Wyoming–the emptiest state in the U.S. Wyoming boasts a mere 5.4 people per square mile density; if I had to guess, I’d estimate there are more livestock than people. The western two-thirds showcase the mountainous foothills of the Rockies, while the rest of the state is open, nearly empty high plains. I’ve traveled across Wyoming twice and when I think of the state, three things come to mind: conservative cowboys, tiny towns, a ceaseless wind that barrels across open land.

But on a recent trip, I realized there’s more to Wyoming’s vastness–for good and for bad:

Wyoming, east of the Wind River Range. Sun bakes the dashboard, seat covers, the skin of ours it hits through the Tacoma’s closed windows. A while back we pulled over to pick plumes of roadside sage. The heat of that blaring sun shocked my skin, as did that wind–hot thick wind–that blows relentlessly across these acres on acres of land. This state in this roasting summer sun is gusty, expansive, brown aside from the occassional green scrub, blue sagebrush or grazing white tipped pronghorns.

We’re heading through gas country, cruising across flat plains dotted with cylindrical oil wells. That’s all we see–plains, oil wells, two white lines and a dotted yellow between them stretching clear through to the horizon. Prior to this trip I knew little of oil and gas drilling in Wyoming, but the more time I spend here, the more I realize how central these resources are to Wyoming’s economy, communities and landscape. A town outside of Casper boasted “Most of our taxes are paid for by oil and gas;” the University of Wyoming is the only four-year university in the state and most of its student body is financially supported by drilling (this CNN video series special highlights the pros and cons of this development: Drill Baby Drill). But as much as the resource use supports Wyoming, it also rapidly degrades its environment. Fracking–a controversial method used to extract oil from shale–has been responsible for contaminating water tables that effect both wildlife and humans. Influxes of oil worker populations increase living costs in small towns and diffuse the local communities. Out on the road, the evidence of drilling make this long lonely state feel almost desolate and tainted by the visual evidence of drilling. Yet this land mass is so huge, and so many parts of it so beautiful. If the resources are there, should we use them despite environmental degradations, negative community impact and ruined landscapes? This place spurs such questions.

We press on, the wind throws forceful gusts across Interstate 80. The Tacoma cab sways in stubborn protest. We’re heading south toward Medicine Bow, then further on to Laramie. Snow drift barriers line the edges of HWY 487, inspiring images of snow whipping across this quiet two-lane. I try to imagine how fierce the famed winters of these high plains are. I see snow pouring over the barriers, across the road, in the middle of a sub-zero night. The thought makes me shiver. We leave oil development behind us for the moment and open space beckons. A few small mountain ranges emerge in the distance as we near Medicine Bow National Forest. Montana gets so much clout for its big sky but Wyoming is right on par. The sky is as integral to the landscape as the plains–sky meets plains and, well, that’s about it in every direction. 

A shape appears west of the road. Long white propellers atop a tall white pole. For a minute I’m confused but then, surprised, I realize it’s a wind turbine. And presence of that turbine brings a smile. So far this drive has been so discouraging in regards to Wyoming’s use of land and resources, but that skinny elegant turbine is a symbol of hope. Soon we are surrounded by them. Rows on rows to the east and west, slender turbines perched atop mellow hillsides, moved and powered by that relentless Wyoming wind.

So this wind and vast, seemingly empty land can be used for good after all. And Wyoming, a leading state in natural resource exploitation in the U.S. can be a part of the renewable energy solution. Oh the things you learn on that wide, open road.

We found Wind Power!!