If you are getting ready for a trip to Wyoming, you may want to consider reading C.J. Box’s series featuring Joe Pickett, a Wyoming Game Warden who is passionate in his love of both nature and his family. He is a good, clean-cut guy who manages to get himself involved in all sorts of complicated situations and usually wrecks yet another state vehicle along the way. Box’s characters are complex and not usually all black or white…in fact, one of Joe’s best friends has his own moral compass and seems to slide from good guy to bad guy on a regular basis. Joe’s job takes him deep into the wilds of Wyoming, much further into the mountains and forests than we will ever venture, and our vision of the state this trip was greatly enhanced by seeing the plains, mountains and wildlife through Joe’s prism. It was fun to imagine we were on some of the roads he patrols.
Coming into the state from the east, we watched the landscape change and flatten into open lands with buttes rising on the western horizon. Large snow gates stood ready to drop down and stop motorists in the winter months when blizzards rage and leave roads impassable. Snow fences zigzagged for long stretches parallel to the road, and in some places, double rows of trees, in an otherwise treeless land, have been planted to serve this same purpose. Somewhere near Camp Stool Road a sign read “Welcome to Beef Country.” Grazing lands seem to be measured in miles instead of acres out here and cattle gates mark the entrance to gravel roads that snake into the distance. On occasion we see a plume rising in the distance from some vehicle raising a cloud of dust as it heads back to the ranch.
But best of all are the pronghorn antelope. I ride like an overly alert hunting dog watching the dun-colored land for any sight of them. Their beautiful fawn colored bodies and white rumps blend in so well that I usually spot them is when my eye catches a sign of movement…then I focus and see one or a few grazing or the occasional herd. I sometimes let out a whoop when I get to see those graceful animals’ bounding run, seemingly untethered by gravity and sailing above the scrub and brush.
We cruised the quiet, early-morning streets of Ogallala, named after the Dakota Sioux tribe, and paused to photograph the old service station that now provides tourist information. We drove past Kahoots Sports Bar & Grill (love that name) on to Boot Hill Cemetery before returning to our route.
In Sidney we bought a Starbuck’s at a counter in the Safeway grocery store…the only Starbuck’s for many miles. Along the highway outside of town, we were surprised to see a large modern office building whose sign read “Cabella’s World Headquarters,” further proof that we were in hunting and fishing territory. On the main street of Sidney, as in many of the towns we passed, we found a quilt store…a gathering place for those with other interests.
About an hour and a half later, we reached Cheyenne. This is a town that pulls no punches…it shows its muscle right from the start. Enormous petroleum refining complexes spread out with lights and flames burning day and night; vast parking lots filled with trailer trucks encircle distribution centers that process loads of goods these trucks will carry out into communities beyond. Cheyenne is a hub of roads and the Union Pacific Railroad that made this desolate point in the wilderness a thriving commercial center.
It is easy to be put off by the city when this is your first impression, but there is a lot more to see. We drove to the Wyoming State Capitol but since it is closed on weekends, we went on a block further to visit the Wyoming State Museum, which is chock full of artifacts representing the diversity of the people and cultures that came together to form the state.
This mockup of a mining cart gave us a glimpse into some of the impact of the rich wealth that lay underground in Wyoming. Electric power plants across the country and around the world are powered by the state’s coal while their natural gas heats homes around the country. Trona (a sodium compound) goes into baking soda, glass, soap and detergents, and their bentonite (clay) is used in crayons, kitty litter and to filter beer. Who knew I had souvenirs of Wyoming before I ever left home?
We spotted this unusual horse headdress in the Native American area of the museum. The sign explained that these pieces may have been modeled after the armor on the Spaniards’ horses and were thought to protect the animals from arrows and spears…but when they proved useless against guns, the headdresses became ceremonial pieces. The extraordinary graded beadwork in this one brings the flags and stars into sharp contrast with the white background. Other examples of tribal dress highlight leather designs, colorful quill work and many other types of embellishment.
I was fascinated by the display of a wedding gown and a rifle in the same case and started dreaming up all sorts of stories that might have tied the two together…but I found it even more curious that they weren’t related but simply displayed together. The 1910 dress was worn by a young woman who, after her wedding, went to homestead with her husband in Divide, Wyoming. The Winchester rifle earned its fame when it was used in 1909 to kill sheepherders, and the former owner was convicted of first-degree murder for his role in the attack. I suppose the two items aren’t all that disparate when I think about the harsh reality of life in those days.
We were scheduled to meet up with family at noon so we couldn’t spend as much time as we would have liked in the museum and Don still wanted to show me the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum.
If you haven’t attended one of Cheyenne’s Frontier Days celebrations, this museum will give you a good taste of what you are missing. Since 1897 people have been gathering each year for the “World’s largest Rodeo and Western Celebration.” Trophies, buckles, clothing, photos and stories bring the talent and daring of the rodeo participants alive. Settle in to a seat and watch some or all of the video that museum staff members have compiled with historic footage of Frontier Days and the Rodeo. See and hear the riders share their win or lose enthusiasm for being able to ride in the rodeo they call “the granddaddy of them all.”
We were entranced by the variety of forms and uses of horse-drawn vehicles displayed in the museum’s collection of 150-plus carriages. The cool blue “Lakeview Ice Company” wagon must have been a hit when it rolled down the street on a broiling-hot summer day. I hated to think of what the ride must have been like in the St. John’s Ambulance. My favorite was the little blue and cream Laramie County Library bookmobile, a former farm wagon that was repurposed with shelves and storage into a traveling library. I can only imagine the impact such a modest collection of books must have had on the residents living in remote places, and what a stalwart librarian must have been at the reins driving the rough roads to help bring literacy to settlers scattered across such a vast and empty space.
As we were leaving the museum I paused to look at one last statue of a young woman. The poem below, “No Turning Back,” is a powerful reminder of the spirit and courage of these settlers who came to this land with its harsh reality and rugged beauty. They came to make a new life, while leaving behind people and a place that they would never see again.
Now it was time for us to meet up with members of our family whose grandparents were some of those early Wyoming residents.
FOR MORE ADVENTURE: This is Part 4 of 11 in our drive from Maine to and from Glacier National Park. If you would like to follow along with us, the first installment was Des Moines, Iowa, and the next stop is Bighorn, Montana.