Days 149-150/ Aug 2nd-3rd – Laramie, WY to Arlington, WY: Tolerance

Wyoming cowboy logo on sidewalk

The cowboy logo is everywhere in Wyoming

One of the many reasons we chose to walk across America was to learn more about its history, and here’s one of our key insights thus far: the French really screwed up.  Until the early nineteenth century, it often seems you could hardly travel around the Gulf coast, the Mississippi basin or the Rockies without bumping into some French explorer or other busily discovering vast swathes of the continent – and usually getting it named after himself.  Laramie was a case in point; it was named after Jacques LaRamie, a French trapper who vanished in 1821 in the mountain range that towers over the town to the east.  It was duly named after him, along with a fort, a county and a river.  Places like New Orleans, Detroit, Des Moines, the Grand Tetons and a hundred Lafayettes – and on our walk Louisville, Vincennes, Versailles and St. Louis – testify to the dominance the French once enjoyed in North America.  Were it not for the minor inconveniences of a revolution and a crippling war with the British, it might be the French press, not the British, currently lamenting that the special relationship with America isn’t what it used to be.

Looking west on I-80 near Laramie, Wyoming

Looking west down I-80 to Laramie and the Snowy Range

We walked into Laramie over its eponymous river, which flows into the North Platte River (which we’ve crossed), which flows into the Missouri River (which we’ve crossed), which flows into the Mississippi River (which we’ve crossed).  Such geographical gloating is one of the many perks of a transcontinental walk – and also not possible for much longer, because we were now very close to the dividing line beyond which all rivers flow west.

We were yet to see an unpleasant college town in America, and Laramie didn’t break that run.  It was a neat, thriving little city, nestled in a low bowl of dark trees that stood out sharply from the pale grassland that surrounded it.  It was dominated by the University of Wyoming, whose campus sprawled across the east side of town, surrounded by a neat grid of lush suburban lawns and eye-wateringly expensive coffee-shops.  At its centre was War Memorial Stadium – the highest stadium in America – with a banner across its side reading ‘Welcome to 7200 Feet: Cowboy Football’.

Laramie’s old Main Street achieved the distinction of being the only one we’d seen in America without a single empty shopfront – the Music Box, the Home Bakery and Mountain Valley Bridal faced a line of noisy bars and smart restaurants.  The only place that seemed to be struggling was the Albany County Democrat Headquarters (‘Riding for Wyoming’s Future’).  But the veneer of sophistication was thin: there were posters in the window of Martindales Western Store advertising a Demolition Derby on August 7th, and the Laramie Boomerang, which we leafed through over lunch, was seeking entrants to a pig-wrestling contest – with men’s, women’s, boys’ and girls’ sections – at next weekend’s Albany County Fair.  We were briefly tempted by a poster inviting us to the Friends of the NRA Banquet, being held the same evening, but baulked at the $40 per plate price.

Union Pacific Railroad and Second Street in Laramie, Wyoming

Second Street and the Union Pacific in Laramie, Wyoming

Despite all this, Laramie has an enviable history of tolerance.  In 1870, five women in the city became the first in the world to serve on a jury, and another became the first to vote in a US election in the same year.  But more recently, it had become a byword for intolerance, when Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the university, was beaten and tortured to death in 1998 by two local men he met in a bar.  His murder precipitated a nationwide debate about hate crime, and eventual legislation defining it last year.  As far as our walk was concerned, though, the most civilized and enlightened aspect of life in Wyoming is that it was the only state in America where one could, if one so chose, walk on interstates.

“Well, there’s no law against it,” said the cheery operator at the Wyoming Highway Patrol, when we called to check if this was true, “but you might get people calling you in for hitch-hiking, and then a trooper might stop and talk to you.  You know how it is; everyone’s got a cellphone these days.”

Antelope in the Snowy Range, Wyoming

Antelopes comfortably outnumber people in Wyoming

We weren’t seeking to walk on freeways for pleasure, but from necessity; our route research had made it clear that there were long stretches of Wyoming where I-80 was the only road of any kind that we could follow.  The first such stretch was just outside Laramie, and we walked towards it across a stunningly empty expanse of grassland – no towns, no houses, no shops, no buildings and barely one car an hour.  At the top of a low rise, we turned in a circle and took in an area of grass the size of a small European nation.  We had experienced remoteness and solitude before on the walk, but this was like being the Voyager space probe.

Wyoming highway and the Snowy Range

Rush hour in Wyoming is murder

The road ran on across a plain scattered with nodding donkeys, and slowly converged with I-80.  A brief, violent hailstorm erupted as we crossed into Carbon County, and we sheltered uselessly under a cottonwood tree scarcely bigger than we were.  We joined the interstate at exit 279, walking up an empty on-ramp past red signs that screamed ‘Wrong Way’.  For more than 2,000 miles, we’ve walked across the country in more or less close proximity to these massive highways and, until now, they’ve been the only roads in America that were entirely closed to us as pedestrians.

Walking onto I-80 in Wyoming

Perhaps the least glamorous moment of the walk thus far

We’d expected walking on an interstate to be a necessary hell, but in fact it was surprisingly pleasant.  With nothing in Wyoming to hem it in, the grass verge here was over thirty yards wide, and we meandered between a hyper-cautious position against the verge fence and a mildly reckless one on the edge of the shoulder, before settling on a spot perhaps ten yards from the road.  There were only two lanes in each direction, and the passing drivers were so frankly astonished by the sight of us that they tended to change lanes and give us a wide berth.

There were only two flies in the ointment: the soft-drink bottles, filled with a curiously familiar amber liquid, which littered the verge, and occasional bridges that carried the highway over the little creeks that cut across the plains.  Here, the shoulder narrowed to only a couple of yards and obliged us to wait for gaps in traffic before scurrying in an undignified fashion for the safety of the other side.  After seven miles of this, we arrived at Arlington, a cluster of trailers overlooked by a hundred spinning wind-turbines spread across a long ridge.  It had been established in 1860 as a stagecoach stop on the Overland Trail between Kansas and Wyoming, offering succour to weary travellers, and 150 years later, still did so (‘Snack Bar Beer Groceries Ice’).  We finished our day’s walking here, rather relieved that our interstate adventures were over – for now.

Bird nests under interstate bridge

A common sight: swifts' nests under a bridge on I-80

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