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Irrigating the Badlands

by Our Man in Wyoming
Mon Jan 25th, 2016

Bighorn Basin, Wyoming

The Bighorn Basin is surrounded on all sides by mountains, a big ellipse 200 miles south to north. The Rockies are to the west, the Bighorns to the east. Bounding it to the north are the uplands of the famous Yellowstone superheated volcanic super-caldera, which has been thrusting itself upwards, feverishly, for millions of years. From the south, these appear as the Absarokas.

It's a three-hour round trip from here to pick up a few things at Walmart. This means driving due North, with the caldera highlands dead ahead, on a narrow desolate highway, through badlands which are unremittingly flat, and bad, and on a road which is unremittingly straight.

Minute after minute, few of one's muscles move, except maybe to breathe. This deep, prolonged focus can turn into a meditative state.

The thought arises, Which of our newly-acquired neo-Buddhist teachings can be applied here, received from our weekly Mindfulness class in the basement of the Presbyterian church?

For one, "Impermanence". If Yellowstone blew right now, we will be among those instantly vaporized by the the supersonic shock waves. And while at it, wouldn't another good exercise be: reviewing the basics of "Minimize suffering by embracing immediate Reality"?

This is the kind of sight that drivers in the East never see: minute by minute, this soaring gray and black thing ahead, stony and snow-capped, looms ever larger through the windshield. This can only make one feel smaller, the funny inverse of a technique from Neuro Linguistic Programming: to make something problematic in your mind disappear, with eyes closed, visualize it as shrinking away, ever smaller. 

Eyes open, the steamy uplands loom irresistibly bigger.

We make a left turn at a town of 1,285 named Basin, and in good time, reach our destination, Walmart. We buy our insulated Winter boots for less than what we would've paid to any of the few merchants still struggling to survive on our town's main street, "Bighorn Avenue". Using the cash surplus, we gorge on the post-holiday dark mint chocolate, which has been marked down so-lo.

Which begs the question: Where, exactly, does all that mass-produced addictive sweetness originate?



Since the Basin is sheltered on all sides from Winter winds, its agricultural lands enjoy an extended growing season. In the late 1880's the building of irrigation canals allowed the founding of the Sugar Beet industry here, by German-speaking immigrants from the Volga region of Russia. 

Original County Courthouse, 1901

I live directly across the street from the Beet Yard of one of Wyoming's sugar companies, actually a Farmer's Cooperative. I've seen historical photos at the County Museum which show the basic outline of the factory in the 1920's. I see that outline from my kitchen window: the sprawling facility exists as a kind of industrial antique. 

If only the exhaust-aroma with Beets reminded one of Maple sugaring. It doesn't.

Working in the Wyoming sugar beet industry offers above-average wages for part of the year, and for many, a chance to start a new life. I was one, during that time in 2014 when the serial failure and rejection I seemed to be encountering in Boston was becoming, frankly, an annoyance. I worked here as a seasonal agricultural worker for a while. I tended a colossal machine for washing and drying sugar beets which was built in Ogden, Utah in 1970.

There is much more to say about this noble but under-appreciated tuber, Beta Vulgaris. In the next post, I need to share some of what I've learned about them since arriving here.


Beet Piles are measured in Megatons