Sweetwater Road: Stories Along a Lonely Wyoming Highway
Indian Country Today
If you ever drive through the Sweetwater Valley in the middle of the night, there’s something you should know: The ghost town of Jeffrey City is haunted…by zombies.
I’m not kidding. I went there and met their leader, Byron Seeley, owner of Monk King Bird Pottery.
Byron often hosts cross-country bicyclists at his roadside gallery. Sometimes he and his guests stay up late on summer nights, drinking and waiting for cars to pass by.
When they see a pair of headlights in the distance, they each grab a Halloween mask and a farm tool from Byron’s extensive collection. They run to the side of the highway to shake their weapons and terrify the passing motorists, looking very much like an angry mob of zombies.
Byron is just one of the interesting characters I recently met in the Sweetwater Valley.
Initially, I went out to help a University of Wyoming field crew surveying a rare plant, Yermo xanthocephalus, also known as Desert Yellowhead, which is found in this part of Wyoming, and nowhere else. (Full disclosure: My girlfriend is the leader of the crew.)
After a hot day spent counting waxy leaves and blossoms, I decided to get back on the highway to see what stories I could glean from tourists and the local population.
I traveled the 42 miles of U.S. Highway 287 from Sweetwater Station through Jeffrey City to Muddy Gap. Along the way I found a colorful cast of characters in this isolated part of Wyoming.
Cycling to San Francisco
This section of Highway 287 is on the Trans-America Trail bicycle route. Every day, dozens of cyclists ride through the Sweetwater valley, attracted by the same low grades that made this preferred route for wagon travel on the emigrant trails.
At the rest stop in Sweetwater Station, I met a group of young men from Quebec City who were riding their bikes across country, bound for the headquarters of Tesla Motors in San Francisco.
Simon Roy, the most vocal member of the group, said he’d just graduated from engineering school, and hatched the trip as a way to hand-deliver his résumé to Tesla, the electric car manufacturer.
To get to Sweetwater Station, they’d ridden across the Great Plains and climbed over a 12,000 foot pass in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. They planned to ride through Yellowstone and the national parks of Utah before lighting out for Las Vegas, then riding to the California coast from San Diego to San Francisco. (Read their blog here.)
When I asked Roy if he’d heard of the Oregon Trail, which passed less than a mile from where we stood, the name didn’t ring a bell.
“This part of the road has great personality,” he said. “It is the most efficient way to get to Yellowstone.”
Wyoming’s best bookstore
After talking to the cyclists, I continued East in the opposite direction of travel from the emigrant days. That led me to Mad Dog and the Pilgrim Books on the banks of the river in Sweetwater Station, population 3.
Driving up to the store, which is housed in a barn, I encountered a menagerie of animals: sheep, llamas, chickens, a peacock and a 28-year-old donkey shedding its winter coat.
I also met Polly Hinds, who has been running the store here with her partner Lynda German since 2000. She let me into the bookstore to peruse on my own.
Inside was a catacomb of shelves with more than 50,000 volumes on an incredible variety of topics. I spent more than an hour browsing the titles and the antique prints hanging on the walls.
One of the best things about coming to this bookstore is that you don’t just shop for books here. You also visit Polly and Lynda, and whoever else happens to be at the store. Paying for my book over the counter, Polly and I talked about the enduring appeal of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and what it’s like to live 40 miles from the nearest town.
“I fill up my gas tank every time I go to town, whether I need it or not,” she said.
While at the bookstore, I met two Casper women who stopped in to buy eggs. They were on a day trip from their second home at Alcova Reservoir, bound for an afternoon of gambling at the Wind River Casino. They told me it was their favorite place to stop along the way. They’d been buying fresh eggs here for ten years.
Nuclear ghost town
Driving 19 miles east through broad expanses of open country, I came to Jeffrey City, the biggest town along the Sweetwater with a population of about 50 people.
The town first boomed in the 1950s when uranium prospector Robert “Bob” Adams bought property at the “Home on the Range” post office and renamed it after Rawlins doctor C.W. Jeffrey, who was one of his early financial backers.
The company town owned by Western Nuclear blossomed in the late 1950s, waned in the 1960s, then boomed a final time in the 1970s, before it busted and dwindled to almost nothing in the 1980s.
Jeffery City once had its own uranium mill, which served local mines of the open-pit and in-situ variety. An interpretive sign along the highway says that the town had 4,000 people in 1980, with 600 students in the local school and 1,000 people working in the local mines and mill.
Following the partial meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island reactor in 1979, the town began to decline. The accident killed demand for uranium, ending the heyday of Jeffrey City.
Today, Jeffrey City has become a regional headquarters for a few dozen members of scientific field crews who live here in an RV park behind the Split Rock Cafe.
A crew consists of four to six people, headed by one University of Wyoming graduate student, plus a few younger field technicians who come from all parts of the United States.
One crew member named Leif told me his team drives four-wheelers across the prairie all night, spotlighting for juvenile sage grouse.
He explained that when a driver spots a grouse, he’ll run full tilt through the sagebrush and prickly pear, carrying a giant fishing net on an 8-foot pole. One quick swat of the net captures the bird, allowing him to extract a few feathers.
When the summer field season ends, the feather specimens go back to the lab for stable isotope analysis, which provides information about dietary changes during the first five weeks of the bird’s life.
One night, when I met the scientists in their camp at Jeffrey City, they were grilling elk burgers, playing horseshoes, and practicing archery. Their presence made Jeffrey City feel more like a college campus than the 1980s ghost town it is.
In Jeffrey City, the grass grows three feet high through cracks in the pavement. Most of the houses and apartment buildings stand abandoned, with paint peeling off in broad flakes. Windows are boarded over with plywood.
The bowling alley “Sage Lanes” is shuttered, along with the liquor store.
Old concrete foundations for vanished houses stand among the brush. The basements are full of dirt and tumbleweeds.
In one section of town there is a football field choked with sagebrush. The goalposts are rusting.
On the ground at the RV campground, I found a few old buttons, small circles of mother of pearl scattered in the dust.
Sun, snow, and wind are slowly reclaiming large parts of the town.
But Jeffrey City is still home to some. Driving around town, I saw a young man with a rifle target shooting in his front yard. Behind his house a pronghorn antelope was grazing.
The people who choose to live here now enjoy the solitude. Most live in well-maintained houses with the green landscaping and shade trees typical of any small town in Wyoming. Sprinklers turn circles in lush lawns, and keep the grass growing in front of the elementary school, which has a newly installed playground.
The pride evident in such properties defies the forlorn air that hangs over the rest of Jeffrey City.
The hub of activity here is the Split Rock Bar and Café, where one can have a better than average hamburger, drink a beer or a mason jar full of ice water, and surf the internet.
On one side of the barroom the wall was covered with autographed one-dollar bills, left behind by patrons over the past decades. In a place where so many people are just passing through, there is an appreciation for graffiti. It reminded me of the chiseled names at Independence Rock.
While I was at the Split Rock Bar, I met leather-clad Harley Davidson riders from Germany, England, and France, all drinking beer together. The waitress and I joked about this being one of the benefits of world peace.
Europeans also take part in the scientific efforts around Jeffrey City. One field crew I met included a Spaniard from the Basque country. Several years ago, a crew of French archaeologists excavated a site south of Jeffrey City for a summer. France relies heavily on nuclear power for its electricity, and French companies have secured access to uranium resources on the Sweetwater over the past decade.
Perhaps the most visible character here is Byron Seeley, the occasional zombie who has been described as the “Mad Potter” of Jeffrey City. An educated artist who previously lived in Lander, Byron came to Jeffrey City a few years ago and bought an old gas station to set up as his studio and gallery. While he enjoys his late night pranks on the highway, he welcomes visitors that stop in.
Seeley’s days are punctuated by shifts serving tourists at the Split Rock Café, visits with the field scientists, and time spent hosting cross-country cyclists. The word is out among cyclists that Byron is the host of choice in Jeffrey City. He provides water and a place to camp. Sometimes cyclists ride into town and simply ask, “Where’s Byron?”
Seeley also takes part in the larger Sweetwater community. Outside of Jeffrey City, most of his neighbors are cattle ranchers. In the spring, he helps with branding.
The ranchers, more than anyone, are the ones who are here to stay. They settled the area after the Oregon Trail days. Generations have irrigated out of the river and grazed cattle on the range. Agriculturally, this may not the best place to ranch, but it is a beloved place and the land provides enough to keep going.
A Mormon in Muddy Gap
The flavor of the Sweetwater Country extends to Muddy Gap and some distance beyond toward Pathfinder Reservoir. The main place to stop in this section is the Three Forks gas station at Muddy Gap, where I met Jimmy Singh and his father Jasbir, an entrepreneur from Mobridge, South Dakota.
Jasbir Singh is 53 years old. He spent his early years in the Punjab province of India, an area rich in farmland. At age 26 he came to America and worked as a taxi driver in Manhattan before becoming a contractor for FedEx and moving on to other ventures in Ohio.
Today, the elder Singh owns hotels in Mobridge and Evanston, Wyoming. He previously operated a hotel in Rawlins. He sold that property several years ago, intending to buy another hotel in Riverton.
While making the trip north from Rawlins to Riverton, Singh stopped at the Muddy Gap service, where the cashier told him the business was for sale.
Jasbir Singh’s son Jimmy previously ran a large gas station in Ohio, and said he’d prefer to operate a gas station rather than a hotel.
The elder Singh bought the store turned it over to his son for management. “Jimmy is a one-man show. He’s only 32, but he’s amazing,” his father said.
Jimmy opens the store and works until it closes. He’s also in charge of all the merchandise, which includes convenience store items, work wear, a variety of t-shirts, and a bookstore catering to Mormon tourists. He also sells homemade Italian-style gelato in flavors like Sweetwater Strawberry.
Despite Jimmy’s success in managing the store, the Singh family is looking to sell the property. Jimmy’s wife and son live in Evanston, and he’d like to be reunited with them.
The elder Singh says the Muddy Gap store is a good commercial opportunity, particularly if wind power development comes to the area. He’s heard rumors that the road may be turned into a four-lane highway to serve the wind industry.
Singh didn’t mention that the major developer in the area, Pathfinder Wind Energy, has decided to turn their property into a mitigation bank. The company’s website says its nearest windmills will be located southwest of Rawlins.
In the few years he’s lived at Muddy Gap, Jimmy Singh has taken a keen interest in the Mormon handcart story that he learned about by visiting with missionaries who staff the Mormon Handcart Historic Site at Martin’s Cove. The site is located 13 miles northeast of Muddy Gap toward Casper.
Martin’s Cove has special significance for the Latter-Day Saints, who come here to commemorate the disaster of the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies that were trapped by an October blizzard in 1856. Several hundred died, and the survivors had to be rescued by a group of Mormons sent from Salt Lake City by Brigham Young.
“I liked the missionaries. I liked what I felt out there in Martin’s Cove,” Jimmy Singh said. Several years ago, he was baptized as a Latter-Day Saint.
Between 50,000 and 70,000 Mormon pilgrims come to visit Martin’s Cove every year, many of them taking part in handcart reenactments that give young church members a feel for the struggles their ancestors went through to practice their faith.
Many of the pilgrims leave their signatures inside Singh’s gas station. All four walls are covered with names of visitors.
“My signatures represent a future landmark,” Singh said. “It gives a little history to the place. I want people to remember this place.”
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