At times along the road from the mines into Gillette, Wyoming, you can spot grazing buffalo, their heavy blunt heads dipped to the purple sage, ignoring the 80 m.p.h. barreling of rush-hour pickups. It's that Wyoming time warp again: the past and the future, both incongruous in the hopelessly undiscriminating and democratic light of the present.
Gillette at night: the motel lady replies to a request for directions downtown with a scowl.
"You don't want to go there."
"Why, what's down there?"
"Nothing. Nothing at all you'd be interested in."
In the Center Bar, about a dozen taciturn workers and cowboys and two longhaired Indians are lined up on stools, impassively watching reruns of Earnie Shavers pounding on Ken Norton. On the jukebox in the background, Waylon Jennings explains how being crazy kept him from going insane. The lady bartender does double duty, pouring drinks and operating a package service out of a side window with a sliding panel of wood. Most of the faces framed when she opens the window seem young, bare and happy-drunk. It's Friday night. Their radios are loud.
The bar lady turns back to the bar to talk about working through the epic, minus 85 degree wind-chill nights and days of the winter just past.
"Oh, and of course we had a lot of snow," she says. "The coal mines and the oil rigs they just go on in any weather. They go right on working with whoever shows up, shorthanded. But back in January when it got at its worst, nobody came to work at all. So the oil people used helicopters. First time I ever saw that happen. They flew the boys out from Gillette in helicopters and then flew them back, just like over in Vietnam."
The jukebox stops playing and the talking lady's voice rings through the bar. A cowboy elaborately disengages himself from his bar stool and goes over to feed the jukebox money.
"Not much of a crowd," the bar lady says. "They're pullin' a lot of the rigs out of here."
"That's right. A lot of 'em are already gone. They're down in Wamsutter and Rawlins and over in South Dakota now."
"Do they come back?"
"Oh, sure, they'll be back up here in the fall." She laughs dryly.
"Oil people come and go?"
"Well, right now the boom's starting to fade in oil, so they're lookin' someplace else. But the coal, that's gettin' better and better. They've got three new mines goin' up right now, big ones. You aim to find work?"
"You won't have no trouble finding it around here."
A two-mile-long unit train runs on a new spur down an embankment. On the other side of the road, a dozen mule deer browse in the gentle wooded breaks. Down the road there's an ancient log-fenced homestead. The topsoil of the open pit mine has been dumped on both sides of the road into giant eroded mounds. A new freeway is being built next to the old road, along which the litter of cans and bottles is as dense as you'd find at Coney Island.
Saturday night in Gillette. The main drag's full of fair-haired kids, fat women and guys in webbed baseball hats. The back end of a magazine and souvenir store turns out to be a weapons depot. Big glass cases full of Smith & Wesson .357 Magnums, Ruger .44s, Colt .45s -- some of the biggest handguns in the movies.
Saturday afternoon at the Center Bar is watching two Indian girls beat the dickens out of two wildcatters in a game of nine-ball.
Billboard along southbound Interstate 25 near Douglas, Wyoming: photo by Xnatedawgx, 2008
East Hart Street as seen from Interstate 25 looking west, Buffalo, Wyoming: photo by Xnatedawgx, 2008