Day 16: What Happens When A Town Completely Collapses? Artists Show Up
Nate Hegyi, rural reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, is embarking on a 900-mile cycling trip crisscrossing the continental divide in August and September, interviewing and listening to Americans ahead of the 2020 election. You can follow along on social media, an online blog and this "Where Is He Now?" map.
September 11: Beaver Creek Road to Muddy Gap, 67 miles
An important note here: These are my first-glance takeaways. Think of this as a reporter's notebook. A mosaic of voices over the next few weeks, cycling 900 miles across four states and dozens of small towns.
‘Jesus Is Lord.’
That’s what a weather-beaten and faded sign says along Jeffrey City’s main drag.
It’s outside of a small, abandoned-looking church owned by a crazy person – at least that’s according to Byron Seeley, a potter who has lived in this ghost town on central Wyoming’s high desert for almost 15 years.
Seeley is wearing a yellow University of Wyoming shirt cut-off at the sleeves and a brown beanie covering his gray-blonde dreadlocks. He says he likes it here because it’s cheap. He says he bought a gas station for less than the price of a used car and transformed it into an art studio.
“I don’t have to pay rent here. It takes the pressure off,” he says. “Or else I wouldn’t live here. But there are other things I like about it. I don’t have any neighbors.”
It took nearly three hours of hard cycling across the high desert of central Wyoming to get to Jeffrey City, and I was expecting an Old West-style ghost town. But this place was essentially abandoned after a nearby uranium mine went bust in the 1980s. It reminds me of Chernoybl after the nuclear accident. Riding around earlier, I spotted rows of empty, boarded-up apartment buildings, a bowling alley, a restaurant and another church. About 40 people still live here, as evidenced by the barking dog that took off chasing me as I pedaled along the city’s dirt roads.
But mostly this place is quiet, except for the sound of an empty swing set clinking in the wind. There’s an eerie quality to all this wreckage from the West’s never ending quest to find new ways to make big money.
After my tour, I devoured a burger and fries at the town’s one remaining bar and restaurant, which serves the surrounding ranching community. I got the strong vibe that the waitress didn’t want to be interviewed – she seemed a little grumpy. I asked for water and she responded with a heavy sigh. A cattle dog hanging out in the bar, on the other hand, was very friendly and came up for some well-deserved pets. After I finished my meal and paid my bill in cash, I cycled across the highway to Seeley’s gas station-turned-pottery studio.
He takes me on a quick tour, pointing out the “way cool pottery” he makes. One looks like it has bullet holes shot through it.
“Sometimes I take it and shoot it with a gun,” he says. “This one’s been shot with a .22 when it was really wet. I made another pot and I slipped it inside so that it doesn’t have holes anymore.”
He also makes little shot glasses that were shot with the .22, and those are some of his most popular items. He makes these sparingly, though, because his cattle dog, Floyd, gets scared of the noise. Seeley also collects as many Bud Light Platinum bottles as he can get his hands on.
“Cobalt is expensive and Bud Light Platinum bottles are made of cobalt blue glass,” he says. “You can melt it down and that’s how you use it for the pottery. People do all kinds of art with blue glass or other colored glass. It’s so silly to throw any blue glass away.”
He shows me a beautiful, glazed plate that has cobalt blue glass flowing down its surface like a waterfall. Seeley discovered his creative talent as a high schooler in Big Piney, a town north of here. He spent more than a decade doing production pottery in Austin, Texas and Taos, New Mexico before striking out on his own back in Wyoming. Now he’s splitting his time between the studio in Jeffrey City and a mobile home in southern Arizona.
At this moment, Seeley’s dog, Floyd, comes romping up to us. He’s a short, handsome pitbull mix that Seeley purchased from a rancher a few years ago – he doesn’t remember many of the details because he was a heavy drinker back then. He tells me he’s since been sober for three years, which is challenging in a town that doesn’t have much going on.
“I want to drink everyday,” he says.
But if he started again, the reasons why he quit would come back to haunt him, he says. So he spends his time making pottery and staring at the wood stove fire in the back room where he relaxes. He also has plenty of art to look at, as well, including these large, post-apocalyptic paintings created by his recently-deceased neighbor. They look haunting.
One is called “Utopia Road.” It shows a crowded line of naked, wide-eyed, pale people marching across a red desert under a black, dusky sky. The wind is blowing and soldiers are keeping the group in line. Seeley says it’s a comment on leftists in America.
“It’s not my politics, but his politics, his view on the Left, was what they wanted to do was cause communism, basically,” he says.
Seeley himself is not political. In fact, he calls himself “a political insouciant.” He learned the term after having a conversation with someone who was very political. The man said he was a “pottery insouciant,” meaning he didn’t know and didn’t care much about pottery. Seeley retorted that he was a “political insouciant,” and the term stuck.
“I don’t want to learn how to fix cars. I don’t know how to fix cars. Same with politics,” he says. “I just don’t have very much interest. I hear about it and talk about it more than I want to. I’m not as interested in that as other people around me.”
His world is much more narrow – producing art, keeping his gas station warm, and making sure his van will survive the trip down to Arizona this fall. Seeley is an extension of this part of Wyoming. He’s nearly 60 miles away from the nearest town living in a land that’s carved by ancient forces – wind, snow and sun.
The only connections to the wider world are the cars that roar by on the highway and the weak internet connection. The other people who live here are artists or folks who toil on the ranches or work an hour away in the towns of Riverton and Lander.
I slip away from Jeffrey City as the sun angles down towards the mountains, riding to the “town” of Muddy Gap. It’s actually just a convenience store. The owner says I can pay $10 to camp behind the store, but I opt to set my tent up on some public land instead. I struggle to open and close a cattle gate before setting up behind a snow fence, which was built to keep snow from drifting onto the highway. I’m about 40 miles from Rawlins and beginning to feel the wild loneliness of the high plains.