Days 157-158/ Aug 10th-11th – Rawlins, WY to Red Desert, WY: The worst place in America

We left Rawlins at dawn through a silent caravan park, the low sun glinting off the sides of RVs that cost more than most of the houses in the town.  The sign outside the petrol station beside the interstate read ‘Next Services 38 Miles’, reminding us that at last we’d reached a part of America where it was impossible to walk between towns in a single day; to cross central Wyoming, we would have to find people willing to drive us, for love or money, to a motel from our finishing point each day and back again the next morning.

I-80 in the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming

Sometimes it's best not to look too far ahead when walking across Wyoming

The drivers we found had several things in common: they were all women, they all had relentlessly hard lives, and they all had no qualms about discussing them with strangers.  Laverne, who drove us in and out of Rawlins, established the relentlessly confessional pattern that the rest followed.

“I gaved up my first baby for an adoption – it’s an open adoption, where I can call him and talk to him.  My sister did the same thing, but hers was a closed one.  She’s still mad at me about it.”

Her problems hadn’t ended there.

“The guy I was gettin’ ready to marry, instead of payin’ the rent and the bills, he bailed his brother outta jail, and then his brother stood us up for the money.”

Her brother had moved her from Casper back to Rawlins and bought her a house to live in, but the following year he, her sister and her mother had all died of cancer.  Laverne now lived with her son and his girlfriend.

“He made me a grandma already.  Lemme tell you, I was not quite ready to be a grandma at the age of forty.”

The landscape of central Wyoming was as tough as the lives of its inhabitants, a vast, dry steppe of sagebrush and tiny cacti, studded with gas tanks and scattered with nervous families of antelope.  Even the names of the places along our route – Red Desert, Point of Rocks, Bitter Creek – were dispiriting.  The few faint ranch-tracks that ran across it had a habit of petering out in remote patches of desert, so we chose to walk instead along the shoulder of the interstate, where platoons of grizzled bikers passed by us on the way to their annual rally in Sturgis.  All of America was compressed into its narrow width as it passed over these bleak plains; cars from Wisconsin, Florida and California, all sharing the tiny ribbon of asphalt, and trucks from Texas, Indiana and Iowa carrying their miscellaneous cargo – oil, thousands of potatoes, a bulldozer, cable spools – along it and across the country.

A few miles out of Rawlins, we crossed the Continental Divide, the great watershed that separates the rivers that flow into the Pacific from those that reach the Atlantic and the Gulf.  It runs along a line of peaks from Alaska and down the Americas to Patagonia, but here in Wyoming, uniquely, it splits in two, forming the Great Divide Basin, a dry bowl of desert scrub from which the few feeble rivers that drain into it cannot escape.  We looked down into it from its eastern lip and saw I-80 curling away twenty miles to the horizon, and knew how they must feel.

Continental Divide on I-80 in Wyoming

Crossing the Continental Divide #1 of 2 in Wyoming

We exchanged friendly waves with a highway patrolman sitting in a speed-trap beside the interstate, but a few miles later, as we walked along a dirt service road, we had a more alarming encounter.  Two police cars drove up at speed and crunched to a halt thirty yards behind us.  Two officers leapt out and walked towards us with purpose, their hands on their holsters.

“Could ya come over here, guys?” one of them shouted.  “Where are you headed?”

We told them.

“Oh.  Oh, OK.  You’re not who we’re looking for.  Sorry.  Someone called you guys in.”  They were hunting for one of a trio of convicts who had recently escaped from prison in Arizona, who was known to be in Wyoming with his girlfriend.  From the vantage point of passing cars on the interstate, Sally and I had fitted the bill.

It was blowing a gale as we came into Wamsutter – but then it was always blowing a gale in central Wyoming.  It was a grim little town, the last outpost of civilization for seventy miles, built around a cluster of trailers, each with tyres on top of their corrugated metal roofs to stop them being torn off by the wind, huddled between a BP gas plant on the plain and two competing petrol stations by the interstate.  Every road had been torn up for repair, and the cars and trucks going under I-80 to the little travel plaza on the other side sent thick clouds of stone dust billowing across town.  Wamsutter had the feel of a place that could be packed up and moved somewhere else within half-an-hour if the need arose.

Biker in Wamsutter, Wyoming

Wamsutter: Serving drivers on I-80 who have no other choice

But it was also enjoying something of a boom, its only diner packed with gas workers in red jumpsuits, glued to TMZ on the television.

“This is the largest natural gas deposit in the United States,” explained Suzie, our motel owner.  “It wasn’t for BP, probably nobody’d be working, so I got no complaints about ‘em.  We’ve got two brand new ambulances, a new firetruck, and a day-care centre from them, so we have no right to complain.”

For seven miles either side of town, I-80 was reduced to a single, crawling lane of traffic, while platoons of workmen swarmed over highway bridges bristling with new reinforcing rods.

“We only got two seasons in Wyoming,” said Suzie, “winter and construction.”

Her life rivalled Laverne’s for toughness: she had lived for many years with her husband in Red Desert, a God-forsaken speck of a town some ten miles west that made Wamsutter look like Palm Springs.

“He worked at a uranium mine, then a coal mine.  We had six kids, and no water, sewer or electricity.  Ten months, we got electricity; we had an outhouse, carried water.  Not somethin’ I wanna do again.”

Cement-yard and dust-storm in Wyoming

Wamsutter: Possibly the dustiest place in America

We were scoured by blowing dust from a cement factory on the edge of town as we left Wamsutter.  Central Wyoming is, ironically, the only part of the state with no wind-farms, and we suspected that the oil and gas companies in the region had made sure of that.  At Red Desert, two young lads in a road maintenance truck, both with goatees and wraparound shades, pulled over to chat while we waited for Suzie to pick us up.  We asked them where they were from.


“Oh.  That seems like a nice town.”  Our reflexively polite comment of choice.

“It sucks.”

“How come?”

“Nothin’ ta do.”

“Is Rock Springs any better?”

“A little.”

“When does it stop being so windy?”

“It doesn’t.”

Sally resting under interstate exit

This is what 25 miles across the Great Divide Basin looks like

We came back into town in a full-blown dust-storm, which obscured the horizon and sent the construction workers running for the shelter of their truck cabs.

“We say that Wamsutter’s the only place in the world you can stand in a mud-hole and get dirt in your face,” Suzie said.  She looked out at the town again.  “Y’know, if ya didn’t have the wind, it wouldn’t be bad at all.”

Driver carries no cash sign on truck in Wyoming

Truckers love the old gags


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