Life Inside an American Mining Boomtown on the Brink of Decline

J. J. Anselmi's new book focuses on the Rock Springs's crushing provincialism, severe drug problem, and plague of suicides.

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May 10 2016, 9:50pm

Rock Springs, Wyoming. Photo by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos

I met Richard Ford at a fancy literary party in New Orleans. I knew he'd be there, so I'd brought my "Rock Springs, Wyoming" sweatshirt. Ford's most famous story collection, Rock Springs, is named after my hometown. I'd long thought it would be funny to have a photo of myself in that shirt with Ford.

I found him on the porch catching fresh air and a break from the ass-grabbing sycophants inside. When I told him my plan, he smiled and agreed, his blue eyes twinkling mischievously. I put on the sweatshirt and stood beside him as we waited for my friend to get her camera out.

"Did you ever spend much time in Rock Springs before writing that story?" I asked.

"Fuck no," he sneered. "Do you?"

I mumbled something about my parents still living there, and then we waited for our portrait in silence.

Ford is not the only author repulsed by the place I'm from. In The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, Alexandra Fuller writes:

If La Barge or Wamsutter or any of the other little flash-in-the-pan towns in the West are like waking up the morning after the night before with a beer hangover, Rock Springs is like waking up after a weeklong methamphetamine binge. It looks like a town thrown together in the throes of a temporary fit of panic—cheap clapboard trailer parks and blowaway boomtime mansions confined by big-box stores. Even the people who love it, love it the way a parent protectively loves their roughest child—because no one else will.

Neither has Rock Springs—a population of around 25,000 isolated in the vast Red Desert—escaped news media's notice. The town sputtered to life in the late 1800s around coalmines that fed the new transcontinental railroad. Since then, it has experienced dramatic booms and busts thanks to fluctuating prices of the minerals its residents extract from the ground—coal, oil, trona, gas. During the raging 1970s, 60 Minutes targeted Rock Springs for an exposé on lawlessness and graft. Dan Rather introduces the segment walking up a sunburned hillside just outside town: "This is Rock Springs, Wyoming. They say that when you come out here, you should set your watch back... about fifty years." He remarks that the town hosts "more hookers than you can shake your wallet at."

An episode of A&E's City Confidential explores a cop-on-cop murder that took place shortly after 60 Minutes left town. The (white) cop was found not guilty of killing the (Puerto Rican) cop after Gerry Spence, the nation's most winning defense attorney, had his client demonstrate his quick-draw skills in the courtroom to corroborate his claim of self-defense. There's a famous screenplay about the case that's never been made into a movie. In the 1980s, a Harper's reporter tracked down the acquitted killer in central Wyoming, chasing a rumor that alleged the lawman had left some cattle rustlers dead in the desert. The journalist returned an inconclusive report.

Earlier this year, the sordid chronology of Rock Springs received an update. Heavy: A Memoir of Wyoming, BMX, Drugs, and Heavy Fucking Music by J. J. Anselmi is perhaps the first nationally distributed Rock Springs story told by a local. Anselmi's grandfather was a businessman at the center of the scandal 60 Minutes exposed, and the author and I once played together on a little league baseball team. While outsider accounts of Rock Springs tend to emphasize its Wild West character—which is totally real—Anselmi's book focuses on traits I find more familiar: the town's crushing provincialism, severe drug problem(s), plague of suicides, and its knack for instilling in young people the sense that both the town and its residents' lives are depressing dead-ends.

J. J. Anselmi. Photo courtesy of Rare Bird Books

Heavy describes its author's attempts to construct an identity opposed to what he perceives as the nightmare around him. Though his family name is known throughout town in association with prominent businesses, Anselmi's dad is the black sheep, a stoner dropout whose fuck-up demeanor pushes young Anselmi toward straightedge—Rock Springs is the type of place where an eighth grader can sincerely develop an identity based on sobriety. Anselmi then gravitates toward heavy metal and BMX, embracing each macho subculture like a faith, before plunging into a years-long murk of booze, tattoos, drugs, and self-hate. Suicide shadows him throughout the book, with his dad's friends and his own classmates offing themselves throughout the chapters—isolation, drug abuse, and abundant guns contribute to Wyoming's perennial placement near the top of the national suicide charts. Toward the memoir's end, Anselmi decides to kill himself, too—then opts to get an MFA instead.

I left Rock Springs when I was 18 and spent the next 13 years living mostly in cities—Chicago, Salt Lake, Buenos Aires, New Orleans. Whenever people asked where I'm from, I'd just say, "Wyoming." (The most common reply was, "You're the first person I've ever met from there!") Now that I've moved back to the state—to Laramie, a college town—I tell people I'm from Rock Springs, and they sort of inch back and widen their eyes, like they're reassessing me or sensing for signs of danger. One guy said, "That's the first place I was offered meth." (Funny—me, too.)

The author and Richard Ford. Photo courtesy of the author

Certainly there are myriad ways to exist in Rock Springs, and I'm sure some are even distinguished by quietude and prosperity of the spirit. But my relationship with the town growing up was abrasive, like living each day rubbing up against sandpaper. I know many other people, from all walks of life, felt the same—Anselmi included. The wild economic swings of a boomtown—where one year the town is desolate and broke and the next it's overflowing with rough young men lusting for cash and vice—create something of a collective neurosis, a pervasive edginess that never dissipates. Hundreds of miles of hardscrabble desert in each direction, peopled as sparsely as northern Nevada where they test nuclear weapons, intensifies this effect.

But rubbing against sandpaper makes you tough, and I've honestly never been to a tougher town than Rock Springs—or at least one so straightforward about its calluses. The roughest child, indeed. When some candy-ass novelist like Richard Ford or Alexandra Fuller scoffs, or some jerk-off TV crew arrives to film an update on the scandalous Wild West, it's easy to see they're projecting on the town their desire for a mythological American underbelly. Heavy is a portrait of the psychological grind taking place inside the Rock Spring residents upon whom they project. It's not as sensational as a murder trial, but it's more real, and it's just as high-stakes.

Follow Nathan C. Martin on Twitter.

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