It wasn’t hard to convince me to take an EcoFlight over the Red Desert. And when I found out I could also go camping with a pair of Red Desert artists, I jumped at the chance to produce a series about the Red Desert for Wyoming Public Radio. I’d been wanting to get back out into that landscape for a long time. Some of my earliest memories are of the Red Desert and the expanses of yellow sand where my brother and I played during a camping trip out to my dad’s oil rig site.
This was back in the old days when a man camp meant actual camping. We parked our travel trailer right next to the rig. I remember the feeling of true isolation, all that distance we’d driven and then… why here? That’s a weird thing to experience, but especially at seven years old. But I wasn’t afraid. My brother and I wandered deep into the Killpecker Sand Dunes without thinking once to look for landmarks. We didn’t consider ourselves lost. My mother did. She sent one of the other roughnecks out to find us—Bob, who ended up becoming a good family friend. He found us and laughed at how confused we were by his arrival.
“Lost? We’re not lost. We’re here.”
But flying over the Red Desert, it’s hard to locate the “here” of the place. Up there, the land looks like an abstract painting, greens and oranges washing off strange formations made by wind and water. Distances are incomprehensible between landmarks. And when I saw a herd of wild horses, I thought the same thing…why there?
Before my trip to the artist camp, my dad and I pored over Gazette maps. When I told him I wanted to drive out to see the Pinnacles, he looked skeptical.
“It’s easy to get lost out there,” he said. “If you get nervous, turn back.”
My husband and I drove for hours and never reached the Pinnacles. We got nervous before we made it. It’s not a good feeling when you’re driving on a road that grows over with flowers. Or when the name and number of that road split, the name going one way, the number going the other. I guess maybe I’d lost my childhood comfort with extreme solitude.
But I didn’t outgrow my fascination with what thrives there. We watched through binoculars as a herd of more than 60 desert elk migrated by, single file. Among them, about seven bulls and numerous calves. And that night, sleeping in the back of our car, I stuck my microphone out the door and collected the sound of coyotes. Jack rabbits, wild horses, hawks, ducks, we saw them all during our visit.
But the truck traffic in and out of well sites is ever present out there, even during this energy slump. And when we wanted to use a porta-potty at one of the well sites on our way out, we felt what wildlife must feel when a hard-hatted man appeared on top of a tank and eyeballed us. We backed off and found a bush instead.
The Red Desert is a wild place, but is it a wilderness? I can’t say. All I know is that from the air and from its back roads, I’ve felt how small one person can be compared to an unbroken landscape. And that’s a very rare feeling indeed in this day and age.
– Melodie Edwards, Wyoming Public Radio reporter