NINETY PERCENT OF WYOMING is open to oil, gas, and mineral exploration, and the 10 million square acres of the Red Desert in the southwestern portion of the state are mostly no exception. It’s a high cold desert, its terrain varying from granitic mountains to sand dunes but primarily consisting of a sagebrush steppe watered by springs and runoff. First crossed by Euro-Americans in 1812, it’s now traversed by Interstate 80, one of the most heavily trafficked roads in the federal system. Despite that, the Red Desert remains America’s least studied or publicized arid region. This book aims to change that state of affairs, and at 412 pages and four pounds it succeeds admirably.
Annie Proulx published in 1999 what might be the finest contemporary short story collection about a state, Close Range: Wyoming Stories. Red Desert, which she edited, contains ten short essays by her that remind us she started out as a journalist and hasn’t lost her touch. She writes about the ranching and railroad histories of the desert, its forts and wild horses, and the building of its roads from the Lincoln Highway in 1912 to I-80 in the 1960s. Essays by fourteen other contributors cover rocks, insects, animals, plants, water, rock art, and resource extraction, among other diverse topics.
Proulx worked in the Red Desert for five years in order to compile what she admits may be a requiem. The photographer Martin Stupich reports that it took him seven years and eight thousand miles to document the land and our effects upon it in order to offer us the eighty-six color plates that front the book. His images make clear from the outset that this is not a wilderness area. Despite the handsome rock formations and long vistas, it’s a ground crossed and recrossed and crossed again by roads both dirt and paved, pipelines, high tension transmission lines, and the long straight tracks left behind by mining companies as they explored for gas and oil forty years ago. Along the lines fall the ruins of ranch houses, stagecoach stations, abandoned trailers, and drilling operations.
The drive to extract more domestic fossil fuels from this terrain, which seems inevitable, will increase the wreckage, but because Red Desert is as complete a picture of a region as you could ask for, it also celebrates its sublimely conjoined natural and cultural histories, some of which will endure. We should all be so lucky as to have a team as wise and talented and passionate as Proulx and Stupich to memorialize our own territories.