Land of Abundant Scarcity

Today’s audio update: Bo describes the hike up the Hole-in-the-Wall trail.

I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all free poems also,
I think I could stop here myself and do miracles
—from “Song of the Open Road,”by Walt Whitman

A homestead site is lost in the spectacular scenery.

In anticipation of this journey across the Outlaw Trail, I have been inoculating myself for weeks against the bodice-ripping, gun-slinging glamour of the Old West. But even I, hardened African and career cynic, cannot help being a little swept away by the myths and tales that are folded into the sagebrush-creased canyons and creeks of Willow Creek Ranch at the Hole-in-the-Wall. You’d have to be a lump of clay or Samuel Beckett to resist this land’s lure.

Gene Vieh (owner of Willow Creek Ranch) is, like the land he loves, dry, sun-scoured, and uncompromising. He does not suffer fools and does not, as he says, “do emotion very well.” But his passion for this ranch is palpable “I fall on my knees in awe,” he says and, for a man short on both emotion and words, that’s saying a lot. He is the first man to have purchased this ranch—until now it had only passed from the original homesteader to the homesteader’s nephew.

Gene Vieh found his calling at the Willow Creek Ranch

Gene takes the whole day to show us the physical and historical highlights of less than 10 percent of his ranch. Even that is almost too much to absorb in one day because the landscape is fairly shouting with history. Nothing rots, it becomes sand-blasted and sun-bleached, perhaps, and splinters into dust in time, but the marks left by humans show for a long time out here. Century-old wagon wheel tracks still leave a burning impression in the thin grass, and although cabins may sink and lean, their shells are still here.

Part of what is so affecting about the history that gusts through this place is its immediacy. Native Americans set up tepees here almost within the realm of living memory (tepee rings and petroglyphs and the rock pyramids set up for “buffalo jumps” are evidence of that). They came here, in part, because of the vast herds of bison that swept these plains. But North America’s greedy ingestion of territories, steadily and relentlessly west, swallowed first the Native Americans (the cavalry was instructed by the government to kill all the “Indian” stallions, and then to kill the bison. “Make ‘em walk and make ‘em starve” was the idea) and then the land on which they had once lived.

Now the Native American voices are silenced, but the quiet is eerie, as if borrowed or temporary. It feels as if the players that might have kicked up all that dusted history and whose songs and wood smoke would have filled this air might, at any moment, return and declare us camera-toting tourists in our bright white sports utility vehicle invaders. Which, of course, we are—the latest in a series of invaders.

Gene talks about the outlaws and homesteaders who once inhabited this valley—Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Alex Ghent (who supplied the Wild Bunch with their fast, steady horses)—as if they were neighbors who have only recently moved away. Alex Ghent was being poisoned by his own water (the spring from which he was drinking has an unusually high mineral count) and ended up leaving his homestead in the shadow of the Red Wall in the ‘30s. Butch owned a little red cabin not far from Ghent’s place, but he was forced to sell in 1890, not long after he had arrived at the Hole-in-the-Wall, when he got word that the law was closing in on him. It was a shiftless, restless life, and the ghosts gusted up by these lives are correspondingly thin and ragged.

Perhaps it is this, finally, which impresses me most: We are at the site of one of the three most famous outlaw hide-outs in North America, and it has not been bricked up, paved over, and turned into a concession stand. When Christian and I hike to the top of the Hole-in-the-Wall and look out at what lies on any side of us, we are the only humans as far as the eye can see. Like Gene himself, this land has managed to stay intact because it does not “do” emotion very well.

Check back tomorrow for the next stop on the Outlaw Trail: Thermopolis, home of beer, beef, and a wax museum.