There’s a very good reason why the population of Wyoming is only half a million, as anyone who has ever been there in the dead of winter knows. It’s cold, it’s windy, it’s bleak, and worst of all, it’s terribly lonely. Especially if you should happen to reside in one of those high elevation mining camps that empties out shortly after the first September snowfall.
Forty years ago I decided to take a chance and see if anyone was crazy enough to spend a winter in South Pass City, situated 7,775 feet above sea level on the Continental Divide. I parked my car beside highway 28 and hiked the remaining two miles through a howling blizzard. My intention was to write a story about the first human being I encountered.
That person turned out to be a young aspiring writer like myself, who had signed on as caretaker of the historic district. Come spring, he was hoping to have finished his first novel. His wife, meantime, was counting the days until springtime—which in fact had already arrived in other parts of the country.
I could tell from the frantic look in her eye that theirs would be a story better told by, say, Steven King. So I moved on to a cabin occupied by the town’s senior resident, John Bain. A self-described jack-of-all-trades, Bain had been born in Pennsylvania a little over eighty years previously. He’d first come to South Pass in 1924 and had stayed long after the gold mining boom had wound down. Until 1961, he had lived without electricity. He cooked and heated his home with lump coal—eight tons of it per winter, plus half a ton of pipe tobacco.
Television? John told me he had tried it once, but all he ever got was static. “If I wanted to look at snow, I could just look out the window.”
John was entertaining his old friend Dave Haddenham, from nearby Atlantic City. Like Bain, Haddenham held a mining claim—and the obligatory grudge against the government.
“They’re taking a lot of opportunities away from people around here,” Dave told me. “Tryin’ t’ chase us old timers out, too. But I’m the kind of guy that don’t chase. So’s Jack. We’re rebels.”
“Fifty years ago, people were satisfied,” interjected Bain. “Today, they’re not.”
Dave continued: “In this day and age, with all this red tape and business, it’s next to impossible for a little guy to get a patent. The little guy’s gone now. A big outfit like U.S. Steel can come in and get a patent on two hundred claims, no questions asked. But a little guy is throwing good money after bad when he applies for a patent, because they just automatically turn him down. We’ve entered the era of the big shot.”
“Our claims were located before the law of ’55,” added John. “If you located a claim prior to ’55, you made a valid contract with your government for twenty acres. And there ain’t anything they can do about it unless both parties to the contract agree. That’s the only way you can change it.”
“But they’ve tried to make the goddamn law retroactive,” interjected Dave. “This is against the constitution of the United States!”
What the big shots wanted, explained Dave, was to turn South Pass City into “a historic picnic ground.” And you know what? That’s exactly what happened. If you should go to South Pass City today, what you will find is a mining camp reconstructed in the manner of a Hollywood Western set. People come from all around to stroll the creaky boardwalks and pose for pictures beside poker playing mannequins. Or to shop for high top boots, shovel bonnets, leather goods, handicrafts, oilcloth dusters and the like at Ye Olde General Store.
Of course they only come in the summertime. Because who the hell would be crazy enough to go to South Pass City, Wyoming, in the winter?