After we’d finished soaking in Thermopolis, it was time to start heading in the direction of Denver for our flight home. Thus far I’d scheduled everything so as to avoid long days driving, but there is no way round the fact that it's a long way from Thermopolis to Cheyenne. To make the trip less monotonous, I got out the trusty map and guidebook to see what interesting things were not too far out of the way to break our journey.
There is a whole lot of *nothing* between Thermopolis and Cheyenne. I thought the Bighorn Basin was empty, but this was more extreme, even though we were driving on the Interstate! Parts were even drier than the Basin. Because it’s such an alien landscape it wasn’t boring, but there was a lot of it.
First up, Hell's Half Acre, which is actually hundreds of acres of even more interesting badlands sites than we'd been looking at. The guidebook says that the geology is fascinating but the tourist-trap facilities at the parking lot are annoying. Well, all that is gone now. You can still pull over and have a look at the site, but all sign of human occupation is gone. Cool!
Stopped on the outskirts of Casper (pop. 49,000, the largest conurbation we’d seen for weeks!) for lunch, where we found a surprising number of alternateens with multiple facial piercings in the Wendy’s – must have been near a high school.
There comes a point south of Casper, though, where things get a little greener (there’s even a town called Wheatland on the I25). It started to look even more like prairie as I know it when we left the 25 and headed east to have a look at three Oregon Trail
sites which are close together. Sure enough, when I looked at the map it, we were getting really close to the Nebraska border. We crossed over the Platte River (more normally associated with Nebraska), which was by far the largest and fastest-flowing body of water we saw on this trip. And the grasshoppers got bigger (desert grasshoppers are these tiny little brown things). You know you're on the prairies when.
The sites we visited were the trail ruts
, Register Cliff
, and we drove past Fort Laramie
. I would have loved to have stopped and done the tour there, but we didn’t have time.
I was surprisingly moved by the first two sites, particularly Register Cliff. Although there’s a parking lot and some signs explaining the sites, the modern world doesn’t intrude much here. The perfect 19th-century copperplate script engraved into the rock is pretty amazing. It’s right next to the Platte River, and all you can see to the east is prairie, but in the distance to the west the mountains start. This is a place where the early settlers could look back to see where they’d come from, and in the other direction see the new challenges of desert and mountains ahead.
Being from the West I grew up indoctrinated by stories of pioneers and wagon trains. In popular imagination, everyone in my home province is descended from people who made a long, dangerous land journey. In reality we tend just as much towards being slobby couch potatoes as the rest of the western world, but that’s beside the point here. Jason surveyed the landscape at the wagon wheel ruts and said “they were all mental”, whereas my take is more “this is why my people think everybody else is a wimp”.
I have never before been so physically aware of the sheer enormity of the undertaking. It’s being able to see both where they came from and where they were going. You’re standing there in what is still a wide open space where it’s still easily possible for nature to Darwinize you, and realise that the early settlers had none of the things we take for granted to fall back on, and didn’t necessarily know where they were going.
Anyway, I’m really glad we took the detour, even though I had a map reading failure in calculating the distance from the Interstate to Fort Laramie. This meant that we were exhausted when we finally got to Cheyenne.
We’d had the choice of staying at one of the chain motels out on the Interstate (none of which were particularly cheap) and the Historic Plains Inn downtown. (Do Google the Plains Inn’s web site to see some groovy pictures of it because it’s amazing; do also make sure your speakers are turned off to avoid the bad country music). You can pay a lot to stay there, but if you take the rooms that have had less modernisation done (but are still quiet, big and comfy) it’s pretty reasonable. As we were so tired by the time we finally got checked in, we opted to eat in the hotel’s restaurant. That was a major win – like the rest of hotel it’s decorated in 19th-century cattle baron chic and the food was incredibly good. The other thing we were impressed by was the free on-street parking between 6 pm and 8 am, and two hours free after that. We didn’t want to move the car before 10 the next morning, so we drove the two blocks to the hotel’s free parking lot. It may be Wyoming’s capital city, but it’s still the sticks (in a good way).
The following day we didn’t have to head for the airport till about 2, so, after packing our suitcases for the flight (ie putting everything heavy into the carry-ons and trying to even up the weight distribution), we set out to wander the city.
I tell a lie. The first thing we did was go down to the coffee shop in the lobby. I’m not knocking the excellent coffee we had many places in rural Wyoming, but it had been two weeks since I’d seen an expresso maker. I got embarrassingly excited about being able to order a cappuccino. When I told the girl behind the counter where we’d been, she understood.
Suitably fortified, we went out to wander, initially not very successfully – whether it was because we were tired, or the tiny bit of humidity, it was a little too hot to comfortably explore the city on foot. Fortunately Cheyenne has trolley car tours of the city. This was another big win – the tour guide told lots of entertaining stories about the early days in Cheyenne, when it was a cattle baron town and rail town as well as the capitol of a new state. Allegedly there were (or maybe still are) tunnels from the Plains Inn to the local brothels so politicians wouldn’t be seen frequenting such places.
Like almost everywhere, business and retail has moved to the outskirts of town. But Cheyenne has enough tourist traffic and enough government offices near downtown that the result is that, instead of being an empty wasteland, downtown Cheyenne still looks like every Western town did up until the time that I was growing up. The best bit is the Union Pacific train station, which is now listed and houses a museum and office space, and a brew pub in the old restaurant area. Because it’s listed, it’s a modern brew pub but the café part looks just like it did Back In The Day. You probably have to be me to get really excited about this sort of thing. But I did.
(I had a retail accident in the museum’s gift shop – a beaded necklace and earring set in the most amazing turquoise/teal colours that I couldn’t just leave it there).
In short, Cheyenne rocks and I would have liked to spend longer there. I would say that I wouldn’t want to live there, but there’s some gorgeous enormous old houses for sale for a lot less than you’d pay anywhere else.
Ever since we left Salt Lake City, we’d more or less left 21st-century America behind. As soon as we crossed the border into Colorado, we were brought back to reality, as empty space gave way to McTractHousing suburbs with no visible source of employment or amenities, several miles away from the nearest McStripMall hells. Corporate plastic everything. More or less continuously from the border to the airport. We never got anywhere near Denver proper as the airport is on the side we approached from.
So. Um. Usual airport stuff and flight home stuff with unwelcome return to Real Life. Which sucks.Conclusion
As you’ve probably already worked out, I loved everywhere we went on this trip and would be back tomorrow given half a chance. (Except maybe Vegas – I need a little longer before I’m ready for the sensory overload again).
We had exactly *zero* trouble from rednecks in our travels. I wasn’t being particularly subtle either, coming from Convergence with white and purple hair and my only shorts having a skull & crossbones motif. We got some puzzled looks from young people in a couple of eateries, but otherwise were treated with nothing but courtesy. I have several hypotheses on this:
- In this economy, no business can afford to be rude to anyone on principle;
- The rural American West has changed a lot since I bailed in the 80s.
- That far beyond the middle of nowhere, nobody cares
- and the universal, if you treat people politely and with respect, they will do the same back.
It wasn’t as difficult to be a vegetarian anywhere as it used to be. Aside from the one disappointing grilled cheese which I think was made with Wonder bread, food in general was far superior to what we were expecting. Even the disappointing grilled cheese came with some of the best fries I've ever encountered.New American Stuff ™ discoveries:
The US makes commemorative quarters from every state and overseas territory (Puerto Rico, Guam, etc). I collected about 30, with the help of the nice ladies in the Thermopolis bookstore. One day I will nerd out and list the ones I’ve got and ask people to send me the ones I don’t.
I introduced Jason to ranch salad dressing. “Hey, this stuff makes iceberg lettuce taste good”. I can’t believe he’d somehow missed that before as it's my salad dressing of default in North America. I blame it on more diner food this time, where salad comes with everything.