Category Archives: The Old West

Into the Big Empty: Wyoming’s Red Desert goes live on YouTube

Journey into Wyoming’s Red Desert, a little known wilderness the size of Denali National Park that brings the steppes of Mongolia to America’s backyard. Here, energy companies vie for the desert’s riches in a world of 50,000 pronghorn, herds of wild horses and some of the most unforgiving landscapes of the West. Come learn of this place and the struggles to protect it as you travel Into the Big Empty.


Author of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ pens book on Red Desert

The Red Desert earns some well-deserved attention in the new 412 page book Red Desert: History of a Place, written  by Annie Proulx, author of such notable works as The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain. The desert and Annie Proulx are featured in last month’s issue of High Country News.

I have to say that I’m thrilled there is a sizable article out there about the Red Desert. The article is beautifully written and accompanied by some of the photographs from the book, taken by Martin Stupich. While the attention to the desert is nice, Proulx seems to be coming from the perspective that the desert is a curious place, raw, unknown, not particularly beautiful and perhaps a wilderness already lost.

Take this excerpt from the HCN article:

“This is the story that Proulx tells — that writing about a third of Red Desert: History of a Place,…, was a task inspired by curiosity rather than love. That the end result, including Stupich’s photographs and contributions from a dozen Wyoming scholars on the desert’s history, geology, hydrology, plants, animals and insects, is more an elegy than a plea for conservation.”

It’s true what she says about the desert being a hard place to love. It is more awe-inspiring than anything else, partly just to think of the overwhelming amount of creatures that have adapted to live out there, including people. It’s a place you go and immediately feel vulnerable.

Proulx’s position about the desert is interesting. She almost revels in the harshness of this place and the perpetual presence of man, then docks the environmentalists for trying to paint a picture of the desert as a “calendar” destination.

“There is an air of unreality about many efforts to protect the Red Desert, perhaps because (conservationists’) reasons for wanting to save the area seem to be largely based on beauty, solace of the wild and exquisite ephemeral qualities.” (HCN, April 13, 2009)

I can see the merit of her argument, that to portray the desert as beautiful and devoid of human presence would be deceptive, but so is the other extreme. (Maybe she is trying reverse psychology to get people to care about this place.) But I do think the answer is more in the middle.

One of the biggest flaws I think the U.S. has when it comes to land management  is this separating of man from the concept of nature or wilderness. Folks from the BLM will tell you that if a place has been changed by man, it can no longer be considered for wilderness designation. This immediately puts managers in an “it’s either us or the nature” mindset, instead of figuring ways to better integrate our existence so that it doesn’t take over the environment.

The Red Desert is a land that hangs on to any change that happens to it, especially the man-made variety. (You can still see wagon ruts from people crossing the Oregon Trail.) I imagine this thinking could be part of why the environmentalists in the desert want to show all the beautiful and unspoiled areas.

In Proulx’s mind, it sounds like the desert is already gone.

‘”It’s not going to be saved. It’s not possible to save it,” Proulx says, matter-of-factly. “This is Wyoming; it’s an energy state. The best we can hope for is that part of it not be given over to oil and gas extraction. We’ll see how that one goes,” she says. “I’m  not holding my breath.”‘(HCN, April 13, 2009)

Overall, it’s exciting that a place hard to love is getting some airtime and being portrayed as undeniably magnetic, even if it’s not always pretty to look at. But it can be beautiful, just as it is harsh and flawed and undeniably marked by man. And unlike Proulx, I don’t think it’s too late for the desert. It’s just hard to think that way when no one knows it exists.


The wild horses of Desert Dust

Two wild horses kick up a frenzy in the crisp morning light. The Red Desert is home to thousands of mustangs, an iconic and often controversial symbol of the Old West. Mustangs have increasingly been in the spotlight because of their potential impact on habitat and the debate over how to manage their population. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

Two wild horses kick up a frenzy in the crisp morning light. The Red Desert is home to thousands of mustangs, an iconic and often controversial symbol of the Old West. Mustangs have increasingly been in the spotlight because of their potential impact on habitat and the debate over how to manage their population. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

The ghost of a handsome palomino stallion races across the ridges of Wyoming’s Red Desert. For back in his home, he his king. He is Desert Dust, perhaps the most famous wild horse of the West.

Desert Dust’s story is one of legend perfect for the movies. In the late thirties and early forties, the palomino proved too elusive for commercial horse wranglers rounding up mustangs in the Red Desert for market, until 1945 when Frank Robbins of Glenrock, Wyo., helped catch him.

On that day, another man, Verne Wood, took a photo of the wild horse standing defiant against a backdrop of red rock. That photo circled the world and came to epitomize the character of the American mustang.

Desert Dust was spared the fate of the slaughter house, so often destined for other captured horses. He went on to become a famous rodeo horse, drawing crowds to tiny towns, only to die a legendary death when a passerby shot then mutilated the horse while he was grazing in a pasture.

The story of Desert Dust helped inspire the movement that led to the passage of the Wild Horse Protection Act of 1959 and later the Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.

Today the largest herd of wild horses in Wyoming roams the Red Desert with more than a thousand mustangs in Adobe Town alone. Virtually from corner to corner in the Red Desert visitors stand a good chance of seeing the flash of mane and whip of tail signifying a mustang.

A painted mustang catches a sliver of sunshine along the plateau near the Red Desert's Adobe Town area, Monday, March 24, 2008, and serves as the subject of a simple portrait of an animal at home in its environment. The Bureau of Land Management estimates there are about 5,000 wild horses in Wyoming, many of which live in the Red Desert.

A painted mustang catches a sliver of sunshine along the plateau near the Red Desert's Adobe Town area, Monday, March 24, 2008, and serves as the subject of a simple portrait of an animal at home in its environment. The Bureau of Land Management estimates there are about 5,000 wild horses in Wyoming, many of which live in the Red Desert.

All romanticism and glory aside, the horse still lives with a hoof in two worlds as debate rages over whether the animal should be considered native or introduced. See the recent National Geographic article, Mustangs: Spirit of the Shrinking West, for  a thorough look at how the BLM is trying to manage wild horse numbers and the arguments for or against protecting the mustang.

They are often either a symbol of freedom or menace. In the Red Desert especially, the horses are the big animals on campus, and those who view them as introduced see the mustang as an aggressive competitor of resources with native wildlife like pronghorn antelope. Their hooves batter the ground and teeth rip roots from the soil. And the BLM spends tens of millions of dollars to keep the horses alive when they cannot survive by the whims of nature alone. (See Ted Williams’ article, Sacred Cows, Audubon Magazine, 03/2006)

Management efforts of the horses right now are very similar to the days of Desert Dust’s capture. The BLM uses helicopters and wranglers to corral wild horses, though they’re destination is adoption rather than slaughter. But especially now, with a poor economy and rising costs of feed, owners are growing harder to find.

At least for now the wild horse still has a home in the Red Desert, and as my heart battles with my head on where I stand with the mustang, I’m certainly glad I got to see them running free across the desert.

A herd of wild horses appear like a real-life depiction of a cave painting in the Red Desert's Jack Morrow Hills, Monday, Nov. 17, 2008. The desert is home to thousand of wild horses, an iconic symbol of the West. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

A herd of wild horses appear like a real-life depiction of a cave painting in the Red Desert's Jack Morrow Hills, Monday, Nov. 17, 2008. The desert is home to thousand of wild horses, an iconic symbol of the West. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)


Getting lost in Adobe Town

Hoodoos and labyrinthine canyons typify the Adobe Town landscape in Wyoming's Red Desert. The BLM designated 80,000 acres of Adobe Town a Wilderness Study Area, and a Citizens' Proposed Wilderness seeks to more than double the protected area's size. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

Hoodoos and labyrinthine canyons typify the Adobe Town landscape in Wyoming's Red Desert. The BLM designated 80,000 acres of Adobe Town a Wilderness Study Area, and a Citizens' Proposed Wilderness seeks to more than double the amount of protected area. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

The canyon walls curve and twist into narrowing darkness. Natural archways appear and disappear with a slight shift of your point of view. In an instant towering forests of hoodoos give way to pockets of open space paved with the remnants of old river beds.

There are no trails here. Just the metamorphosing mountains and sun guide your way. Southeastern Red Desert’s Adobe Town is the perfect place to disappear, something that could come in handy if you’re a train robber from the 19th century.

Legend has it that Butch Cassidy and his band of ruffians hid horses in Adobe Town, where they would escape into a maze of hoodoos, hiding out until the dust settled from their latest heist. Go there today and you probably won’t come across bandits, but you can step into the wild solitude of the Old West, exploring caves and tunnels, watching herds of antelope and mustang, and finding birds of prey nesting in the rocks.

To learn more about this unique landscape and some of the efforts to protect it, watch the following video by the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.


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