Sunday, April 22, 2018
Dealing with Wyoming...Since 1856
It was mid-afternoon when we pulled into Little America, Wyoming, for a quick bathroom break. After all, they have the nicest restrooms around, with individual marble stalls. A spot was open right next to the curb near the doors of the little gift shop and cafe. Numerous children were thronging the playground, overseen by a huge statue of a bison. Their parents were probably glad to let them stretch their legs and play before continuing their journey.
We passed a man standing near the door of the gift shop as we headed directly to the back of the store to utilize those fine restrooms. The entry to the store is a bit congested, with the cash register area to the right and a half wall, hung with numerous tourist trinkets to the left. On the other side of the half wall were tables and chairs where folks could sit down to eat the food they purchased, but it is not visible from the entry because of the wall. A number of people were standing there near the line to buy soft ice cream.
The ladies room is lovely, with a small lounge area before the actual restrooms. As I walked in, I smiled and said hello to an older lady sitting there with her cane. The acoustics of the room were such that there was no such thing as a private conversation. I heard a mother telling her child to wash her hands and another woman complaining that places like Little America should have emergency responders there at all times. I thought it a strange comment since no one really lives there. When I went back through the lounge area, the lady with the cane was gone. As we walked to the front of the store, I could see her sitting in the cafe area looking at the floor. That is when I realized the people in the ice cream line were not really in line and the man by the door was watching intently for something. I looked down at the floor and saw him..an older man with a beard, wearing shorts and sneakers. His t-shirt was partially pulled up, exposing his belly. A young woman in her twenties or maybe thirties was vigorously performing CPR on the man. Suddenly the comment in the restroom made more sense. Where DO you get emergency help in Little America, Wyoming.
After a few minutes we heard sirens in the distance. As they pulled up in front of the building, the man waiting at the door waved them in to our location. He mentioned it had been 18 minutes since they were called from the closest town of Green River.
We didn’t stay to see how things came out but from what I saw, a positive outcome seemed unlikely. We decided we’d help best by getting out of the way.
Wyoming can take its toll on people and vehicles. As a child, I never considered that as we drove through every other year when we went to visit our grandparents in Utah. After the long drive through Nebraska, Wyoming was just another long, long time in the car. I can think of only four positive highlights. Whenever we got to Little America, we went in so everyone could get a 10¢ ice cream cone. (Now they cost 75¢.) It was before the interstate system, so at some point, out in the middle of nowhere, my parents would pull over to the side of the road, open the doors and tells us to run and play out in the desert for 15 or 20 minutes before traveling on. We enjoyed looking at sagebrush, which was foreign to us, as well as picking up bits of shiny mica. We also watched for antelope and Burma Shave signs. That was about it. Crossing the border into Utah was our biggest joy.
I didn’t really pay much attention to Wyoming until some of our children moved to Colorado, which meant numerous trips through Wyoming to go visit in Colorado. Suddenly the road became much more familiar. Previously trips over that road had pretty much been in summer, but special occasions in Colorado meant driving it in other seasons, and some of those are not kind.
It should have been a warning…seeing the barricades along the side of the road with a sign saying to immediately exit the highway if the barricade was down. Of course, we never saw them down in summer. They just seemed like a some sort of useless road decoration. I was pretty much in denial until that day when we checked the weather report to see the road conditions before leaving Colorado for Utah. Conditions seemed doable, so off we went. Shortly after leaving Cheyenne, the wind started to howl, causing near whiteout conditions from blowing snow. We debated whether we should stop or not, but decided we were committed to continuing our journey. We noticed that some large trucks had pulled off the road to wait out the gusts. Maybe they knew something we didn’t know? After Cheyenne there is really nowhere to stop until you get to Laramie, so we motored slowly and cautiously onward. We were amazed that in spite of the road conditions, some trucks went speeding right past us. Even a truck pulling a long horse trailer went whizzing past. We decided to stop in Laramie to get gas before going on, but as we got to the exit to get gas, we discovered we had no choice but to exit there as the barricade was down. They had pretty much shut the road right in front of us. While getting gas, we chatted with the truckers at the truck stop who told us the road to the west was horrible, so we looked around and discovered a motel right there at that exit and went and checked in for the night.
What is there to do in Laramie for most of a day while waiting for the road to open? We went to the grocery store and got food for lunch and dinner. Then we noticed an ad for a movie we had been wanting to see, so decided to do that. On the way to the theater we toured the campus of the University of Wyoming and then went in to one of the most forlorn theaters I have ever seen. I think we were the only customers, so we had our choice of seats. We sat in the middle about two-thirds of the way back. The row of seats about four rows down from us sagged badly in the middle. I don’t know if the problem was the seats or the floor.
When we returned to our motel we noticed the trucks lined up for about a mile along the road leading to the freeway exit with their engines running. Clearly the truckers were planning a night in their trucks, ready to roll as soon as the barricade was lifted.
By morning when we were ready to leave, the road was open again and the line of trucks had moved on. Shortly after leaving Laramie, we saw some of the trucks and the horse trailer that had passed us the day before, blown off the road and on their sides.
Another time the weather was okay, but shortly after leaving Cheyenne, the traffic was terribly backed up. A check of the local radio station revealed that the pass leading to Laramie was closed by a horrible accident. They had no idea how long the road would be closed. A quick check of the map showed an alternate back road, so rather than sitting there for hours we decided to take the scenic route. We were glad to have our lunch with us for the two hour journey to cover what usually takes about 45 minutes.
If it isn’t one thing, it’s another in Wyoming. Last October as we traveled through, the freeway was lined with emergency vehicles for about 50 miles. Smoke was billowing across the road, causing reduced visibility. We never saw the actual wildfire they were waiting to fight, but we were glad to get past all the smoke.
Of course there is more to Wyoming than traveling along I-80. Sometimes we went to Yellowstone National Park and the Tetons. As a child, Yellowstone seemed a magical place where mud bubbled, geysers spewed and bears mooched marshmallows from passing cars. As an adult, it is still a place of wonder, but with a dark side. Who would imagine that the whole area was really part of a vast, ancient volcanic caldera that could threaten to blow up at any time? It began to remind me of a scene from a Jonathan Edwards sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”.
A few years ago we decided to do a bit of hiking in Yellowstone, so we first watched Old Faithful erupt and then set off through the geyser basin toward another geyser area where our ride was to pick us up. As we walked we saw a wolf eyeing us from the other side of a small geyser and hoped that he was more scared of us than we were of him. We made it a point to stop at Morning Glory Pool, a beautiful childhood memory, only to find it a dingy brown rather than the beautiful blue I remembered.
All along the way, signs reminded us to stay on the designated paths due to the dangers of the thin crust in the geyser basins. We were almost to our pick up point when the narrow path was blocked by two massive bison. They were enjoying their place there and seemed in no hurry to leave. We couldn’t walk out around them because of the danger signs. We couldn’t walk near them because they didn’t seem all that happy to see us. Eventually we had to do our entire hike in reverse and call our ride to get us at our starting point. We didn’t see a single bear.
Many years ago, my grandparents, Grant and Myrtle Stephens, homesteaded in a lovely mountain valley with deep, rich soil near Alpine, Wyoming. They were married in November of 1908 and settled into their homestead the next Spring The homestead was on the banks of the Snake River and included land on each side of the river. The nearest post office was about 14 miles away and the nearest store about 20 miles either way, at Freedom, Wyoming, or at Irwin, Idaho.
Grant says, "Before summer was through we had moved into our new house which we thought pretty nice. We lined it with lumber and covered it with shingles. I got the logs out and took them to the mill and had them sawed for $9 a thousand for the lumber and $5 for the shingles. We put in about 20 acres of oats. On our place there was many springs and several acres of high quaking aspens and of course along the springs were willows and the ground along the bottom was a heavy dark soil covered with big thick brush and was very fertile."
By 1910 enough people had moved nearby that the Alpine area got a post office. Grant got the contract for carrying the mail for the first 5 years. He got $20.22 per month for making the 16 mile trip twice a week. In summer he rode a horse and buggy and sleigh or skis in winter. Grants says, "I had a lot of tough times while carrying the mail. Nearly every winter I would have to carry it on skis for several months. I remember one time I started out on the 2nd of January with a team and bob-sleigh. The snow was over 4 feet deep and snowing and blowing until I could hardly see the team so they could hardly follow the road at all." He eventually had to leave behind his sleigh and start off with just the horses. "I tied one horse to the other one's tail and started them for home. I was holding to the last horse's tail. It took me all that day to get home."
Eventually their homestead was swallowed up in the Palisades Reservoir, never to be seen again, except in a painting Grandpa made from memory many years later.
Stephens Homestead Painting
It should be no surprise to anyone in the family that Wyoming could be so treacherous. It was in 1856 that our family first encountered difficulties there. James Mellor was just 37 years old when he traveled through Wyoming with his wife, Mary Ann, and their seven living children as part of the Martin Handcart Company. Their food supply was short and Mary Ann was still recovering from the birth of stillborn, conjoined twins during their journey. They had no money for a team and wagon, so they had only two handcarts to bring food and supplies for the journey. Due to Mary Ann’s poor health, James and a ten year old, daughter, also named Mary Ann, pulled one handcart together. Sixteen year old Louisa and 14 year old Charlotte Elizabeth pulled the other. The rest of the children were too small to help. At one point along the way, the mother became so weak and discouraged that she could no longer struggle along. She sat down by the side of the trail and begged her family to go on without her. When they couldn’t convince her to keep trying, Louisa stayed behind with her while the rest of the family trudged off along the trail. Not knowing what to do, Louisa knelt and begged Heavenly Father for help. As she walked back to where her mother was sitting she found a pie in the middle of the road. She took it to her mother and fed a bit of it to her. After a time, her mother felt enough strength to arise and try again.
Their handcart company had left late in the season and was still on the high plains of Wyoming when winter weather came early, making the handcarts even harder to pull. Their food supplies were almost gone. At night they slept huddled together for warmth. One morning, Louisa found herself unable to rise because her long braids had frozen to the ground. In their hurry to be on their way, there was no time to thaw the ground to release her braids, so someone just cut them off. I suppose they are still part of the Wyoming landscape somewhere. A rescue party eventually got them to their destination, but it was noted that 37 year old James, who started the journey with dark hair, arrived at his destination with hair as white as snow.
Louisa Mellor Clark
Seems like our family has been dealing with Wyoming…since 1856.