Cruising at highway speed, aided by a strong tailwind, a pronghorn antelope streaks alongside me, darting between sagebrush and eyeballing his suicidal intention to blitz across the roadway in front of my truck. Suddenly, our sprint enters downtown Jeffrey City, a modern day ghost town out on the high sagebrush plains of central Wyoming. The pronghorn dashes behind what appears to be an abandoned gas station. Crudely made signs and a neon light indicate that the business is open with MONK King BiRd POTTERY hand painted with two bird footprints on the storefront.
I ease off the highway and idle towards the parking lot. Scanning nonstop for anything that will flatten tires, I opt to park on the outskirts of the aged asphalt. An aged camper trailer, obviously not going anywhere due to a flat tire and piles of junk stacked in front and underneath the vehicle, sits out front serving as a small windbreak. On the passenger side, a saltwater scene is painted to include a marlin and two tuna knifing out of the ocean with an octopus sprawled on the door. Elsewhere in the lot, old BBQ grills lay haphazardly on their sides and a Ford ranger pickup truck, custom painted by a stiff bristle brush and left over cans of thick paint, sits nearby with the driver's door ajar. Chairs of all varieties are scattered around a huge fire pit of disfigured, sooty metal objects that have had all combustible material scorched off. A pyramid stack of used tires provided the canvas for pink paint to be smeared all over the rubber while the wind tucks anything lightweight into corners and small crevices. "OPEN" is painted on plywood that leans against the front bumper of a minivan while the wind obviously smacked other signs face down. Scattered throughout the parking lot are car parts. These parts appear almost categorized into quadrants due to weeds making shaggy lines from growing out of all the cracks in the old broken asphalt. A laundry basket, an orange highway cone, a weathered sofa erupting its cushioning material and a broken down bicycle further add character to the storefront. A single wide trailer, probably condemned by a county building inspector if called, sits all twisted on the east side of the building.
What is this place?
The wind, consistently brisk from the west, creates that lonely whistling sound while blowing through the debris, only adding to the eerieness. No one is in sight up or down the roadway. Glancing across the street and into the depths of run down buildings that indicate a once bustling town still reveals no one. Hungry mosquitoes attack, causing me to wonder with very few cattle scattered in the distance and apparently no people in the city, how do these brazen blood suckers survive? I start smashing bloody polka-dots on exposed skin and approach the front door, only to notice an upright freezer talking gently with slow, yet steady, drips of water onto flaking concrete. Unplugged, the unit is defrosting the interior which appears like a solid box of hoar frost with several ziplock bags struggling to emerge from their icy tomb. Their contents can only be described as mystery meat and I rap hard on the glass door that once took customers into the garage area of the filling station. As glass rattles, I read a quickly scribbled note barely taped to the inside of the door. "I'm over at the Split Rock Cafe across the street. Feel free to look around." Smashing a few more biting insects, I crack the door open and holler. Weirdly, my voice seems to echo and yet also be absorbed into the beginnings of a true hoarder.
"Hello....anybody here?" bounces and is swallowed within the simple cinder block building. Dozens of paintings on warped boards, some possibly finished with most simply started, are scattered throughout the bay area. Brightly colored paint slung on walls, and even cast on the ceiling, adds a nostalgic look as I note empty whiskey bottles tossed about the area. The old hydraulic hoist that once lifted cars for mechanics is stuck high in the air, having created another platform which the owner has carefully stacked more of his treasures. Stairs lead up to a second level and I call out again.
"Hello...anyone home?" With no response, I crane my neck to peer behind the door towards the office area where the cashier once handled customers. Above the doorway is a sign. "GALLARY" is painted in red, but a silver "E" has corrected the spelling.
"Can I help you?" breaks the silence but is quickly whisked away by the wind. A lone figure in a faded Grateful Dead t-shirt, thread bare cargo pants that are mid-shin in length and shoes with flopping soles, traipses across the desolate highway. His greasy hair is finger-combed back, but is more standing straight up. A few weeks of stubble covers his face and he must have recently daytime napped outside since eyelids appear sunburned and peeling.
"I noticed your signs and assumed you were open," I comment.
"I am open. But, I also work at the bar across the street," he replies in a nasally tone. "I used to have a long, skinny banner that caught people's attention...but the wind took it out somewhere in the sagebrush. Come in."
He shoulders his door open and objects slide on the floor, making a gritty, scratchy sound. Without eye contact or a handshake, Byron introduces himself and gives me a tour of his gallery that consists mainly of his pottery works on makeshift shelving. I notice some pieces with missing handles, others with artistic wings snapped off and laying by their base and some work with eye-catching, colorful heavy glazes or fancy layering much like expensive damascus steel.
Bryon coughs and wheezes and comments about allergies and wanting to sleep off too much drinking from the night before. I ask about the population of the city.
"They say 40 people live here...but... I don't even know 40 people. A crazy guy nobody checked on moved away...restraining order... and I wintered here last year because it was easier while on probation," Byron added. He touched on getting surprised by a drug check point while returning from Mexico and in the same sentence, he explained opening the front door one winter day to see nothing but a snowdrift nearly trapping him inside.
"What do people do for fun around here?" I had to ask.
Byron stares blankly at me as if he disconnected from the conversation. Then, with his eyebrows knitted, he says, "We party." Byron rubs his temples. "Some nights we go through the abandoned buildings with flashlights," he says with a sly grin as if they play a grown-up version of a super-spooky hide and seek in the ghost town. I sense a director from Hollywood could cast a creepy snuff movie here at little to no cost since the stage is already built and waiting...
"What is Monk King Bird Pottery?" I questioned, quickly changing the topic in case Byron says too much and talks about dead bodies stacked in the creepy old JC Motel at the edge of town.
Byron rattled on about a story in Arizona (or was it New Mexico?) where he was at some huge artist convention (I envisioned something like Woodstock, but with Byron-types) where everyone eventually grew tired and left. But, somehow he ended up on the set of a Clint Eastwood movie. "The security guy wrote Monk King Bird Pottery because I like Mocking Birds," Byron said. "Now that I think about it...it's like he was maybe mocking me," Byron finished while rubbing his chin and looking at the cobwebs dangling from the ceiling. "Anyhow, it stuck," he added, "and, you can see me on YouTube."
Byron chattered about bicyclists using his camper trailer for overnight stays, at a modest price, and one cyclist videoed him working clay and posted it on YouTtube. "I don't have a website...don't want to be bothered. And my phone number has changed so many times, business cards don't make sense," he explained in his friendly, monotone voice. "But, I did have a trucker stop and buy 36 pieces of pottery recently and I'm now debt-free...that's why I stay here, it's all paid for," he stated.
"Can I ask what it took to buy this place?" I curiously questioned.
"Five thousand dollars," he simply replied. "But, I put in another ten thousand for a new roof, electrical, plumbing and the sorts."
"I'll give you twenty thousand." I had to offer since the place had such unusual character and, most importantly for my personality, it was people-less.
"Nope. I'm not interested in selling," was Byron's immediate reply and I commented on the pronghorn running in the city. "They'll run right past here...I could jump down on them from the roof if I was hungry," he added while explaining how swarming mosquitoes not only force him to sleep heavily shellacked in DEET, but they will drive the antelope crazy by swarming their faces where they're forced to run and occasionally get killed on the highway.
I snoop through the shelves and find a heavily glazed, multi-colored piece of interesting pottery with his name and signature bird footprints on the bottom and make an offer much lower than the scribbled price. Typically, I always pay asking prices but found Byron uniquely interesting and was curious how he would respond.
He didn't budge. Not even a dollar.
Quietly chuckling while paying full price, I realized most people would find Byron fairly odd, especially with such a disjointed conversation swinging abruptly from various topics. But, I embraced how he calmly exudes contentment out on his little slice of heaven up on the howling high plains of central Wyoming.
As an added bonus, a valued friend experienced a populated Jeffrey City over 37 years ago while bicycling across a America (who does that?). I highly recommend reading his story here.