Ghosts on the Highway

By Randy Tucker

It’s a popular image in westerns, the ghost town. A few pay a lot of attention to the paranormal, but a ghost town really isn’t anything existing in the ethereal plane. They are simply places that once were, and that are now no more.

We have quite a few very near to us.

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Gebo, north of Thermopolis is one of the more prominent ones that comes to mind. Once a thriving mining town of almost 3000 people, with its own high school, and football, basketball, and track teams.

The Gebo Miners once played Riverton, Lander, Shoshoni, Greybull, Basin, Worland, Powell, Cody, and Ten Sleep on a regular schedule.

Now, all that’s left are a few crumbling walls of homes near the demolished townsite, and a lonely, barren cemetery that carries a tragic history of disease and accident on the fading stones.

Some would call Jeffrey City a ghost town, but not quite. Many sections of the mining town that once claimed over 4000 people are decaying, and gradually turning into the surrounding prairie, but a handful of hardy citizens still call it home.

As I drove out to the Wind River, Wyoming Indian game last Saturday afternoon, my ever-present dilemma when traveling to Pavillion came to mind, which route to take?

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My choices were Burma Road to Missouri Valley, 8 Mile, Gabes Road from the highway to East Pavillion Road, the Kinnear Spur, or the fastest route, through Kinnear to Highway 133 North.

I ended up taking the fastest route, but no matter which one presents itself through my windshield, the ghosts of the past roll by.

Highway 133 is relatively new, at least to me. As a kid, the Kinnear Spur was the only highway from Kinnear to Pavillion. Its twisting turns and blind hills had their share of wrecks back in the day, but it wasn’t the road that brought those ghosts of memory to mind.

The homes and farms along the route once belonged to the people of my youth. Some still remain in their families.

One of my first jobs as a 15-year old was working for Erhard Schamber on his farm located about two miles south of Pavillion.

I cultivated corn with a little Allis Chalmers tractor, stacked small bales by hand, and irrigated for the well respected farmer.  He was one of the original settlers in the area, moving here soon after the Midvale Irrigation District went into operation. Erhard cleared hundreds of acres of sagebrush and grew potatoes those first few years.

He moved to Riverton after retirement and had a framed check from a potato buyer in Chicago on his living room wall, only it wasn’t a check. After taking his entire crop to the railhead in Riverton and having it shipped back to Illinois, he owed the company $11.53. You don’t make that up on volume.

Erhard also warned me to stay out of the hog pen. He kept hogs around to deal with dead sheep and lambs. It’s illegal now, but he would toss the carcasses into the pen and they’d disappear.

“Hogs will eat anything,” he said.”Including you, they’ve got a taste for meat now.” I wasn’t even tempted to jump in with the dozen or so Duroc hogs looking up at me from the wooden boundary fence.

Further up the road, my old bus driver, Elmer Portlock’s place once stood. It’s not what it was when Elmer owned it, but someone still farms his original acreage.

I reached the entrance to Wind River High School and a security guard had blocked all traffic, the parking lot was full. It usually is when the Chiefs come to town.

Growing up in the area has its benefits. Though the teacherages where many of my friends lived are all torn down or private residences, I remembered the back roads of Pavillion well.

Driving past the Basketeria, a thriving small town grocery store until a little while ago brought thoughts of ice cream bars, cold pop with my high school friends, and more recently a place to grab a snack when arriving late for a football game or track meet.

There was an active gaggle of local farmers that met early in the morning to solve the world’s problems just a couple of years ago. I made it a point to drop in a couple of times to take in the local wisdom and share insults.

Across the street, a few feet from the Fremont County Branch Library was Barb’s Conoco, the only place between Shoshoni and Kinnear you were able to buy gas. Now the one pump station, with the pool table inside, a pizza oven for those fantastic frozen Tombstone delights, and a pop machine are all ghosts too.

Barb didn’t like kids much, at least she didn’t like me and my friends. But you could play pool for a quarter, eat a pizza and drink pop. What more could kids in the 70s ask for on a Saturday afternoon when you didn’t have to irrigate, stack hay, or move pipe?

A block to the north I took a right and sure enough my secret route was there. I drove in, parked along the west fence of Leroy Sinner Field, and found my way inside.

Membership does have its privileges. In this case, it was a half-century Fremont County membership card that let me find a place to park.

I took the 8 Mile Road route home. The men and women who owned the farms along Gabes Road where I also worked as a teenager are almost all gone. Few of the farms bear the family name any longer, the kids just didn’t want the life they grew up with and moved, mostly out of state, a long way from where they grew up.

I call this the “Diaspora of the Plains.” The movement of the youth to Colorado, Utah, the coasts, and the desert Southwest that leaves the plains states dwindling in population with each passing year.

These are ghosts as well. Not towns, not spirits, but ghosts of communities, connections, and relationships that have gone away.

A drive on any combination of these routes to Pavillion brings all these images to mind. I can see the faces of the people from long ago and wonder what became of their families, and who owns their place today.

It’s something you never realize when it is happening. Time goes slow when you’re young, painfully slow at times, but accelerates with age until almost everything seems to happen at once.

I’m sure the departed miners of Gebo, Jeffrey City, and the Gas Hills once had these same thoughts.

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