Thursday, 4 September 2014

Wyoming


Wyoming first time round in 1979
Strawberry Chiffon Pie in Cheyenne
Some relief from the monotony when crossing Iowa and Nebraska
Devil's Tower

Close Encounter with the Tower
Ascending into the Bighorn Forest Park
By Granite Mountain on the Bighorn scenic byway
Shell creek on the Bighorn scenic byway
Heading down to Cody
Cody shoe store
Shoshone Canyon
Shoshone river valley heading to Yellowstone
The Oregon Trail
Sweetwater County in search of a good cafe

Farson, Sweetwater county - home of the big cone
Flaming Gorge
Flaming Gorge
Flaming Gorge

Flaming Gorge Dam

Looking down on Utah from the Flaming Gorge

Wyoming was a revelation, we spent seven days there including our time in Yellowstone and Grand Teton but the whole state has an array of landscapes and features that ignited our curiosity. Wyoming may have the second smallest population of all American States, currently 582,000 and growing fast, but, with its rectangular boundaries defined by lines of latitude and longitude (the natural geography was too complex for the settlers), it is the tenth largest state with 97,814sq mi. This is more than three times larger than Scotland and, with only 5 people per square mile, its population density is 3% that of Scotland. It is a big empty State with enough wild life and mountains to keep you content for a lifetime. But the climate is pretty extreme in winter, most of the State is over 6000 feet above sea level and the winds carry some darned cold air.

Wyoming had been a welcome relief from the monotony of the prairies when we passed through on a Chicago to San Francisco Greyhound bus in 1979. It was where the prairies stopped, the cooler, fresher air and mountains began. The previous evening we had escaped the delights of Des Moines, a place that Bill Bryson had perceptively commented "I come from Des Moines, someone had to." We had slept on the bus and the next morning passed through the interminable featureless plains of Iowa and Nebraska, the only notable features being when a lorry crashed and burst into flames and mile long mineral trains hooting their way across the former buffalo lands.

The Greyhound bus had dropped us in Cheyenne, the capital of Wyoming, for a food break 35 years ago and we had enjoyed a strawberry chiffon pie in a downtown cafe, it remains a fond memory as it was our honeymoon. As we drove into a much expanded Cheyenne this time we looked for the cafe but in vain and settled instead on an Italian diner that provided good pasta and coffee. Cheyenne had a veneer of the 21st century about it, although like most American cities the centre had been hollowed out by all the commercial developments and trailer parks on the outskirts of the town. Wyoming, despite being more prosperous than most states, has amongst the highest proportion of its population, 13%, living in mobile homes on the edge of towns.

On the plane I had read Annie Proux book of short stories, Bad Dirt, Wyoming Stories about wild and weird Wyoming characters from various eras. Prompted by other memories from 1979, when we had to escape a bar in Laramie as a Friday night brawl between unkempt cowboys and Mexican immigrants, I expected some of the same undercurrent of tension. But the towns we stopped at: Cheyenne, Sheridan, Cody, Jackson all exuded a more cultured welcoming vibe. The hospitality and friendliness were tangible, we visited excellent museums in Cheyenne and Cody, and enjoyed the ubiquitous display of civic art celebrating the history of the native american people and the pioneers. We discovered that Wyoming was the first state to introduce the vote for women in 1869 and to have a woman Governor. There were few cowboys to be seen, although plenty shops were selling cowboy boots.

The journey to Mount Rushmore and South Dakota had whetted our appetite for the Wyoming landscapes and this was refreshed as we made a detour from the town of Sundance to see the Devil's Tower in the north east corner of Wyoming. I should have filled up with petrol but the Devil's Tower was only 25 miles north. There were no gas stations and I was getting worried about fuel when the Tower appeared like an object from outer space set in the lush yellow prairie lands. It is a vast magma intrusion 865 feet high and was designated as the first national monument in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. It remains a powerful image for native americans, with dozens of legends about its formation. The most common legend of the Kiowa tribe being that the tower had been a rock and, when 7 young girls were being chased by a bear, the rock pushed itself upwards and saved the girls from the claws of the bear, the marks of which are seen scoring the sides of the tower.

After a lazy walk round the tower we had to drive 10 miles north, the wrong direction, to Hulett to fill up on gas. From there to Sheridan was a long drive of 170 miles along the Intersate 90. It charges across the high plains but the driving was embellished by the local 101.5 FM radio. It provided an authentic soundtrack of rock, blues and country music as we hurtled along the highway amidst the trucks and trailers; the Doors Roadhouse Blues was playing as we watched Pronghorns grazing to the right and the Cloud Peak mountains searing into the clouds on the left.

We rolled into Sheridan mid afternoon, ate at the excellent Cowboy cafe in the high street, and then strolled around the clean wide streets taking photographs. We were asked by the local bank manager if he could help us as we were admiring the street furniture of sculptures of native americans. He gave us a good tip for the next leg of the trip over the Cloud Peak mountain range to Cody. The road climbs relentlessly through dozens of switchbacks into the Bighorn National Forest and reaches 8860ft over the Granite Pass. We followed his advice took the road less travelled, the Bighorn scenic byway down Shell creek, rather than the more usual Medicine Wheel scenic byway via Lovell and Powell.  We were rewarded with another memorable drive as the afternoon sun cast long shadows over some spectacular mountain scenery. The road was a geologists dream and well provided with information notices in the many stop off parking areas.

We stayed for a couple of nights in Cody which is the eastern entrance to Yellowstone NP but also home to the quite excellent Buffalo Bill Center of the West museum, there are nightly rodeos and a melange of shoe shops that would blow the mind of shoeaholics. The place was recovering from the summer tourist invasion but nevertheless it was difficult to get a seat in the restaurants. I went out for a run, the first time on the holiday, to Cedar Mountain and enjoyed the early morning sun, the crystal clear air and seemed to have no problems with the altitude. The next day we were off early for the trip to Yellowstone passing the Dam on the Shoshone River and seeing several american eagles riding the thermals. But the clouds were racing in as we drove up the Shoshone to enter Yellowstone NP.

After 4 days in Yellowstone and Grand Teton we headed south from Jackson. We had to cover 600 miles to get to Moab and had wisely decided to split the journey over two days. Initially the road was was alongside the Bridger Teton range, yet another spectacular range of mountains. Beyond Pinedale on the 191 highway we were cruising empty roads on the high plains. We stopped to observe the Oregon Trail where it crossed our route and called in at Farson, a remote cafe/garage that had more police patrol cars than visitors. The coffee and food were good and the cafe prided itself on its reputation for the biggest ice cream cones in the State. Four scoops of ice cream for the price of two were on offer and tempted an american couple to take the plunge. "I can never resist a bargain" said the man, who put three scoops into the tub for his wife as she wobbled back from the rest room.

The drive for the rest of the day was down the east side of the Flaming Gorge, a national recreational area, with a remoteness that was extreme even in Wyoming. The Green river terminated at a dam and beyond to the south lay Utah. Vast escarpments of red sandstone were scarred with mine workings near Vernal, and the roads were full of oil tankers. Our time in Wyoming had run out but it had been a loop around some quite fantastic landscapes, Yellowstone and Grand Teton may have been the draws but the whole state oozes a raw untamed beauty.

Annie Proux's short stories about Wyoming had given an impression of harsh landscapes where everyone was involved in hard experiences such as erecting fencing, driving trucks and surviving the freezing lonesome winters on the high plain. I was more inclined to agree with the guy who sold me an iPad in New York. He had been a Project Manager for Solomons and was working at the Apple Store for a year until his wife retired. He was then off to retire to Wyoming and already day dreaming about the sublime landscapes, big skies and escape from urban life. He could keep in touch with the world through new technology whilst enjoying the great outdoors whenever he stepped out. This was a place that many folk want to retire to in order to fulfil their American dream. By all means go to Jackson, and Yellowstone, but there is so much more about Wyoming.



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