A roadside breakdown in the Shirley Basin changed his perspective on life
July 6, 2023
Douglas Balmain tramps about the Shirley Basin as a 'student,' drawing inspiration for what it might teach him about leading a lifestyle with purpose.
SHIRLEY BASIN-Douglas Balmain weaved through mushroom fairy rings more lush than usual for this time of year, noting the expansion of the basin's mycelial fungal colonies. Sparse but brilliant yellow, red, lavender and orange blooms provided a subtle, sleek definition to the sage carpet. The chirp and chatter of songbirds rose above the noise of wind in the ears.
Balmain noted with satisfaction how an unusually wet spring has enlivened this expanse of sage-steppe landscape that most visitors experience barreling between Medicine Bow and Casper on Highway 487.
"All the native flora and fauna are here and functioning," Balmain said as he strode with a backpack filled with tools to collect samples of plants, soils or whatever interesting thing he might discover. On this day, Balmain photographed a tiger-striped salamander he's never seen here before. He also noticed for the first time that while standing in an asymmetrical three-spoked stone formation on the Shirley Rim, it opens to the prevailing wind.
"[The basin] always rewards you with discoveries," he said.
Balmain, who splits his time between Laramie and Montana, has spent the past several years tramping about the Shirley Basin as its "student," drawing inspiration for what it might teach him about the high plains ecosystem. The place also teaches him about leading a sustainable lifestyle with purpose, he said.
"My most valuable and memorable times in the basin have been spent being nobody - being an observer, a student, a lump of organized matter sharing the land with all of the other lumps of organized matter," Balmain wrote.
That connection to a place, and his endless inquiries about it, he said, also gives him the opportunity to influence future management decisions here.
"I've helped with golden eagle studies, have documented ruins left behind by Indigenous cultures and have interfaced with organizations and agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management as the basin's advocate."
Balmain's relationship to the basin - and to nature itself - used to be very different, however. He'd frequently driven through the basin and considered it an empty, often treacherous place.
"I didn't think about it other than, you know, 'Gosh, I wouldn't want to be out here without shelter,'" he said. "It's windy as hell, cold as hell, the roads were super-dangerous in the winter. You couldn't take it for granted."
Then one day the Shirley Basin, and an alternator failure on his truck, conspired to change his perspective.
Balmain grew up in Colfax, California and moved to Wyoming in 2010 for a fresh start. He was interested in the Western mythos. He wanted to immerse himself in cowboy culture, he said, so he began working dude ranches around the state.
He gained a deep appreciation for agriculture, he said, but the modern-day reality of it wasn't fulfilling. While settled in Laramie, he tried out several other vocations and interests, including a stab at becoming a singer-songwriter and working as a welder in the oil and gas industry, chasing jobs that kept him on the road for long stints.
One day in 2015, he was driving through the basin before sunrise on his way to Casper for an early morning welding certification test. The alternator on his diesel truck went out and he found himself stranded on the northbound side of Highway 487, smack in the middle of nowhere without cell phone reception.
"I'm going to be out of a job," he thought. "How am I going to get my truck out of here?"
He perched atop a toolbox in the back of the truck and waited and watched. As the sun began to rise he heard the increasing excitement of birdsong and the yip of coyotes. He noticed mule deer and pronghorn on the move and decided to wander the prairie himself.
"I almost stepped on a rattlesnake that was so well disguised as the color of sagebrush," he said. He discovered a pronghorn fawn tucked away under the sagebrush. He took in the smells and sounds of an expanse barely interrupted by signs of human life. He had a life-changing epiphany.
"This isn't devoid of life," he said. "This isn't just some inhospitable wasteland. There's a ton going on here that I didn't know anything about.
"That day was really pivotable," he continued. "I had this unplanned meeting with the basin, on the basin's own terms."
Balmain, now 34, soon traded a budding career in welding for a lifestyle in pursuit of knowledge about the natural world. He began spending days and nights in the basin observing greater sage grouse, badgers, horned lizards, swift foxes and occasionally witnessing a large elk herd emerge from the Shirley Mountains to the West. A friend directed him to a giant natural wallow that once served as a gathering place for massive herds of bison and other ungulates. It still provides water today, though at a smaller scale and for fewer species.
He's learned about how the cryptobiotic mix of roots and soils of the shrub-steppe grasslands work as a waterbank, sustaining forbs that support wildlife even in the harshest of winters. Evidence of ancient and Indigenous cultures is everywhere, from concentrations of chipped stones that tell the story of prime animal harvesting areas to numerous tepee rings and stone effigies lining the Shirley Rim where the wind rips so hard it might knock you down.
And he shares what he learns.
Though not an accredited botanist, biologist or archeologist, he's built a network among those professionals familiar with the area. He shares his observations - including soil and plant samples and myriad photos - and asks endless questions in hopes of inspiring land management decisions that might help preserve the area.
He also documents cultural sites, sharing the information with archeologists and invites tribal leaders to see them and take part in federal land decisions here.
"I live well below the poverty line to do this," Balmain said, adding that he spends part of the year living in a yurt in Montana with just essential provisions. He shares a home in Laramie with roommates during the cold months and spends as much time as possible in the Shirley Basin.
Balmain, who earned a degree in philosophy at the University of Wyoming, bristles at common notions regarding career and other societal ideals of one's journey in life. He often questions his assumptions in the moment and chooses his words carefully. He delights at how knowledge gained through observation invites more wonder and inspiration to better understand the world around him and what it might reveal about himself.
"This place imposed itself on me and changed my life," Balmain said while navigating his SUV over a rutted two-track. "If it did it to me, I know it can do the same thing for somebody else."
The deeper his connection to the Shirley Basin, however, the more he dreads the potential for its loss.
Winds of change
The wind sweeps hard and persistently. It piles snow in the winter and carves exposed sandstones into smooth, other-worldly features. Gusts of wind buffet songbirds on low and propels raptors on high. It spreads sand, soils and seeds.
Now, the same unrelenting wind that has helped shape the basin has also sprouted batteries of wind turbines just to the south around Medicine Bow. So far, the Shirley Basin remains mostly free of spinning blades. However, a dozen or so meteorological towers have been erected here to gather wind data for a proposal that would fill the center of the basin with a wind farm.
One key factor for the potential of an industry-and-nature interface in the Shirley Basin is that its tens of thousands of acres are mostly public land, and much of that is managed by the federal BLM. Betting on a Biden administration initiative to permit 25,000 megawatts of onshore renewable energy on federal lands, Maestro Wind LLC has filed preliminary plans to add the Shirley Basin to the list.
Though administration officials say the renewable energy initiative will not skirt measures "that still protects our natural environments: our air, our water, our land," Balmain can't be sure, he said. He's preparing for a loss - for himself and for others - of something that can't be replaced.
"If you trade this away, it's final," Balmain said. "You don't get it back."
From his studies, he's realized that he has no particular ownership over the Shirley Basin. It discreetly shares stories of how humans found sanctuary here in the past, and it will play a role for society in the future, he said.
"I have to seriously consider other people's ideas."
Balmain is also acutely aware that the basin is far from untouched. Invasive plant species such as cheatgrass and medusa head have begun to take root here, threatening native grasses and forbs. There is grazing, of course, and a history of mining.
Balmain stopped to diligently pluck at some medusa head sprouting through a cluster of greasewood, making an unnatural bouquet. He carefully placed the invasive's stems and seeds in a ziplock baggie for disposal - all the while admitting this particular effort was in vain. Still, he couldn't help himself.
The basin is an industrious "eco-factory," he said, making efficient use of sparse precipitation while sequestering carbon, building nutrient-rich soils and supporting an increasingly rare diversity of sage-steppe wildlife. All of these naturally occurring functions are desperately pined for in the West, he said.
Despite some evidence of modern-day pressures here, he said, the Shirley Basin is "remarkably intact, and it's working every single day."
For now, the basin still functions "on its own terms," he said. "It just needs to be left alone."
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