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Know the West

Inside Wyoming’s rough, tough underground

Boom and bust cycles shape the fates of Wyoming’s young people.


Fans mosh during a hometown album release party for The-Front, a punk rock band, in Casper, Wyoming.
Ryan Dorgan

We meet wild man Freddy Martinez, an acid-tripping biker, at the start of J.J. Anselmi’s new book, Heavy: A Memoir of Wyoming, BMX, Drugs, and Heavy Fucking Music. But he’s dead by the third page, setting a bleak tone for Anselmi’s story of growing up in and eventually leaving a small high-desert mining town: Rock Springs, Wyoming.

“I had my first encounter with suicide when I was nine, and my dad’s best friend, Freddy Martinez, shot himself with a twelve-gauge shotgun,” Anselmi writes.

Martinez would work the nearby oilfields for eight or nine months at a time and then quit to blow his money on partying and travel until he was broke. Anselmi paints his life and death as products of the nauseating boom-and-bust cycle in which Rock Springs and its residents have always been trapped.

Another of Anselmi’s father’s close friends, Joey Hay, “looked like Dennis Hopper’s character in Easy Rider.” Hay led a turbulent life and shot himself, too.

“In the center of my brain, as well as my dad’s, Freddy’s, and Joey’s, I imagine that there’s a crumbling diorama of Rock Springs,” Anselmi writes. “Cracks slither across roads and sidewalks, and paint peels off decrepit houses. Dust, tumbleweeds, and bits of human detritus, blown by wind, flit through town. Rust and dirt cover the Rock Springs Coal arch.”

Suicide — Wyoming’s rate is perennially among the highest in the nation — is just one among myriad confounding elements that Anselmi faces in Rock Springs. In eighth grade, deliberately rebelling against his father’s stoner habits, he chooses a drug-free “straightedge” lifestyle and embraces atheism, heavy metal music and bone-breaking BMX riding. In his late teens, though, Anselmi covers his skin with tattoos and joins his wayward peers in bingeing on alcohol, weed and LSD. Much of the book takes place in dingy bedrooms and basements, interspersed with forays into Rock Springs history: Anselmi’s own grandfather, for example, who was investigated by 60 Minutes for mob ties; the 1885 Rock Springs massacre, in which white railroad workers murdered 28 Chinese immigrants; the periodic appearance of sinkholes when abandoned mine shafts beneath Rock Springs yawn open like pits to hell.

In a way, Heavy seems like a sequel to another recollection of life in the underbelly of a small Wyoming town, Karol Griffin’s memoir Skin Deep: Tattoos, the Disappearing West, Very Bad Men, and My Deep Love for Them All. Griffin inked her first customer as a tattoo artist in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1990, before Anselmi was in kindergarten. She was old enough to have been his mother, and their books read like a two-part saga in which the reader witnesses how both trauma and resilience are passed from one generation of Wyoming misfits to the next.

Griffin has more fun and makes a much better rebel, engaging in wild romances with dangerous men and considering herself an heiress to the Western outlaw tradition. Her friends and lovers carry guns, wear leather jackets, do jail stints, and are equally adept on a Harley or a horse. Griffin meets her first true love, Rick, as he receives a tattoo from her boss; it says “Mr. No Credit,” a reference to Rick’s cash-only drug business.

Griffin never loses her romantic view of the West, while Anselmi’s vision remains unflinchingly dystopic. Each new coffee shop and subdivision seems like an encroachment on the land and lifestyle Griffin loves. But, she writes, “I stay (in Wyoming) because I know the outer limits of the hardness of this place, and because it’s more beautiful in its severity than easier places I’ve seen.” Unlike Anselmi, however, who never found a reason to stay, Griffin came from an easier place herself — a nurturing, stable, middle-class home. Her book ends with a paean to Western optimism, which she believes stems from “the connection between people and an unforgiving landscape, half hope and half faith about what people can survive. …” But Griffin’s own story ended much too soon:  She died in 2010 at the age of 47 from liver failure, leaving behind an adolescent son, whose father, last we knew from Skin Deep, was in prison. Anselmi, meanwhile, went on to earn a graduate degree and currently teaches at a community college in Minnesota.

Griffin’s memoir begins with a clinical description of how to give a tattoo — the physiology involved, the equipment, the technique. Heavy ends in an actual clinic, where Anselmi has his tattoos removed by excision, a process that leaves grotesque scars. For both authors, their tattoos are tied to a sense of place. “Each one reminded me of who I was and where I was from,” Anselmi writes. “In Wyoming, my tattoos were badass. In Austin and Denver, they made me feel like a white trash jerk.” As he deconstructs his desperate search for identity — concluding that it was being an outsider in Rock Springs that prompted him to get tattooed — Anselmi suggests Wyoming brought out the worst in him.

This is an uncomfortable conclusion to an uncomfortable book, particularly for people who might bristle at its damning portrait of Rock Springs. But Anselmi’s story is valuable for that very reason. Wyoming is struggling to retain its bright, creative young people. Heavy makes it painfully clear why so many of them leave.

Heavy: A Memoir of Wyoming, BMX, Drugs, and Heavy Fucking Music
J.J. Anselmi

327 pages, softcover: $15.95.

Rare Bird Books, 2016. 

Skin Deep: Tattoos, the Disappearing West, Very Bad Men, and My Deep Love for Them All
Karol Griffin

304 pages, hardcover

Harcourt, 2003 (out of print)