Jim Smail’s Scottish grandfather came to America and homesteaded in Farson back in 1915.
That old desert rat started taking Jim’s father to the Red Desert back then and that tradition continued as Jim’s father took his son to the desert shortly after Jim entered the world 83 years ago.
This column is a tribute both to my friend Jim, who died recently, and to that vast desert that he loved more than just about anybody that I ever knew.
It is also a companion story to the unveiling of a wonderful new map of the Red Desert produced by the Wyoming Outdoor Council, which printed 20,000 copies for distribution across the state.
A map such as this is long overdue.
Just like today’s energy prospectors who look to Wyoming’s plains for sources of power, the desert was always seen as a place of opportunity. In typical risk-reward activities, the stakes were high when you ventured out into this vast empty place.
Some folks think of it as a place almost devoid of permanent human habitation. But it has provided a stage for American Indians, Oregon Trail travelers, gold prospectors, the Pony Express and other intrepid souls trying to conquer an unconquerable place.
Geographically, some folks think the desert is a gigantic space that includes land crossed by Interstate 80 and extends up toward Casper, Shoshoni, Riverton, Lander, and encompasses Rock Springs and Green River.
But to the purist, and I guess that includes me, the real Red Desert is found in the confines of the Great Divide Basin. This, truly, is the loneliest place in the loneliest state. A place with no permanent human habitation at the present time. Despite that, it is a place that has been occupied by humans for over 1,000 years.
In many ways the desert has not changed at all.
Smail told me: “Among the high points of my life has been driving my Jeep around the approved roads in the desert and visiting ancient sites of these early humans. We always approach them with respect and with a vivid imagination to trying to figure out what was happening here?
“Perhaps this desert affection started with some family history. My dad climbed up Boar’s Tusk north of Rock Springs and sat me in the notch high above the desert floor when I was just 18 months old. Now that would whet anyone’s appetite!” Smail recalled.
To someone speeding by the desert on the highways, well, how can you describe to them the joys of White Horse Canyon? Or the vast Killpecker Sand Dunes? The magic of Steamboat Mountain and its wondrous buffalo jump? Adobe Town or the Honeycomb Buttes? Continental Peak and the famous Oregon Buttes? And so much more.
It is a vast area and once you start looking, it is almost impossible to comprehend it all.
Here’s a challenge: Turn on the Google Earth app on your computer, tablet or your smart phone and scan the Red Desert between Rock Springs and Lander. What you see will look like the surface of some far-away planet. Yet, it is right here in Wyoming.
Wyoming is the least populated state in the country. And the least populated place in Wyoming is this basin.
My favorite area in the Red Desert is the Oregon Buttes area, which is full of wondrous rock formations and strange canyons.
Aging hippie-types like to believe that certain places in the world have special energy fields called vortexes. Not sure I believe it, but there are places in the Red Desert that sure give me a positive energy boost.
Smail contended that if Wyoming had a vortex area, it might very well be right there.