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Sunday, 28 March 2010

Wyo-Booming, 1979 (II)



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."

"Oil people?"

"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?"

"Could be."

"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


Elmo St. Rose said...

the west
is still
the best
raw bar

just because
oil workers
make more
money than poets

doesn't mean
that poets
shouldn't drive
west into
the sunset
on that cheap

TC said...


Ed and I made this survey of the energy country at just about this time of year -- end of March, '79. It was a real eye opener. No, I should say it was a real earth-opener. You'll recall the price of gas had hiked up and the search for every kind of carbon was on, full force. Wildcatters showing up in hard hats driving pickup trucks, coming in from Florida and Alaska and Virginia and you name it, picking up work in the uranium and coal and coal slurry and every other kind of pit and open face mine and field.

A lot of those sites are nothing but empty holes snow. The U-town of Jeffrey City, where we had some interesting times, hanging out with polyurethane salesmen living in their pickup trucks with the backs wrapped in tarpaulins, all their worldly stuff inside -- the place had turned into a ghost town by '82, nobody wanted to dig for uranium any more because there was cheap gas again. So Wyoming was perhaps dug into and gouged-out somewhat less in the years thereafter.

But I must say that even during the worst transgressions of extraction, the place seemed to have a disdain for the coarse surgery of the extractors, as if to say, dig me up, pipe me out, stack me with tailings a mile high, go right ahead and in the end I will still be Wyoming and you will still be infinitely small specks of nothing moving around as insects upon my tattered hide, here today, tomorrow gone like tailings dust on the wind.

Curtis Roberts said...

I'm still absorbing all the parts of the poem and will be for a while. I shared it with a friend of mine who lived in Wyoming (near Laramie) for a long time, but a few years after the period you're writing about. Her description of Jeffrey City matched yours exactly. I've never been to a real ghost town, but she assured me that's what it was.

leigh tuplin said...

Tom, I really like how your very last stanza se(a)ms as a metaphor for Wyoming itself. A filmic realism to this for me.

TC said...

Curtis, Leigh, thanks very much.

Yes, this post was intended to project a bit of that "filmic realism" as narrative frame or context for the "essays" or "comments" (as Ed Dorn termed them) that comprise the poetic bits in the post above.

Curtis, it's interesting to hear that word of confirmation re. my remarks from your friend. There suddenly drifts before the mind the title of the great Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart movie (speaking of filmic realism), 1955 or so, The Man from Laramie. It would always be good to hear from a man from Laramie but to hear from a Woman from Laramie, even better somehow.

I think the whole complicated and rather brutal story of the West might well have been a great deal different, had women been acting and directing it, by the way.

But then again, in the last week of March, 1979 the only women we encountered in Jeffrey City -- and there were indeed very few of them -- were pretty tough cookies. So perhaps I have spoken too soon.

Curtis Roberts said...

Actually, my friend from Laramie was born a man and now lives as a woman, so the Man From Laramie/Woman From Laramie dynamic is....dynamic. I'm sorry we never were able to visit her in Wyoming. The stories I've heard, the pictures I've seen (and the poems I've read) make me want to go there.

TC said...


Wal I never! (as Jimmy Stewart might have said).

About your Wyoming visit, from my experience I'd probably advise waiting until the weather turns a bit more conducive. There's something about a fifty mile an hour wind caressing a snow fence early in the morning in the Rattlesnake Range that makes one want to dive for cover... and the nearest available cover is nothing more capacious than the inside of a cow skull.