The beauty of the ugly West

  • Moon over tire ruts in the Dobe Desert outside Paonia

    Paul Larmer

The other evening, I drove out to the unofficial shooting range in the hills outside of town. It consists of a metal shack and a dusty flat area glinting with bullet shells, where locals fire away at a remarkable variety of appliances, plastic chairs and other refuse. Hardly any vegetation covers the denuded hills, save a scattering of sagebrush and exotic weeds. It’s a pretty ugly place.

But the sun was sinking and the light was doing spectacular things to the hills and the clouds above them when I drove up. There was not another living soul around. In the gathering quiet, I heard the soft call of a Townsend’s solitaire and the distant drone of a small plane heading for the Paonia airstrip. Over the hills a giant moon rose. As I chased the fading sunlight with my camera, I couldn’t imagine a more lovely setting.

The arid, inland West is filled with places that, like the shooting range, are beautiful and ugly at the same time. Wamsutter, Wyo., the subject of this issue’s cover story by Ray Ring, is one of them.

Located on Interstate 80 in the middle of the bleak and spectacular Red Desert, the town has survived for a century on the back of one boom after another. The latest is fueled by natural gas, but although industry is pumping out millions of dollars worth of energy, the town remains as impoverished as ever. The reason? The oil and gas industry and the state of Wyoming have rigged the system so that the wealth goes to corporate headquarters elsewhere, and to state and county coffers in the form of taxes and impact fees. Towns like Wamsutter have to beg for a few cents.

And so, as Ring reports, the town has "no grocery store, no bank, no newspaper, no high school, no doctor, not even a veterinarian." This is a tough pill to swallow for the locals who would like to see Wamsutter become something more than a warehouse and barracks for industry. But it is a sobering reminder that community and environment are still afterthoughts to industrial profits in our region. This is also true for the "New West" industries of outdoor recreation and second-home real estate in the most beautiful parts of the West. But it is most starkly evident in the gas fields of aesthetically challenged places like Wamsutter.

Wamsutter will never be the kind of quaint and beautiful town that tourists flock to visit. But with a little more investment from industry and the state, it could be more than it is today. It could have homes with real foundations, a meaningful recreation program for kids and workers, and a way to preserve what’s left of the town’s rich history. It could have a future beyond the next, inevitable bust.

If we write off the Wamsutters of the world, we accede to the debilitating notion that the West is simply an industrial colony. If we don’t, we build the foundations for lasting communities that honor and celebrate their own rough beauty.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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