Wind, Sand, and a Journey through Time

By Erik Molvar

In the heart of southern Wyoming, there is a blank spot on the map. Soils too poor and salty for crops. So dry that the native range can support few cattle. When the American government was handing out land for new settlements, these were the lands that nobody wanted. So they remained a part of the public domain, handed down through federal bureaucracies but always remaining in public hands. But the value of a land cannot be measured in dollars, or bushels, or head of stock on the hoof. These lands are timeless. Ancient. Primordial. Priceless.

Across the face of this empty quarter, stretched like a ribbon of sand for more than one hundred miles, is the Killpecker Dune Field.

When sand dunes actively migrate they are known as ergs. Granules of sand picked up on the upwind face of the dune catch in the eddy carved out behind the dune-crest by a vortex of turbulent wind, and here they drop back to the desert floor. Thus, the migration of a dune is actually the leapfrogging procession of countless tiny fragments of silica. As dunes move, the sand is sorted onto a classic crescent shape, belly to the windward side, pointed tails trailing downwind. When the sand is on the move, actively migrating, vegetation is unable to overrun its surface and capture the dune, stabilizing it and putting an end to its migration. The Killpecker Dunes are the largest actively migrating dune field in North America, one of Wyoming’s great conservation treasures.

The dunes march across one of the last great blank spots on the map, the fabled Red Desert. A vast sea of sagebrush, almost free from fences, it represents a last remnant of the open range. Here, herds of pronghorn course across the landscape, following invisible paths of migrations that stretch back unbroken for thousands of years. Sage grouse emerge in spring to fan their spiky tailfeathers into clearings in the sagebrush and inflate brilliant yellow throat sacs with a distinctive plopping sound that carries for miles across the desert. Pygmy rabbits climb timorously into the branches of six-foot-tall sagebrush to nibble at leaves and buds. Even the occasional wolf wanders through in search of new horizons. This great remnant of high desert is still healthy and filled with life, a last stronghold of native wildlife in all its beauty, diversity, and interconnected resilience.

The dunes first assemble southeast of the settlement of Eden, against the flanks of Essex Mountain. Here, the dunes are dotted in spring with tiny pools and wetlands, known variously as vernal ponds and dunal flockets.

These desert oases in the midst of the desolate sand owe their existence to the dunes themselves. In winter, blowing snow piles up in the lee of the dunes, and when spring winds unlock the sands and set them moving once again, they entomb the snowdrifts in a mantle of granulated rock. As the dunes warm further, the buried ice and snow begins to melt, collecting between the dunes. Marsh plants take root, amphibians arise from the mud to breed and lay their eggs, and wildlife ranging from long-legged shorebirds to elk and deer are drawn in to share the bounty of water in the midst of the desert.

Every day, the winds erase the patterns of sand, sculpting new ripples and waves. And after each night, you can read the tracks of nocturnal travelers, telling the tales of the night’s events. The morning news is spread across the sand for anyone to read: Tight, double rows of dots left by the ten-lined June beetle, its carapace striped in iridescent greens and blacks and golds. The pacing of the sage grouse recorded in cruciform code. Double half-moons of desert elk, strung out across the dunes and perhaps crisscrossed by smaller pairs of crescents left behind by pronghorn antelope. Looping arcs of coyote spoor dance through the dunefields, in search of prey.

The tiny, close-spaced footprints of the silky pocket mouse, punctuated with curved impressions left behind by the tail. Sometimes they end with a pair of angel’s prints, delicate fans of feathers straddling the final footsteps of the mouse. Prints just a bit bigger, but a distance apart, left by the kangaroo rat as it bounds across the sand. Two desert strategists: The silky pocket mouse is a gleaner, working slowly and carefully to find every morsel presented by widely scattered seeds, while the Ord’s kangaroo rat bounds long distances to take advantage of widely scattered but rich caches of seeds.

The dunes draw their name from Killpecker Creek, itself named for a fabled Army expedition that passed this way during the 1800s. The soldiers were marching across the desert toward the railroad boomtown of Rock Springs, bragging about the ladies of the evening that awaited them. But they drank from the creek that flows past the Boar’s Tusk, and alas, the water was alkaline and rendered them impotent. And so Killpecker Creek got its name.

Standing sentinel over the headwaters of Killpecker Creek is the Boars Tusk. Arguably the most striking single landmark in the Red Desert, the sheer double tooth rising from an apron of debris is the remnant of an ancient volcano. The cinder cone has long since blown away, abraded by the winds that swoop through this broad gap in the Rocky Mountains, leaving behind the frozen core of lava stranded in the neck of the volcano when it went dormant. The Boars Tusk is home to golden eagles, and accorded sacred status by the tribes who consider this desert their ancestral homeland.

Not far to the south are the White Mountain Petroglyphs, where panels of soft sandstone have been engraved with the images of elk, bison, and horses. A massive boulder, fallen from the cliff, bears deep grooves in the shape of handprints, the “Birthing Stone” of Shoshone stories. To give birth, a woman would grip the rock, squat down from a standing position, and strain against the stone with the contractions of labor. Nearby, images of tiny buffalo inscribed within larger ones to signify pregnant females, symbols of fertility and the hope for abundant herds in the future.

Each dune is a time capsule, preserving archaeological sites just as they were left, to be uncovered as the dune moves eastward. One important find was the remains of an aboriginal man, 55 to 65 years old, whose skeleton was so well-preserved by the sand that his cause of death – poisoning by a ruptured tooth – could be diagnosed by forensic archaeologists more than two thousand years later.

The dunes climb the flanks of Steamboat Mountain, then spill over into Great Divide Basin, where the Continental Divide splits to encircle six thousand square miles of emptiness with no outlet to the sea. The rain or snow that falls within these bounds – a paltry nine inches of water per year – trickles down to the center of the basin where it evaporates in cracked mud playas or salty wetlands.

Thousands of years ago, the rugged band of cliffs that crown Steamboat Mountain were a buffalo jump used by ancient peoples. Drivelines were constructed to funnel the beasts toward the precipice, and after tumbling off the stricken beasts could easily be dispatched with a spear. In a time before horses, to feast on large animals must have been a celebrated windfall. It is said that the remnants of rock walls from the drivelines are still there, on the windswept summit of the mountain.

Today, a herd of desert elk finds refuge among the groves of aspen and scattering of limber pines on the slopes of Steamboat Mountain. Spending the entire year in the midst of the sagebrush instead of migrating to mountain forests for the summer, this herd now numbers more than two thousand. Bands of elk commonly wander down into the dunes to be spotted there by visitors.

This is a land of long-forgotten trails. To the north of Black Rock, an isolated mesa of lava, the abandoned tracks of the Point of Rocks – South Pass Stage Road cross the Killpecker Dunes, winding their way north to Freighter Gap. Originally blazed in the 1860s to connect the Overland Stage line with the short-lived gold camps at South Pass City, this two-rut wagon trail later was used to freight coal up to the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes when the Wind River Indian Reservation was new. The old ruts have long since been abandoned, but can still be traced across the sagebrush, crossing the dunes where they are sparser, interrupted by long fetches of sagebrush.

Older still is the Indian Gap Trail, with no date to mark its establishment, to the west of Steamboat Mountain. It traces the seasonal journeys of tribes moving from camp to camp to take advantage of abundant food sources or other resources which might be present for only a few weeks or months.

Birds migrate south to find lush tropical climes with abundant food. Antelope and desert elk migrate downhill to find slopes blown clear of snow by the incessant wind. Dunes migrate because nothing can stop them.

People migrated across the face of these lands as well, for thousands of years. The first were from the Clovis culture, twelve thousand years ago, leaving behind their hearths and remains of pit houses, as well as points of stone knapped from the rock. Atop prominent hilltops, carefully crafted cairns maintain a watch over the landscape. Some are ancient, encrusted with lichens. These mark sacred sites or landmarks used by indigenous peoples. Taller, intricately mortised cairns have been emplaced over the years by lonesome herders or cattle and sheep to mark the boundaries of grazing leases.

This place belongs to wind, and wheeling stars, and silence.

As the dunes pass the low but rugged cliffs of the Luman Rim, they aggregate into a sea of sand once again. Here, two Wilderness Study Areas were established to protect a small portion of the dunefield. Red Lake is nearby, a dry, mud-caked playa that seldom holds any water. Old pipes rise from the middle of the lakebed marking the locations of failed oil wells drilled fifty years ago. All around the edges, new gas wells are encroaching on the lakeshore, creeping year by year toward the boundary of these postage stamps of protected land.

The gas fields have fanciful names like Wind Dancer and Bravo Unit, a contrast to the squat and heavy appearance and drab colors of industrial machinery that dots each wellsite. They are the outriders of the massive Continental Divide – Wamsutter gas field, which sprawls across 1.3 million acres of the Red Desert with thousands of gas wells. This is where the oil industry discovered that hydraulic fracking could unlock gas trapped in shale formations that had never before been seen as potential reservoirs for fossil fuels. Gas development is eating away at the desert like a cancer, its wellfield roads and pipelines metastasizing in networks that fragment the native habitat and drive away the sensitive wildlife that call the desert home.

Having bulldozed a scar across the land, making a fair-weather travelway destined to become an impassable morass in the first heavy rain, oil companies open up previously remote and inaccessible corners of the desert to rumbling vehicles and their occupants. But the sand cares not, and advances to engulf the linear demarcation of the roadbeds, entombing the human encroachments. The massive horsepower and toque of D-20 bulldozers and road grading machinery is no match for the insidious whisper of sand grains taking flight for a brief time en route to a quieter resting place.

Reaching the center of the Great Divide Basin, the dunes are sparser as they pass the Chain Lakes. This series of brackish wetlands and ponds marks the terminus for ephemeral waterways draining southward from the timbered mounds of Crooks Mountain and Green Mountain, far to the north. The Chain Lakes are important stopovers for migrating waterbirds, and have a special designation as a wildlife area.

This is the domain of the wild horse, which evolved in these lands fifty million years ago. But hunting by prehistoric humans drove them extinct in North America, and it was not until Spanish traders in Santa Fe introduced the horse to indigenous tribes that the horse made its way slowly back to the Red Desert. The herds around the Killpecker Dunes still carry that original Spanish blood, which can be seen by the stripes on the fetlocks above their hooves.

The wild horse herd in the northern Red Desert is hundreds strong. These animals were born wild – these are not feral escapees from recent domestication. They display all of the natural behaviors and traits of their wild counterparts on the steppes of Asia. They gather into harems of mares ruled by a single stallion, with immature males tolerated around the periphery of the herd. When two herds come into contact, the dominant stallions may duel for control of all the mares, rearing on their hind legs to flail at each other with powerful strikes of their hooves.

Sharing the range with the wild horses, grudgingly at times, are a few remnant cattle operations that eke out an existence on the sparse growth of Sandberg’s bluegrass and prairie junegrass that rises from the clay soils between the sagebrush. While cattle are spread widely across the face of the desert today, their numbers are a pale shadow of the millions of sheep that hammered these desert ranges to oblivion in the early 1900s. Many of today’s herders ply their trade in the old way, pushing herds from water hole to water hole on horseback. Many are foreigners, originally from the Basque highlands bordering France and Spain but now more likely to come from Andean villages of South America, and passing the summer in the lonely isolation of a tiny sheep wagon.

The sagebrush-robed swell of country that separates the dunes from the mountains surrounding Crooks Gap represents one of the three largest breeding concentrations of sage grouse in the world. It is also underlain by uranium ore, sought after periodically by the nuclear power industry. The prices were up thirty years ago, when open-pit strip mines were dug and a processing mill was built at the end of a lonely ribbon of asphalt in the heart of the desert. The boomtown where the miners lived, Jeffrey City, is now Wyoming’s newest ghost town; the asphalt is cracked now, and weeds grow tall in the streets beside empty foundations, stubs of plumbing pipes, and derelict bunkhouses with broken windows.

In the middle of the Red Desert, the processing mill too sits idle now, but just to the north the bulldozers and drilling rigs are active once again, clawing for radioactive elements as global prices rise.

Farther to the east, the sands gather once again at the foot of the Ferris Mountains. This great dunefield lies at the foot of Wyoming’s wildest mountain range, not only roadless but penetrated only by game trails. The distinctive chevrons that grace the conifer-robed slopes above the dunes are a layer of limestone tilted on end by the massive tectonic forces of mountain uplift.

Here, at the base of the mountains, the dunes sweep around the ghost town of Ferris. Miners originally started working the east end of the Ferris Mountains in 1870 in a quest for silver, lead, and copper, and established a town here with a post office that opened in 1875. Paradoxically, this historic ghost town has been overrun by a small oilfield, and pumpjacks have been sited in the midst of the cabin ruins.

Desert begonias unfurl their waxy plum-colored blossoms in June. Purple penstemons appear at about the same time. The rarest is the blowout penstemon, growing only two places on Earth: On the dunes as they pass the southern face of the Ferris Mountains, timbered flanks serrated with chevrons of vertically-tilted limestone, and in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, where blowouts create the bare sand this wildflower needs to survive. Trace a line across the continent, starting at the Boar’s Tusk and stretching east across the Red Desert following the Killpecker Dunes, and it leads to the Nebraska Sand Hills. Could the rare flower be pointing to an ancient connection?

In the dunefields of the Red Desert, the blowout penstemon grows only where its roots can reach downward to find springs or seeps of fresh water beneath the sands. A single species of solitary bee, living alone in a tiny burrow in the soil, provides the only means of pollination for the blowout penstemon. This wildflower is already listed under the Endangered Species Act; if its solitary bee were to die out, there would be no seed crop to perpetuate the species.

Huge chartreuse blossoms of the prickly pear dot the desert in August like roses from a grotesque and leafless bush. In early September the dunes bloom again, this time the brilliant yellow brushes of green rabbitbrush. In this short growing season, different plants are blooming throughout the summer despite the scarcity of water.

The dunes play out on the flanks of Junk Mountain, a landmark that showcases the Wyoming geographers’ penchant for poetry. A few stragglers show up on the shores of Seminoe Reservoir, where Wyoming’s mightiest river — the North Platte — succumbed to our nation’s irrepressible urge to dam it. In its travels, the dune field has traversed one of our nation’s wildest remaining stretches of native country.

These lands are fragile, and people in Wyoming have been trying to protect them for generations.

In 1898, a small band of Lander hunters and fishermen operating under the banner of the League of Associated Sportsmen lobbied Congress to protect parts of the Red Desert as a game park. By 1935, efforts to protect the Oregon Trail and other historic sites gained enough momentum that Governor Leslie Miller proposed a Western Trails national park that would encompass parts of the desert. Starting in the 1960s, organized citizens’ groups took up efforts to gain long-term protections as a North American Antelope Range, led by the Wyoming Outdoor Council. At about the same time, Wyoming Wildlife Federation pushed to return bison to the Red Desert. More recently, efforts have focused on a Red Desert National Conservation Area, with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and the Wyoming Association of Churches leading the charge. Momentum is building.

What is the value of vastness? Of untamed, howling emptiness? Of land where civilization has never been able to gain a permanent toehold? Value itself is a human construct, subjective and difficult to quantify. Attaching a dollar figure to the beauty of a desert sunrise purpling the sagebrush, to the rush of wingbeats of a prairie falcon in the silence, to the mesmerizing patterns picked out by the last of the reddening sun on a dune crest, is a challenge defying the skills of our most gifted economists.

The dunes marching eastward across the face of the Red Desert know nothing of value. They march on regardless, as the lands around them change.

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