Saturday, October 5, 2013

Creeped Out in the Red Desert

A SchoolsChurch bus (#79) at an abandoned home south of Wamsutter, in the Red Desert.
(Click images to view larger)

Abandoned places in Wyoming rarely creep me out.  I've visited a lot of them.  But an empty house  in the Red Desert combined enough creepy elements to be featured in the kind of movie that I never watch--the ones where doors lurch open revealing menacing John Boehner-like figures, skin taught and orange, driven mad by the wind or the Tea Party. 

Not far from Wamsutter, in the tiny town named Red Desert, a man was once found long-dead in his ramshackle house, the subject of a dark installation at the UW Art Museum several years ago.  In a darkened room of the museum, you peered into the house through dirty windows and heard his old radio, broadcasting from the past. Crickets chirped.  Boo!

Ed Sherline and I were on our way home from a weekend of photographing classically pretty landscapes deep in the Red Desert between Baggs and Wamsutter.  We'd spent much of the previous day negotiating a confusing network of drilling rig access roads to camp at the base of the Haystacks, badlands east of Adobe Town. I'd found an arrowhead and a mano stone among the sand dunes, and listened to coyotes say goodnight to the setting sun.   

After spending a nice morning wandering in the sagebrush shooting photos of orange-tinged badlands and silver light on rabbitbrush, we packed up and headed for home.  Ed had a dinner to attend, and I was hoping to get to Laramie by 2 p.m. to take Bei to an ice skating event.  We almost made it to the interstate without stopping, but circled back to have another look at an abandoned compound north of the road. There may have been a No Trespassing sign posted at one time.  A square of plywood was nailed to a fencepost near the long driveway, but nothing was stapled to it, so we drove the quarter-mile-long two-track to the site.  

The house itself raised the first red flags, even from a distance.  Sheathed in stolen (or scavenged) billboards advertising McDonald's, the Ptarmigan Hotel, and a Ramada Inn, the place suggested a struggle for survival far off the grid.  A car in the yard wasn't just abandoned, it was flipped upside down and riddled with bullet holes. An old school bus, windows shattered, was filled with old clothes and a mattress, and a Bible lay open to a page defining "God's Word."  A shed, also made from billboards, was buried up to its eaves. A teddy bear lay fading in the sun, face down in the dirt, the store security button still clamped to its back.  A dead raven rotted in front of the entrance to the house, it's ribs bleached white, contrasting with black feathers still clinging to its head and wings.  The house was full of old clothing and lined with tattered blankets meant (ineffectively) to keep out the cold wind.  

We snapped photos, eager to document the place and get the hell out of there.

In Eastern Wyoming, abandoned farms tell stories of hard times and changing demographics, where grown children migrate to Denver for excitement and opportunity.  Along highways, abandoned businesses speak of normal struggles with a tough economy.  But this place suggested a life gone off the rails. Who were these people?  What happened to them?  

We hit the interstate, fueled up, and drove towards home, looking twice at the fading billboards along the way.

Happy friggin' Halloween or something.  This dead raven greeted us from the dirt directly in front of the house.

Great idea!  Sheath your house with billboards!

Interior view of the bus driver's seat.  A 1997 calendar was taped above the side window.

An open Bible on one of the front seats.  I didn't set this up.

"I'm Lovin' It" at McDonald's.

A makeshift animal pen behind the house.  Or something.

Nice landscaping idea.  Let's turn our abandoned cars upside down and shoot them!


  1. I wonder if I'm still up to exploring the Red Desert. It would be fun if I could. As always really enjoy your photos from the desert.

  2. Charlie Manson like commune setting