Days 147-148/ July 31st-Aug 1st – Cheyenne, WY to Laramie, WY: Into the Rockies

Liquor store and motel signs in Cheyenne, Wyoming

Dry-cleaners and liquor stores in Cheyenne, Wyoming

When President Palin’s subtle and nuanced foreign policy unaccountably raises global tensions to boiling point, and a Tea Party-dominated Congress approves a first strike against the assorted Muslims and socialists who populate the modern demonology of the American right, Cheyenne, Wyoming is where Armageddon will begin.  Warren Air Force Base, on the west side of town, is home to the 90th Missile Wing, part of the fearsome-sounding Air Force Global Strike Command, and one of four long-range nuclear missile launch sites in America.  We looked for them in vain along Missile Drive, which ran along the grassy plains beside the base, but all we saw was a herd of goats grazing by a long wire fence enclosing low brick buildings reminiscent of a Seventies high school.

After the glorious monotony of the plains of south-eastern Wyoming – thirty miles of wheat, sunflowers and lolloping jackrabbits – west of Cheyenne the Rockies began at last.  We’d first caught sight of them two days ago from the service road beside I-80, a hazy wash of foothills we had to squint to be sure of, but today we were close enough to see streaks of snow near the summits.  The Rockies in this part of America are a series of narrow north-south chains of mountains separated by flat-bottomed valleys, like the surface of a grill pan.  Today we were crossing the first chain, the Laramie Range.

Sally and three goats near Cheyenne, Wyoming

The goat whisperer meets a few Wyoming natives

It took us a long time to walk out of Cheyenne.  It’s the biggest city in Wyoming – albeit with a population of barely fifty thousand – and surrounded by a ring of housing developments, scattered apparently at random across the surrounding plains as if set down by a recent tornado.  The yards of the houses were filled with quad bikes, propane tanks, old metal windmills, rusting oil drums and piles of logs.  They sat in green rolling hills, a Sahara of grass stretching away to every horizon, through which we climbed up, in the teeth of a gale, towards the plateau that separates Cheyenne from Laramie.

Wind turbines at Happy Jack Wind Farm near Cheyenne

Climbing through the wind-farms outside Cheyenne

It seems like it’s always windy in Wyoming, and since entering the state we’ve hardly ever been out of sight of a wind-farm.  It took us a full hour to pass by the Happy Jack Wind Farm, with its 34 bright white turbines filling the southern sky.  Above us, the sky was streaked with vapour-trails, pointing slightly south of west – planes heading for California, we realised, and which, we noted with envy, would be there in roughly two hours’ time.

Walking towards the Laramie Range of the Rockies

Sally limbers up for the Rockies

The Laramie Range was an uncompromising introduction to the Rockies; it took us several hours to climb out of the valley and up onto its plateau.  At the top, we were gasping, and not just from the exertion of the climb – this was the highest point of our entire walk, nine thousand feet up, and the air was noticeably thin.  It was a landscape of barren, windswept meadows, pocked with the warrens of rabbits and prairie-dogs, and with black cows scattered across it like specks of lichen.  Lumpy sandstone formations protruded here and there from the grass like exposed dinosaur bones.  There was a sort of inverted tree-line on the mountains that rose above the grassland – thick pinewoods began halfway up their sides and continued to the summit, but their lower slopes were entirely bare.

Cows and rock formations in the Rockies in Wyoming

Flintstones scenery in the Laramie Range

The road through this wild patch of America was surprisingly busy, with RVs coming and going from the lakes of the Curt Gowdy State Park that covered much of the centre of the plateau.  A maroon pick-up truck, decorated on both sides with the single word ‘Elkaholic’, honked at us as it roared past.  After ten miles of hilly meandering, the road skirted alongside I-80, which, like us, was also passing over the highest point on its route.  It runs along the route of the old Lincoln Highway along this stretch, and so, to mark its apex, a rather alarming bust of Abraham Lincoln himself had been erected on the hill overlooking it, his head protruding from a rectangle of stone like a man trapped in one of those old fashioned personal saunas.

Lincoln Monument on I-80 and Lincoln Highway in Wyoming

Lincoln glowers down from the highest point of his Highway

We followed a nearly invisible rocky track down the mountainside and into Laramie, arriving with some relief – and in the pouring rain – after almost thirty hard miles.  Much as we’d suffered during the day’s walk, it had been nothing compared to another, earlier walker, who had followed this precise route more than a hundred years ago.

Helga Estby was born in Norway in 1860, and emigrated to America with her family at the age of 11.  She married young, at 16, already pregnant with the first of nine children, and she and her husband, Ole, moved into a sod house in Minnesota, where they lived for ten years before eventually establishing a family farm in Spokane, Washington.  After the depression of 1893 and an injury to Ole that prevented him from working, the family fell on hard times, and the farm was threatened with foreclosure.  Casting around in desperation for a way to save it, Helga heard about a prize of $10,000, being offered by a New York socialite, for any woman who could complete an unsupported walk across America.

Helga set out from Spokane on May 5th 1896 with her 18-year-old daughter Clara.  Her journey, which has been painstakingly reconstructed in a recent book from contemporary local newspaper reports, took her through Boise, Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, Denver, Des Moines, Chicago and Pittsburgh.  The Estbys seemed to have caused a considerable stir in each of the towns they passed through, and were received en route by several state governors and even William McKinley, then President-elect.

Helga Estby and her daughter Clara

Helga Estby and her daughter Clara, photographed some time in 1896

They arrived in New York on December 23rd, after almost eight months of walking, to find that their sponsor (whose identity, unfortunately, is not now known) refused to hand over the prize, or even to pay for their return train fare.  Helga and Clara had to find jobs in New York for several months to save enough money to get home.  They only arrived back in Spokane the following summer, more than a year after they set out, where Helga discovered that two of her children had died of diphtheria during her absence.  A few years later, the farm was foreclosed upon anyway.  The only good thing about the nineteenth century’s apparently limitless capacity for misery, we’ve decided, is that it stops us twenty-first century walkers from ever feeling too sorry for ourselves.

2 Responses to “Days 147-148/ July 31st-Aug 1st – Cheyenne, WY to Laramie, WY: Into the Rockies”

  1. Oldironsides Says:

    What an interesting introduction to your web site. Reminded me of the 1964 Democrat presidential campaign video of the little girl picking a daisy followed by an Atomic bomb explosion. Turned out the Democrats won and they embroiled us in the no-win Vietnam War.

  2. PIC Programmer : Says:

    always choose dry cleaners that uses organic based cleaning agents and detergent to help the environment’;:

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