It’s a place where the land predominates and defines the existence of the people. There are more wide open, treeless expanses than I’ve ever seen in my life; miles and miles and thousands of miles of square emptiness. The little towns are like remote outposts in a sea of grass that threatens to take over if you turn your back on it for more than a day or two. Along the highway are snow fences that must be ten to twelve feet high. It’s not hard to imagine this place becoming the frozen wasteland it does every winter. Temperatures of 20 below are common. 30 and 40 below are not at all surprising. And, it stays that way for six months.
West Texas has thousands of miles of unpopulated space as well, but this is different somehow. In Texas, you know there are other parts of the state that aren’t like that. You know there are parts where people live in cities and the grass is green and the trees grow tall. But, here in Wyoming there’s no such guarantee. The feeling one gets driving up lonely I-25 is that this is all there is…58,000 square miles of open grassland, all of it treeless, all of it with the lowest population density of an state in the nation.
Before we got here, before we crossed into this never never land of grass and hills and not much else we saw a part of Denver you won’t find on the tourist maps. Since we left New Mexico we’d been having problems with “sway.” Sway is what happens when your trailer starts to squirm around on its own while you’re driving down the highway. You go over a bump or an uneven stretch of road, or the wind blows too hard or you get passed by an 18 wheeler and all of a sudden your rear end starts swerving back and forth. It can be a very dangerous problem. I remember when we checked into the KOA back in Clayton, NM, there was a little picture on the desk that said, “Your worst nightmare.” It was a picture of a Suburban that was pulling an Air Stream trailer that had turned upside down and was smashed all the around. It started with sway and ended with a mess. I looked at that and said, “No, that’s for the big trailers. Pop-ups don’t have that problem.”
Well, driving out of Colorado Springs I was forced to admit that they do and that I did. What made it so vexing was that we hadn’t had this problem on our trip East in the spring. Everything seemed to work just fine. Regardless, we had it now and decided that before we had “our worst nightmare” we ought to do something about it. So, Lisa did what she does best and got on the internet. I don’t know how people traveled without computers before but it has been really great to have ours with us. She soon found an RV service center in Denver that was willing to work us into their busy schedule. An hour and a half later we had a new toy on our camper and things rolled smoothly from there. We also learned that sway is primarily related to poor loading technique. If you have too much weight in the back of the camper, or its unevenly distributed side to side, or if there’s not enough weight on the tongue, you’re going to get sway. Last night, in preparation for the drive into “bear country” in Yellowstone, we moved our food supplies into the car and our clothing bags into the camper. I was reminded of how heavy all those canned goods were and thought to myself that they might have been the problem. I think things will work better today.
On the first leg of the journey we made a stop at Fort Laramie. It was a little off the beaten path, 28 miles into the sea of grass from the safety of the interstate, but it was worth the drive. Originally a fur trading outpost it eventually became a military installation and the largest stopping point along the Oregon Trail. In addition to the company of other human beings the Fort provided some protection from occasional Indian attacks for the area settlers. It had been restored by the National Park system and so we could see how things used to be when the Fort was in its heyday. There were a couple of young kids dressed in period costume that we talked with. The girl was dressed as a “washerwoman,” the young man as a soldier. She explained that her job would have been to do nothing but wash uniforms all day long.
“Most of the wash women were immigrants from Ireland or Germany or other European countries who came to America and couldn’t find work in New York or Boston. Businesses would have signs that said, ‘Help Wanted, Irish need not apply.’ So, they signed on with the Army and moved out here to Wyoming, or wherever else they were needed. Most of them were married within two months of their arrival at the Fort. The soldiers weren’t really concerned with how pretty they were, they just wanted a wife so they could get their wash done and have three square meals a day…”
I expect some of the men were also looking for someone to help keep them warm through the interminable winter.
I bought a little book at the gift shop, The Solace of Open Spaces. It’s written by a woman who came to Wyoming in the late 70’s to film the sheep ranching business for a documentary and, in her words, “found it hard to leave.” She writes of the early settlers that the open spaces and the emptiness often “drove men to suicide and the women to insanity.”
We spent the night in Douglas at the KOA. Douglas is the home of the Jackelope. Apparently it originated in Europe and found its way to America with the immigrants. Sightings are rare and captures even rarer. But, we got a picture with the one they had downtown. It was ten feet tall.
Its taken us two days to cover this vast expanse and we are now in the place we’ve worked so hard to get to: Yellowstone National Park. It’s different here. It rained our first night, the first in seven weeks they say. It’s dropped the temperatures too, from the mid nineties to the mid seventies, nice. This place is different from the rest of Wyoming. The wilderness is right there, just like the rest of the state, but it’s more interesting, more varied, more inviting. I heard a wolf howling this morning, early, a mournful tune. Isaac says he likes the wide open spaces. It’s not for me; maybe a touch of agoraphobia, maybe just a deeper sense of my own vulnerability in the face of a land that could swallow you whole and leave nothing of you behind.
My worst fear as we travel, short of a major collision is having a mechanical break down in the middle of nowhere. Wyoming is about as “middle of nowhere” as I can imagine. I’m glad we made it through and glad our journey home will take us West instead of East, back into the emptiness.