Saturday, May 21, 2011

Settings: Red Desert Wyoming

America's Empty Quarter
Setting for stories... this differs wildly from author to author. Some camp out in their hometowns, endlessly mining off-beat nooks and quirky crannies for specific scenes. Familiarity breeds authenticity among specific writers (e.g. Stephen King's Maine, H.P. Lovecraft's New England, etc...) other writers create settings where most of their stories are based, rarely deviating (Robert E Howard's The Hyborean Age, Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom) while most writers use a gestalt of places real, imagined, or inspired by to create a specific setting for their stories.

Writers of science fiction are given a gift to extrapolate settings to their liking, stretch them into the future, break them off into a parallel universes, or inject them with whatever needed weirdness is required to create an affect. All creations are derived from personal influences, and throughout my 38 years, I've kept a catalog of places filed away for later use. These places, actually visited or virtually visited, proved evocative enough to leave their mark. Some I've already used for stories, others I intend to use in the future, some I may never use. So for the blog, I'll try to highlight a few places that have "stuck" for whatever reason...

Somewhere on I-80, East of Rock Springs, WY
The first place is what I call America's "Empty Quarter", the least populated stretch of territory in the least populated state in the contiguous United States. It's called Wyoming's Red Desert or The Great Divide Basin, and I first drove through it on my way to Laramie, Wyoming for graduate school. If you've done the cross-country drive, say from Seattle or San Francisco to the East Coast, you've probably passed through it via I-80. Living in Wyoming for three years I had the opportunity to criss-cross the expanse many times with that Wyoming tag line stuck in my head "Like No Place On Earth". And Wyoming, and especially the Red Desert, is so much so, it doubled as Planet Klendathu in Verhoeven's classic Starship Troopers (inspired by Heinlien's novel of the same name.) One can't help but expect to see Mad Max's V8 Ford Falcon zooming up in your rear view mirror while driving its empty highways, or see a radioactive zombie horde stumbling over the hardpan starved for human flesh.

Hell's Half Acre, Wyoming (aka Planet Klendathu)
I've always found vast empty places intriguing. They're blank canvases for the imagination and by their very nature typify one of Science Fiction's major tropes, to explore, colonize, and conquer the universe's vast emptiness. Gazing out over the rolling nothingness and tortured landscapes of the Red Desert, one doesn't see Earth, filled with its cities, people, plant-life, water, etc... one sees Arakis, Mars, Tattoine. I think wasteland creates fear in the human psyche. They're meant to be avoided, or crossed (the Mormon handcart pioneers were nearly wiped out crossing the Red Desert's vast expanse) and in this modern 20th/21st Century it also serves as a warning of things to come, especially in this age of global climate change, global nuclear war, and resource depletion.

To conquer a place in one's mind, is to conquer a place. I think it's the terrestrial version of stargazing. Just as we look up into the stars to marvel at our insignificance, we venture into wastelands to indulge our meekness. It's no wonder the world's prophets sought enlightenment from the desert, even an atheist like myself sees the spiritual attraction.

Anyway, I can't recommend a family vacation to the Red Desert, really. But if you're passing through, stop for ice cream at Farson, WY's infamous ice cream stand or buy a pair of "authentic" native american moccasins from Evanstaon WY's Little America, and take in the nothingness.

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