Every time I think my favorite places in the West are played out photographically, devoid of further inspiration for me, I go back and have to eat my words.
In his first Geographic story, Sam Abell made a photograph of his mud-splattered car as a response to the inspiration of Christopher Pratt, one of Canada’s most important modern artists. In the same spirit, while in the rain-soaked, mud-sodden region of eastern Wyoming in 2015, resulting in much the same pattern on my car, I made a photo as a tribute to Sam Abell’s importance to modern photography.
I’ve shot this homestead before; it beckons to me time and again as I travel a lonely stretch of road in one of my favorite states, Wyoming. It has a voice, this singular structure, and on a storm spring evening, I gave in to temptation.
Harbinger of much-needed moisture for the shortgrass of the remote ranching country of eastern Wyoming’s High Plains, a 2 a.m. thunderstorm’s lightning strike softly illuminates the contours of the land. Such storms spelled problems for ranchers in the past, turning back roads into greasy, impassable swamps, but with the bittersweet boom of the new oil and gas bonanza has also come newly improved roads that provide a never-before-seen ease of access to the backcountry for residents.
Such thoughts never occurred to me until those same roads allowed me to get home on Saturday after the rains turned the Lusker Ranch road into, well…soup.
Thursday night last week was one of those magical evenings when, as Ansel Adams was fond of saying, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” I had been to Lost Springs a number of times to photographically explore, but as storms rolled across east-central Wyoming near evening, I came back with the expectation of something…special. Chance, indeed: A train rolled through town, allowing life in the shot, and as a gift, the storm gave me a lightning bolt.
Even ghosts need homes, don’t they? Disconcerting as it may be in a windblown, nearly deserted western town, this miniature house and its strange surroundings have drawn me back on several occasions as I try to understand the place they occupy in the world.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Jay Em, Wyoming, and will continue to. My next project depends on it, in fact.
Named Jay Em for the first two initials of the founder of the ranch that became the town, James Moore, Lake Harris launched the community in the early 20th century (see Ghost Towns.net for a bit more on the town’s history, and the nomination form for its inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places). It was the last watering hole until travelers reached Lusk, 35 miles to the north through the vast, treeless High Plains of eastern Wyoming, but soon the growth of the automobile as the transportation method of choice was the proverbial “bullet in the temple” of the town–no need for watering holes. There are perhaps ten families still living in town, but it’s a long way to go for groceries, let alone anything else of necessity (even distant Lusk now struggles to survive). Oh, and the wind–the fierce Wyoming wind–ravages the town on a constant basis. It’s an assault of both population loss and the elements themselves.
But it’s beautiful, as is its surrounding landscape, and that is one of the reasons I’m so drawn to the town and its plight. There will be more to come from Jay Em in my portfolio. Be sure of it.
It seems the more I visit Jay Em, the more I find. A magical place.
Some people just love trees, and I can’t blame them. So do I, and a number of my favorite images feature those actors so prominent in the poetry of Frost. But I’m also a child of the Great Plains, of the West, and sometimes other urges beckon.
And the treeless landscape whispers its own poem in my ear.