In the spring of 1987, I was an awkward junior in high school. On a blustery day in April or May, I took a road trip with my Mom from our hometown of Sheridan, Wyoming, to Laramie, Wyoming, to visit my older brother, who was attending the University of Wyoming. At the time, I was delving into the world of photography for the first time, taking a photography elective at school and learning to see the world from a different perspective. My school-owned 35mm film camera went everywhere I did. It was on this trip that Mom stopped along a desolate patch of Interstate 25 near mile marker 228 so I could run up the side of the hill to photograph an old homestead.
I-25 runs north-south beginning in Buffalo, Wyoming, and continues south until its exit into Colorado just south of Cheyenne, Wyoming. I’m just old enough to remember the construction of the interstate, and what it was like to make the 8-hour trip from Sheridan to Denver, CO on the “old” two-lane highway when I was a child. Throughout the state, many sections of the “new” Interstate re-routed drivers to new landscapes and away from small towns previously reliant on business from travelers; notably, the small oil town of Midwest. Just before the southbound exit for Midwest at about mile marker 228 lies the remains of the old homestead. It’s easily noticeable from the road because of the two cottonwood trees planted on either side of the house, the only two trees for miles around. But you have stop, get out of the car, and walk to the top of the hill before the old house can really be seen.
I took one or two rolls of film that trip. In those days, film was expensive and shots were planned. You didn’t waste film, because bad shots couldn’t simply be deleted. I processed and printed the pictures myself in the darkroom at my high school. The picture of the house became part of a photo essay about Wyoming landscapes (I got an A), and afterward, was packed away in an accordion folder with most of my other high school photography work for many years.
I now live in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and have made the trip between my current home back to Sheridan, where my Mom and old friends still live, many times over many years. Each time, I see the old homestead and have watched with equal parts sadness and fascination as it deteriorates. One year, the porch roof finally fell, and the front door was obscured by the roof blocking the entrance. Several years later, the back wall of the house fell in, and the two side walls remained, precariously holding up what was left of the roof. A few years ago, the tree on the north side of the house died, but remains standing. Finally, in the last year or two, the remaining walls collapsed, leaving a sad reminder of someone’s history at the mercy of the harsh Wyoming elements.
And who’s history is it? The old homestead has sparked discussion between me and my husband over the years as we drove by. Who lived there? Someone once took pride in the old place. It’s fenced, complete with welded pipe gates at the front and back of the house. I seem to recall there used to be a clothesline, or the remains of one, in the yard. When was it settled? Why did they leave? Were they ranchers? Did children grow up there? Did they go into Midwest, which is several miles east of the property, to shop and interact with the community? Does someone still own the property? Do they go visit the homestead? Interestingly, although I-25 now runs quite close to the homestead, the older roads do not go near it. The home had to have been accessed from its own road or trail which most likely connected to a local county road.
As I look at the picture of the homestead in its current condition, I’m struck by the profound changes of time. Yes, it’s sad that the old house has fallen and one of the trees has died. After all, I can only imagine what kinds of memories were made within the tar-papered walls. Maybe some were good memories, maybe some were not. Perhaps the rooms were lit with oil lamps and warmed with a coal stove as the notorious Wyoming wind shrieked outside during winter. Possibly, hand-sewn cotton-print curtains hung in the windows and billowed softly as a summer breeze cooled the home on hot days. Conceivably, all those memories are still alive in someone’s mind, but they may also be gone forever with the passing of whomever lived there.
There’s something kind of beautiful about how this place, and hundreds of other abandoned places around our state, have reached the end of their lives naturally. Not razed by loud, dusty yellow iron making way for new progress, not remodeled into something newer but not quite its old self, not burned, dismantled, or otherwise assisted into decay by people. There it all lays, naked and barren, a pile of lumber and nails not terribly unlike the pile of lumber and nails it began as. It’s not morbid, it’s just the circle of life, Wyoming style. Windblown, cold, and forever West.
Postscript: Just out of curiosity, does anyone know anything about the old homestead? I’m most interested in learning something about its history or the people that once lived there.