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Local author explores the rural duality of boomtowns in a new book

A black and white photo of an older truck in front of three crosses.
Jordan Utley

The story of Rock Springs is riddled with energy booms and busts. Author J. J. Anselmi was born and raised there and said he often has mixed feelings about his hometown. Wyoming Public Radio's Taylar Stagner talked with Anselmi about his new book "Out Here On Our Own: An Oral History of an American Boomtown" where he interviews residents about Rock Springs.

J.J. Anselmi: You have the booms and busts and the biggest ones were during the 70s, when you had just tons of people coming in for the oil field work, and they had just opened the Jim Bridger power plant, and that's when this town literally, like, doubles and then more in size.

There's all these new people, and it makes where you grew up seem unfamiliar. I know that's how I felt during that hydraulic fracking boom that I experienced when I graduated high school.

So suddenly you have all these people come into town from all over the country, and it makes where you grew up seem unfamiliar, that feeling of suddenly feeling like we're just here alone again, when the boom leaves.

In the chapter "Home of 56 Nationalities," it's just another shade of isolation. It's people talking about growing up there as a marginalized person - you know, what it was like to grow up as a gay person in Rock Springs, and what it was like to be one of the few black people in town. And hearing that take on isolation was also very mind blowing.

And then I guess the final factor is just the sheer geography of the place. It's amazing, you can go anywhere and be totally alone within five minutes. But that can also be kind of scary and crushing. And it can make you feel like you're really on the edge of the earth.

Taylar Stagner: How did you go about marrying the good with the bad growing up in Rock Springs?

JA: I had a lot of resentment for where I grew up for a long time. And lots of suicide growing up. It took me a long time to really get over the anger.

TS: Did writing the book help with that?

JA: Yeah. And in that sense, writing the book was just really, I don't want to say healing, necessarily, but it was very fulfilling in that it just reminded me of all this stuff that I really do love about my hometown. And it was just amazing to really connect on a deeper level with people and hear their stories.

And so I think about all those things. Yeah, it really just gave me a really three dimensional kind of understanding of the place and maybe fleshed out my feelings a little bit more and helped me kind of move past resentment.

No place is entirely good or entirely bad. There's good and bad in every place. And I've really got to just learn how to focus on the good.

TS: You've included a spread of black and white photos of Rock Springs in your book. Can you tell me a little bit about choosing the photos?

JA: I had the idea to have Jordan Utley shoot the photo, or shoot the cover photo, for "Out Here On Our Own." It just really blossomed into all these amazing other photographs that went far beyond the cover. And so Jordan's processes to really get to know people that he photographs and to really just explore a place, I'd say he's a boots on the ground photographer.

There's some bleak pictures in there, for sure - the abandoned mining structures and the Halliburton fracking facility just standing totally empty.

But then there's some really delightful, happy moments. I think the wild horse certainly captured it amazingly. I think it's a happy picture and it's not in a cheesy way. It's just a very free and kind of amazing photograph.

Note: Photography by Jordan Utley, filmmaker based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a central Wyoming rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has degrees in American Studies, a discipline that interrogates the history and culture of America. She was a Native American Journalist Association Fellow in 2019, and won an Edward R. Murrow Award for her Modern West podcast episode about drag queens in rural spaces in 2021. Stagner is Arapaho and Shoshone.
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