Losing place in Wyoming’s Red Desert

The Red Desert in Wyoming is huge. It encompasses 9,320 square miles and is the largest unfenced area in the continental U.S. I-80 cuts across its southern quarter. Highway 287 runs up its eastern side and then angles across its northern edge, following the route of the historic Oregon Trail whose 350,000 travelers between the 1840s and 1860s wanted no part of the arid Red Desert. The Green River creates the boundary to the west.

A map shows only two dirt roads dissecting this massive, nearly treeless wilderness larger than some states. Just imagine that, two rough and nearly unused dirt roads in 9,320 square miles.

The dark-red earth is an endless array of interconnected cracks that stretches to the horizon. Every few steps leads to another collection of bleached white bones; sometimes belonging to a horse, sometimes an antelope, sometimes just a jaw bone or skull and occasionally an entire skeleton still positioned just as it had fallen. It all feels so prehistoric, so empty, so lonely.

To the west, the ground turns from red cracked dirt to white, hard-packed sand and the sagebrush and clump grass gives way to the black rock spires, white cliffs and painted dry layers of the Jack Morrow Hills. Mountains are visible in the distance to the east and north. To the northwest, sand dunes stand out against the backdrop of distant mountains. Not just any dunes. Like everything in the Red Desert, they have an impressive resume. These dunes are, in fact, the largest living dune system in the United States.

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