By: Randy Tucker
Sage Hen Creek in the Gas Hills, a now largely abandoned uranium mining area between Riverton and Casper, Wyoming, was once a haven for trout fishermen, sage grouse hunters, and agate collectors with more than its fair share of large rattlesnakes. In short, it was a little slice of heaven out on the sagebrush prairie. Its stark, sagebrush-covered landscape, isolation, and desert solitude appeal to many of us.
Over the years I’ve discovered thousands of .50 caliber machine gun casings spread across the landscape. It is a testament to a time just 75 years ago when the Natrona County Airport was a base for the U.S. Army Air Force. A base that trained B-24 and B-17 crews on practice bombing runs and live-fire training of prospective machine gunners.
I once discovered a crashed weather balloon, took it back to town, and mailed it per instructions to a National Weather Service address.
Add in the odd cabin, crumbling into disrepair, a few old bottles, and cans strewn across the desert that provide clues for the type of adventure you don’t find many places these days.
On Good Friday 1984, my friend Tom Zingarelli and I set out for a day of fishing on Sage Hen. The creek abounded with brook trout, thousands of them. They swarmed in every bend, cut bank, and pool along the length of the waterway.
Tom and I had a great morning and early afternoon, catching and releasing hundreds of trout. We didn’t stop until we ran out of worms. Even then we had a few bites on the tiny #20 hooks we were using.
The two-track roads into Sage Hen were still wet with deep puddles from the melting winter snow in some areas. On the way in we cut around them onto the sagebrush many times and didn’t think anything of it.
It was April 20th, so winter didn’t quite want to release its icy grip on the Wyoming countryside.
We started back home after a great lunch of bologna sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies.
Instead of wisely returning on the road we took in, we decided to take another route back to the Gas Hills Highway.
After a couple of miles, a huge mud hole filled what passed for a road. There was a patch of open ground to the left. Tom steered his little Toyota truck that way, clearing the mud. What we didn’t see was a slight drop off and a big patch of high sagebrush on the backside.
We hit it with a huge lurch but kept rolling for a few more feet before the engine died.
Tom wasn’t a mechanic at all, but I’d learned enough on the farm to figure out what was wrong. We’d ripped off the fuel line under the engine. It was slowly dripping on the ground underneath.
The line wasn’t broken, it was just pulled out of a ferrule under the carburetor. I couldn’t get at the line because of all the sagebrush sticking up through the open areas of the engine.
We took an empty aluminum can out of the back. I cut the can open to make a cup and collected a couple of ounces of gas as it dripped from the line.
Tom started the truck as I trickled gas into the carburetor. The idea was to get the truck off the sagebrush and onto an open space covered with gravel just a few feet ahead of us, then reconnect the line.
It didn’t work that way. As I trickled the gas the engine revved and waned, but not consistently enough for it to move the truck.
Out of tricks, we decided to walk to the nearest phone.
We were in the Gas Hills after Three Mile Island. If we were stuck just a couple of years before we’d have flagged down any number of uranium trucks running all over the area. There weren’t any this afternoon.
We walked along a road until it forked north towards an eroded switchback, marked by a yellow 55-gallon drum. Years before I’d taken that little set of switchbacks to Sage Hen Creek. It was no longer passable after the mines closed and maintenance stopped.
We were able to walk down it with no problem. Already an estimated seven miles from the truck we spotted a trailer with power and telephone lines going to it.
It was once a field office for someone but now abandoned.
It was locked. The lock was easy to pick with my pocket knife. I just worked the latch back with the point of my knife to open it. We picked up a dusty phone inside. You guessed it, no tone at all, not even static. The line had been disconnected when the last worker locked the door a final time.
On a hill, in the distance, we saw a white pickup truck going up a gravel road. It was our new target.
Distances on the prairie are much farther than they seem. It looked like the truck was two miles away; it was not. We walked at a quick pace for an hour-and-a-half, another six miles we thought before finally reaching the road.
We’d only been on the road a couple of minutes when a truck came up behind us.
The friendly guy inside asked, “What are you fellas up to?”
We told him. He said to hop in. We did, and he drove us to the Lucky Mac shop.
We called our wives and asked them to rescue us.
“Where are you guys?” Sue asked.
“Go across the Wind River Bridge, go around the curves, stay on the road and drive 38 miles, then take a left,” I said.
She initially thought Tom and I were up to something. It took a few minutes to convince her.
She picked up Lauren in our 1984 Subaru sedan, made it to the Lucky Mac office, and took us back to town.
Saturday I borrowed my uncle Quentin Raymond’s Ford 4x4 pickup nicknamed “John Wayne,” hooked one of my dad’s trailers to it, along with a chain. Tom and I brought his pickup back to town and repaired it quickly.
All in a day’s adventure here in the Wild West.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.