red to be seen, especially during the long hours of Wyoming's midday, when the sun flattens everything from here to the horizon into shades of brown and gray-green.

In recent years, a fever for oil and gas drilling has gripped the region. Roughly 5,000 wells have been drilled here, according to conservationists, but in the last four years, the Bureau of Land Management has approved or begun the approval process for 15,000 more. Where once there was wide quiet space and herds of cows and sheep and antelope and elk, now there are three-story drilling rigs and squat well pads, half-dug pipeline ditches snaking off to the horizon, invasive weeds, truck traffic, dust plumes.

There may be no better place than this one -- stark, little-known and shaped by a long human history of work and habitation -- in which to reconsider what makes a particular piece of land worth saving. And there may be no more fitting writer to do that reconsidering than the fierce and unsentimental outsider, Annie Proulx.

Proulx, 73, writes about rural people and places with spare language and severe grace. She started her career late, publishing her first book of stories at 56 and almost immediately winning literature's biggest honors, including the PEN/Faulkner Award (for her first novel, Postcards) and the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize (for her second, The Shipping News).

She did not go looking for the Red Desert. She came to know it largely by accident, and not even her own accident. In the mid-1990s, a vacationing Boston photographer named Martin Stupich bicycled up Green Mountain on the desert's eastern fringe. On the way down, drunk on altitude, fatigue and wide spaces, he hit a boulder field at full speed, went flying and broke his femur.

After doctors repaired his leg, Stupich convalesced on the couch of a friend who told him stories about the desert: its rainbow-colored badlands and screaming silence; its bands of wild horses; its century-old emigrant trails, scraped tracks still visible through the sage. He left Boston, moved to Wyoming, started carrying his camera into the desert and -- because Wyoming is the kind of thinly populated, conservative state where artists and writers tend to find each other -- made Proulx's acquaintance through a mutual friend. Over lunch one day in 2002, he asked whether she would be willing to write a preface for a book of his desert images.

She thought it would take two weeks, maybe three, to do this favor for her friend -- read some of what had been written about the Red Desert, and cobble together some introductory prose. 

But when she examined the University of Wyoming's library, she found nothing. Further searching through the university's collection of rare books and manuscripts turned up only two records: an 1898 survey of forage plants and a photograph taken 51 years later of a locomotive buried in snow. The largest unfenced region left in the Lower 48 had managed, somehow, to dodge historians and ecologists and nearly every other sort of storyteller. The mystery of it was delicious, and what had begun as a favor became an honest fascination.

The Red Desert has never been a mystery, however, to petroleum geologists, who have long known there is recoverable natural gas here. Now, thanks to a boom fueled by the climbing cost of energy and the Bush administration's permissive policies, the place was changing fast. What was being lost? Nobody really knew. A preface would hardly suffice.

This is the story Proulx tells -- that writing about a third of Red Desert: History of a Place, a new 400-page biography of the region, was a task inspired by curiosity rather than love. That the end result, including Stupich's photographs and contributions from a dozen Wyoming scholars on the desert's history, geology, hydrology, plants, animals and insects, is more an elegy than a plea for conservation.

"My whole life and everything I do," she says, "is motivated by curiosity -- finding out who was here, what they did, what this means, why the snow drifts in the lee of sagebrush in leg-o'-mutton-sleeve shapes, why the skies are the way they are, which animals come to the flowing springs, that sort of thing."

She speaks measuredly, enunciating every syllable. "I find it intensely interesting," she says of the desert: int-er-est-ing. "But, no," she says. "I don't love it."

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.

The desert, after all, has always been a peopled place, "strategically located so that railroad, emigrant, telegraph, sheep and cow had to cross or inconveniently skirt the area," writes Proulx in her chapter on the area's military forts. "It is dotted and crisscrossed with pipelines, power lines, stone cairns, thousands of miles of rough roads, new roads constantly added, transmission towers, stock tanks, airstrips, the remains of horse traps and juniper corrals, and the ruins of old stage stations and ranches."

Even the desert's arroyos were built in part by people -- by successful fur trappers. Creeks, once kept narrow and watered by beavers' sediment-trapping dams, now flood when it rains, cutting the steep-sided gullies we take for granted as characteristic of the landscape.

By framing the desert in its history, Proulx puts aside the notion that the desert should be maintained as it is because it has always been this way, or because there is virtue in its seeming virginity, or because it is a church. It is worth attention because we hardly know what is here. Entomologist Jeffrey Lockwood spent a mere 36 hours sampling insects in the field for his contribution to Red Desert, which makes him the world's leading expert on the region's arthropods. He estimates there are 5,000 species, dozens of which have never been described.

One late October day, I head toward Adobe Town with Erik Molvar, a hiking-guidebook-author-turned-environmentalist whose group, the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, is the loudest anti-development voice in the desert. On the way, we cross a cattle guard that caught the hoof of a wild horse last year; the bleached skeleton is still there, its hoof wedged in the metal bars, its skull smiling eerily several feet away. "Have you ever noticed," he asks, "that most of Marty's photographs have signs of people in them?"

It's true. Martin Stupich's 50-some photographs make up the first third of Red Desert, and perhaps only a quarter of them are the sort that might grace a calendar -- the sharp-angled tumble of the Ferris Mountains, a sweep of clouds in a wild sky, the unkempt manes of feral horses.

The rest are less about untrammeledness than the ways in which people have confronted this difficult landscape while trying to make a living, starting with an image of handprints worn into sandstone by early hunter-gatherers. The name of a gold-seeking emigrant, Milo J. Ayers, was carved into a rock along the California-Oregon-Mormon Trail in 1849. There is a photo of a day-glo-colored cooling pond at the Jim Bridger Power Plant in the central desert; an aerial view of the coal mine that feeds that plant; another aerial of long straight lines etched into the earth by the heavy trucks used for seismic oil exploration.

Molvar finds that choice to embrace industry curious. He is putting together his own Red Desert book, a coffee-table enterprise that will include his own images and those of several other landscape photographers. "There won't be any signs of human impact," he explains. "It'll be more celebrating the beauty of the place."

The argument Stupich's photographs begin to make, and that Proulx and the others continue in writing, is a radical departure from Molvar's coffee-table book, from most books that argue for a landscape's protection. It is the difference, perhaps, between studying a place and imagining it.

Hanging on Proulx's wall is a photograph taken by Stupich that serves as a reminder of their first trip together into the Red Desert.

In it, their friend and colleague, blue-eyed archaeologist Dudley Gardner, grimaces as he aims a gun at an antelope crumpled on the ground. It had been hit, Proulx believes, by one of the speeding gas company trucks that passed them earlier that day, and it was still struggling.

"We tried calling 911 and the sheriff and the Game and Fish office and so forth, and because we were in a dead spot we couldn't reach anybody," she says. "What else were we going to do, just leave it there, dying, slowly? And the heat was terrible."

In the same way that Stupich refuses to photograph Red-Desert-the-unpeopled-fiction, Proulx refuses to write about Wyoming-the-dream -- Yellowstone geysers, the Tetons at sunset, rugged cowboys riding the range. That people should be so caught up in prettiness and myth is a kind of ignorance, and it maddens her; she traffics in Wyoming-the-reality -- "full of poor, hardworking transients," as she writes in her second of three volumes of Wyoming short stories. "Tough as nails and restless, going where the dollars grew.

Proulx moved to Wyoming from Vermont in 1994 and right away went about challenging the notion that you can't know the West -- or write about it -- unless you were born and raised here. Close Range: Wyoming Stories, the collection that includes "Brokeback Mountain," came out in 1999 to acclaim from critics who invariably used words like "gritty" and "hardscrabble" and "flinty" to describe Proulx's characters -- people as trapped in the terrible dramas of their small lives as in the boom-bust cycles endemic to rural places in general and Wyoming in particular.

She lives alone six miles from Saratoga, a ranch town flanked by hay fields and blessed with a view to the east of the Snowy Range. The road to town becomes impassable in snow, she says, so she spends winter months in warmer places -- this year, Albuquerque. She moved here two years ago from Centennial, 40 miles to the southeast -- a nice town, she says. But she had to belong to a homeowners' association there, and that was an unsustainable arrangement. This is a woman who admitted 15 years ago in an interview to "throwing a knife at (and thank God missing) someone I thought I hated."

"I'm not a good person for rules and regulations on how I live," she says, walking slowly, hands in pockets, toward the North Platte, which flows through her property. 

Proulx wears a simple white linen shirt and no makeup and keeps her salt-and-pepper hair cropped short. She is still getting to know this new home, all 640 acres of it, and keeps a pair of binoculars close at hand. She is always looking up at the sky. "Ospreys you are not very likely to see on this stretch of river, because we have two sets of eagles," she says. "Each raptor seems to have a territory that's respected by the others."

This is what her stories are built on -- research and close observation of place. "Landscape is the driving force for everything that I write," she says. "It was for the Red Desert book and it is for all of the fiction. Place comes first -- what is this place, what makes it this way, what is the geology, what is the prevailing climate, what's the weather like, how do people make a living, what grows here, what animals are here. All of this stuff I do first, and then the stories just are there because the place dictates what happens."

Red Desert, which went on sale in December, comes on the heels of Fine Just The Way It Is, Proulx's final book, she says, of Wyoming stories, published in September. The title is taken from a typically clipped declarative used by a rancher in the book to describe Wyomingites' aversion to change. The stories are set largely in and around the Red Desert, and their darkness and stripped-down characters grow out of the country's harshness and history. In one story, Hi Alcorn, a failed Red Desert farmer desperate for work during the Great Depression, goes to work for a man named Fenk, catching wild horses in the desert, driving them to a railhead in Wamsutter, selling them off for chicken feed. The job sickens Hi:

"Fenk had a dozen tricks to slow chicken horses down on the drive to the railroad. He would catch a horse, make a slit in a nostril, run a length of rawhide through and tie it closed, reducing the animal's oxygen intake. Or he would tie two horses together, or tie one to a broke saddle horse. A few got a big metal nut tied into their forelocks, the constant hit of the sharp-corner nut causing enough pain to slow them down. The ones who moved too quickly with front hobbles got side hobbles. And obstreperous horses that continued to fight to get free despite everything he gutshot."

Every detail is true, Proulx says, gleaned from the memoirs and journals of people who made their living this way.

In the story, Hi quits in disgust and goes to work in the coal mines. He misses, however, "riding up on ridges and mesas to spy out bands of wild horses, plodding through the sand dunes, seeing burrowing owls in a prairie dog town.  …" He joins Fenk for a last horse-trapping drive and suffers a kick from a rearing buckskin that busts his leg.

Joking and laughing all the way home, he assures his wife he's fine and will be back for dinner after a visit to the hospital. But by the time Fenk gets him to the doctor, Hi's not laughing anymore: A blood clot has killed him.

"Life," Proulx says, elbow resting on the table, her chin tucked into its crook, "is not really happy for most people. There are fleeting moments and ecstatic times, but by and large life is not a joyride. There are lots of problems, lots of difficulties to be solved, especially for rural people."

In 1973, Proulx had passed her comprehensive exams at Montreal's Sir George Williams University, now Concordia, and was well on the way to earning a doctorate in history when she dropped out in favor of a life in rural Vermont. There, she raised three sons (she has married and divorced three times) mostly on earnings from freelance writing, including how-to books like The Fine Art of Salad Gardening and Making the Best Apple Cider.

In those years, Proulx, a lifelong, voracious reader, wrote fiction when she could, publishing a story or two a year in magazines like Gray's Sporting Journal and Esquire. "I did it in snatched moments, working on a paragraph while sitting in the dentist's waiting room, stuff like that," she said in a 1993 interview with The Independent. When one of Proulx's magazine editors took a new job in book publishing, he encouraged her to write a collection of stories and helped secure a contract. The result, Heart Songs and Other Stories, published in 1988, earned critical praise and marked the start of Proulx's life as a full-time fiction writer.

But she never lost her academic undergirding and her interest in the intersection between ecology, economy and history; even now, asked to name writers she admires, she plucks a decidedly scholarly volume from the thousands of books in her home library.

"This is a hugely important book," she says of History and Ecology: Studies of the Grassland, by James Malin, a Kansas historian. "It's badly written -- he wasn't a writer -- but the information in it and the outlook is first-rate." Malin believed a region's human history was largely determined by the environment, and so he wrote as much about rocks, insects, fire, weather, animals and plants as he did about people. "An ecological approach to history -- I'd have to say that's my approach, too."

She's working on what she calls "a little book about this place," her home -- "a mix of history, bird and animal observations, soil and water, rare plants, archaeology, fence problems, the rigors of house construction, things that went right and others that did not, conservation efforts -- something between a memoir and a close examination of place."

But she's not part of what she calls the Annie Dillard school of writing. (Dillard is the author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and other lyrical, eco-spiritual books.) "I don't see nature as a healing force," she says. "I'm probably more objective than that."

It is an unromantic way of interpreting the world and is, perhaps, what has allowed Proulx to live alone for years in far-off spots without succumbing to solitude. "Women generally spend most of their lives in other people's company," she says. "First, you're a child with your parents and siblings, and then you're married with children of your own. Eventually, in some cases, that all goes away, and then you're either free to do something or you're lonely. And I'm not lonely."

That toughness is a hallmark. So is a certain clear-eyed honesty, says prominent Western historian Patty Limerick, a friend of Proulx's. Limerick's husband died four years ago. "When you are widowed," she tells me, "people are in varying degrees of comfort in your company because you represent everything that people don't want to be thinking about. She would be on my short list of people you want to be with in that situation. Sometimes you find yourself trying to be reassuring to the people you're with. With her, you are just an afflicted human being, but also a human being who's moving on."

It's a sort of generosity -- that unvarnished, unsentimental version of things. The same generosity, perhaps, that permits Proulx to find value in and anticipate heartbreak for a place she doesn't love.

Days after talking with her, I drove through black night past a lit-up drill rig a few miles south of Wamsutter, a center of Red Desert drilling. Countless other rigs were strung like Christmas lights along the horizon, and then, through my car window, a different and sudden sort of light: the green trail of a shooting star.

My eyes fixed there, on the glowing blackness left by a far-off burned-out meteorite. And then I looked back at the rig, heard the generator's hum.

Proulx won't plead for conservation, but her documentation of the Red Desert is one long and quiet argument for recognizing what is here, the whole bruised entirety of it. The desert is a place complicated by history -- at once ruined and beautiful, worth defending from change and yet always changing.

When the gas is gone, there will be wind. Companies are already planning turbine farms in the desert -- which will kill birds and bats, which will need roads, which will give southern Wyoming a sudden space-age skyline. This is how it's always been in the Red Desert: one industry after another, booming and then busting, leaving behind its scars and artifacts.

"It's not going to be saved. It's not possible to save it," Proulx says, matter-of-factly. "This is Wyoming; it's an energy state. The best we can hope for is that part of it not be given over to oil and gas extraction. We'll see how that one goes," she says. "I'm not holding my breath."  

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