No one bothers to plant trees or flowers in this blight on the harsh Red Desert. Trailer homes line the sad, barren streets -- ready to be hitched up and hauled away at any time. The gravel roads are a symbol of impermanence in a boomtown so temporary many of the men who live here left their families back home.
For most, Wamsutter is just a stop on the way to someplace else, someplace better.
"This is about the worst, ugliest city I've ever seen in my life," declared Shawn Klein, a gas field worker who had just pulled into town from the Black Hills in South Dakota.
The fields surrounding Wamsutter are sprinkled with thousands of natural gas wells, and new workers arrive every day, eager for big paydays.
But pessimism hangs over Wamsutter like the blanket of smoke in the town's only bar. As far as state officials are concerned, Wamsutter is a bust just waiting to happen.
In the West, boom-to-bust tales dot the landscape. Industries come and go, and sometimes so do the communities that helped drive commerce. State and local officials know that what goes up -- gas prices are near record highs -- eventually must come down.
Few would mourn the passing of Wamsutter, but even this town has a cluster of boosters who dream of better days.
"We're a real quiet town," said Mayor Bill Hippe, a slight man with a perpetual smile who manages a warehouse for a drill supply company.
Surely there is laughter in his words about the quiet. After all, a train rumbles by outside his trailer office door a couple of times an hour, drowning out his soft voice. And on the county road behind him, an average of 11,000 vehicles pass in a 72-hour period, creating a constant hum locals hardly notice.
So many oil and gas companies do business here, Hippe struggles to name them all. "BP America, Anadarko, Marathon, Devon, Merit, Samson, Noble," he said in a laundry-list rhythm. About 500 companies are spread out across the state.
And that means field workers head to the rigs that surround this town, then bed down -- sometimes seven men to a trailer -- when their shifts end.
Klein drove into town and had one thought: "I call it the devil's outpost."
"I hate it here," said Matt Zupanik, 22, a field worker who moved here in January from La Barge, Wyo.
The bar is the only hangout in town unless you count the Baptist church where a sign out front says: "Jesus Saves." The men throw back beers and shoot pool near the old jukebox cranking out country music. The only woman in sight is the bartender, and they know better than to cause her trouble.
"If they get eighty-sixed, it's 30 miles to the next bar," Letha Smith said, nodding as she leaned over the bar.
Off Interstate 80 in southwest Wyoming, where Love's gas station with its fast food might lure motorists, Wamsutter appears in all its gravel glory.
"I have lived here so long that it just kind of grows on you," said Linda Proberts, secretary at the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade Desert School. Where others see a dreary town, Proberts and other longtime residents see a place with friendly people, a small school and endless open space.
Wamsutter (pronounced WOM-sutter) got its start in 1868 when the Union Pacific Railroad built its track through town. Later, it became one of the largest wool shipping points in the country. And in the late 1970s, an oil boom and bust found Wamsutter. Town Clerk Susan Carnes remembers the population swelling to 1,500 people, then quickly falling to about 200 when oil prices bottomed out and workers moved away a few years later. It was a painful lesson few have forgotten.
Wamsutter has never been much, and the future doesn't look very different.
About 260 people lived here five years ago, but the gas bonanza quickly changed that. The mayor puts the population at 450, even 800, with all the temporary workers. And more are coming. Two energy companies want to open two "man camps" to house several hundred more workers.
Thanks to more pipelines, new well technology and soaring prices, the current gas and coal-bed methane boom began in the mid-1990s. Wyoming now provides 8 percent of the country's natural gas, making it the third-largest-producing state, behind Texas and Oklahoma.
Experts project that Wyoming can pump gas at this rate for 30 years. Average natural gas prices are running at $6.20 per 1,000 cubic feet, compared with $1.95 in 1995, adjusting for inflation.
All that means big money for Wyoming, the kind this state has never seen before. Six years ago, Wyoming faced a $127 million budget deficit. Now, it has a $2 billion surplus. A new prison is going up, as are schools, and the state is pouring money into education, all due to mineral taxes. Counties are rolling in money, too. Sweetwater, home to Wamsutter, is one of the wealthiest counties.
The workers come for the money, some of them earning $60,000 a year or more. New pickup trucks are parked in a tidy row outside a row of trailers. The cafe is hopping, and the drinks are always flowing at the bar.
But prosperity has reached Wamsutter and kept going before. Roads are dirt and gravel. Three of the town's four water wells are more than 100 years old. One side of town isn't even on city water because there has never been enough money to provide it. There is no sheriff's deputy here; no one wants to come.
"The scenery isn't the best, the weather isn't the best, and their housing is terrible," Sweetwater County Sheriff David Gray said.
And the boom has brought problems. Police and sheriff's departments in southwest Wyoming report an increase in crime. Gray said crime, mostly driven by methamphetamine use, is up 12 percent to 14 percent in his county. Recruiting officers is tough because many can't resist the bigger paychecks in the fields. Nearby Sublette County is down 23 people in its sheriff's office since January.
The state has set aside millions of dollars to help counties, cities and towns with infrastructure, but most of that is distributed on a population basis, meaning Wamsutter won't get much.
State officials feel certain bust will follow boom -- it's just a question of when -- and so they haven't been in any rush to answer Wamsutter's pleas for help.
"The question you have to answer is do you equip a community for the ability to serve a population that may not be there on a long-term basis?" said Mike McVay, budget division administrator for Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D). "That's a tough question to answer."
Wyoming and other Western states have seen Wamsutters come and go; the deserts are littered with them. In Jeffrey City, Wyo., uranium mining swelled the population to about 4,000, but the market fell, and a ghost town is all that remains. Abandoned houses, buildings and gas stations mark the landscape.
"That's just a problem with that type of boom and bust cycle," said Steve Sommers, fiscal manager for Wyoming's Legislative Service Office. "It's a tough call. Why do we want to pour jillions of dollars into this town?"
For Hippe, the answer is simple. He believes in Wamsutter.
Now is their chance, residents say, to become something more than a resting place for energy workers. The mayor envisions a community where the workers stay long after the boom and live in permanent housing, frequent new businesses and gather at a community center. Residents say it could happen if workers stick around and bring their families.
But will workers stay?
Not Max Locke, who said he is just an old single guy who doesn't drink. He's been here three years but calls himself a temporary resident. Locke, 58, and his son Brian Locke, 29, both drive a water truck for an energy company and make $42.50 an hour. Not bad, but not enough to make them want to live here.
"There ain't nothing here," Brian Locke said, outside his trailer near the town school. "It's just a place. It's just a town full of guys."
McVay acknowledges the state could do more for towns such as Wamsutter, but for now it has been putting a lot of money in the general fund, a reserve account and the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund.
"It's a major frustration when you see that," Hippe said of the state's revenue. "And we don't see it coming back here."
Wamsutter's budget is a mere $326,000 this year. The town receives sales tax revenue from the state based on population, so Wamsutter's take barely registers. And with so many trailer homes, the town doesn't benefit much from property taxes. Plus, Carnes said, the median income is so high that the town is ineligible for some federal grants.
"We should be just as equal as everybody else when we go for grant money," she said. "Just because we're a tiny little town doesn't mean we don't have growing pains, too."
There are some bright spots: The town recently received a state loan to put in water meters, and it plans to apply for a grant to get the newest well on the water system. A library in a trailer opened not too long ago, but that was mostly funded by an energy company. A new firetruck and an ambulance also were funded by an oil and gas company. A post office has been established in one of the permanent buildings.
"I hate to say it, but the reality is there is probably some uncertainty about Wamsutter's future," said state Sen. Rae Lynn Job, a Democrat whose district includes Wamsutter. "What do you do that serves you in the short term and the long term?"
No one knows how long gas prices will stay high, how long the gas will flow, how long the workers will stay. But Wamsutter's true believers were here before the boom. And they'll be here for the next one.
Resident Dave Johnson leaves a truck stop in the town. Soaring natural gas prices have drawn workers to the area.
Mayor Bill Hippe wishes the state would send more funds so that the town could have the kind of amenities that would help persuade workers and families to live there.