Archive for the ‘Wyoming’ Category

Days 167-170/ Aug 20th-23rd– Lyman, WY to Wahsatch, UT: Thank you for purchasing my steer

August 23, 2010

‘Made sixteen miles, encamped at Fort Bridger.  This is a pretty place to see in such a barren country… a thousand acres of level land covered with grass, interspersed with beautiful stony brooks, with plenty of timber…’ – Diary of Elizabeth Dixon Smith, August 9th 1847

Wind-turbines in southern Wyoming

Southern Wyoming: Rich in oil, gas... and wind

If we were walking across America during the early 19th century rather than the early 21st, we could have done a lot worse than hire Jim Bridger as a guide.  One of the great explorers, scouts and mountain-men of the American West, by the age of 26 in 1830 he had discovered South Pass in Wyoming (the key to the overland route across the Rockies), become one of the first Europeans to see Yellowstone, and discovered the Great Salt Lake (which he believed for many years, erroneously, to be part of the Pacific Ocean).  Bridger was a leading light of the western fur trade, and acted as a guide for the early surveyors of the transcontinental railroad as well as for the US army on their campaigns against restless Indians and truculent Mormons alike.  On top of all this, he found the time to marry women from the Flathead, Ute and Shoshone tribes, all of whom he managed to outlive.

Barbed wire exhibit at Fort Bridger State Historic Site

No museum in the West is complete without a barbed wire exhibit

Today, Jim Bridger is commemorated in the names of mountain ranges, forests, passes and towns across the West, not least at Fort Bridger in the Bridger Valley, a belt of lush meadows scattered with hay bales, black cows and piebald horses.  After hundreds of miles across the brushy scrub of the High Plains, it felt like we’d arrived in heaven.  Lyman, at the east end of the valley, was clearly within the orbit of Utah.  Just across the road from TJ’s ice-cream parlour, where we had breakfast, was the smart brick Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, resembling a smart doctor’s office, and the Bridger Valley Pioneer was filled with small pieces about local Mormon boys leaving on their evangelical missions.  Elder Brandon Bud Taylor (who looked barely old enough to shave) was about to begin a mission in Seoul, and we wondered at the idea of these children, whose life experience amounted to little more than helping with the hay harvest and playing high-school football, being parachuted into one of the world’s most sophisticated metropolises with instructions to save its inhabitants’ souls.

Lyman Eagles practice in Lyman, Wyoming

The Lyman Eagles are put through their paces

We’d seen the school team, the Lyman Eagles, in the middle of their first football practice of the summer as we’d walked into town yesterday evening.  According to the Pioneer, they had won only two of their nine games last season, possibly, we felt, because they were coached by a screaming man standing on top of a stepladder in the middle of the field.  This wasn’t the only summer activity for the youth of Bridger Valley: we had arrived just too late to catch the Uinta County Junior Livestock Sale, but the paper was filled with appreciative small ads from local children who had sold their first cows there – ‘Thank you to Ernie and Mary-Lynn Georgis at Boot Hill Feed for purchasing my steer – McKell Hadlock’.

There were only 150 people in Fort Bridger, a short walk west down the valley, but they supported between them two churches, a large trailer park and the Jim Bridger Club bar and liquor store.  Jim Bridger had founded a fur-trading outpost here in 1842, just in time to catch the collapse of the industry, but the town flourished instead as a brilliantly placed staging-post on the Oregon, California, Mormon and Overland Trails.  ‘I have established a small fort, with blacksmith shop and a supply of iron in the road of the emigrants,’ he wrote to potential investors.  ‘By the time they get here they are in need of all kinds of supplies.’

Old store at Fort Bridger State Historic Site

Stocking up on walking provisions at the Fort Bridger State Historic Site

Wilford Woodruff, a member of the first group of Mormon pioneers bound for Utah, grumbled that ‘the articles at Bridger’s fort were at least one-third or one-half higher than at any other post in America that I ever saw.’  It was the start of a fractious relationship with the Mormons, who tried to have Bridger arrested for selling alcohol and guns to the Indians  and later purchased the fort from him, only to burn it down in 1857 to stop it falling into the hands of an advancing federal army.  An early pioneer described Fort Bridger in 1845 as ‘a shabby concern… built of poles and dogwood mud’, but its site today is a pleasant place, with more of the feel of a peaceful public park than a rugged frontier fort.

Sally by sign to Evanston, Wyoming

Dawn: and the grim task ahead of us is spelled out

After following it all the way from its starting-point in western Missouri, outside Fort Bridger we bid farewell to the Oregon Trail, which turned north-west here towards, well, Oregon.  Whatever other privations they suffered, at least the early emigrants who took it avoided the day that greeted us next; a series of six-mile climbs over the ‘Three Sisters’, a range of steep olive hills that separated us from Evanston, accompanied by howling winds and the scream of truck engines on the interstate beside us.

I-80 running over the Three Sisters near Evanston, Wyoming

Tackling the first of the Three Sisters outside Evanston

We took refuge in a service station, where we met Mike, a burly forty-something trucker on a run to Oregon with his two-year-old daughter.  He had only been driving for three months, but had already reached the same conclusion as we had after our 2,000 miles across America.

“These truckers, I tell you, they could shut the country down like that.”

We asked him how he was enjoying the life.

“It’s fun.  America’s big.  I’m used to gettin’ across it in two days with my team-mate.  But it’s rough.  I prefer solo driving, ‘cos I can get some good sleep at night.”

Mike’s team-mate today was his little girl, who was pressing her face longingly against the glass of a stuffed-toy machine.

“She’s sposed to ride behind the safety net in the back.  But I put her on my lap out in the country and let her drive.”  We made a mental note to walk further away from the shoulder in future.

Like almost everywhere in southern Wyoming, Evanston had been a railway and a mining town; unlike almost everywhere in southern Wyoming, it was quietly charming.  The wide, sunny pavements of Main Street were lined with planters ablaze with pink and red geraniums, and there was a quiet little square with several places – The Scoop ice-cream parlour, the Main Street Artisans Cafe, Kate’s (‘A Place for Libations and Conversations’) – that looked like fine spots to while away an hour with a newspaper.  We ate dinner at a Mexican restaurant with cactus chandeliers, and marvelled at the first pedestrian crossings we’d seen for several hundred miles.

Main Street in Evanston, Wyoming

Main Street in Evanston, Wyoming

At the cluster of motels on the edge of Evanston, only the Dunmar Inn stood out, with its baffling promise of ‘World-Famous Pillows’.  By the interstate, a huge billboard advertised an indoor shooting-range, with a catchy name – Get Some Guns – and an arrestingly simple marketing slogan: ‘Shoot Machine Guns’.  The last house in Wyoming was a mock Tudor mansion, complete with a stone-clad medieval turret that rose above the sagebrush.

Just over the Utah state line we were picked up by Brian, a goateed young Puerto Rican who had moved to Wyoming only a few months ago.  We asked him what he thought of Evanston.

“Boring.  I just sometimes don’t know what to do there.  I wanna go out with my wife, and go to places, but there’s nothing to do here.  I just bust my ass workin’.  I pick up people from bars.  That’s the business right there, man.  I got people throwin’ up, I got people fightin’ inside the car.  It’s crazy, you know?  It’s crazy.  Wyoming is very crazy.”

Utah-Wyoming state line

Entering Utah... already equipped with 'ski-poles'

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Days 163-166/ Aug 16th-19th – Rock Springs, WY to Lyman, WY: Mine, all mine

August 19, 2010

“I am now writing in a country, dreary and desolate and from appearance, waterless at a great distance, but whilst I write a number of mosquitoes are singing around…” – William Quesenbury, journalist, in Sweetwater County, WY, July 2nd 1850

Mountain bluffs in Wyoming

Wyoming: Bluffs, buttes, mesas and sagebrush. And sagebrush.

When it was announced in 1994 that the newly-discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 would collide with Jupiter, there was little excitement outside the astronomical community.  One small town in south-western Wyoming, however, felt compelled to act.  The Green River city council passed a resolution ‘allowing any citizens of Jupiter to take sanctuary in their town’ and encouraging residents to ‘prepare themselves to make welcome any refugees who might cast themselves upon our mercy’.  (Who says America has turned its back on immigrants?  At least, those from Jupiter rather than from Mexico.)  Green River changed the name of its dusty little hilltop airstrip to the Greater Green River Intergalactic Spaceport, and so it now appears on maps, in atlases and on interstate signs, hinting at a town of charm and quirk.

Wild Horse Canyon and Flaming Gorge Road in Wyoming

They don't mess about with place-names in Wyoming

The reality of Green River was a little more prosaic: it’s a small mining town, lying between two low mountain ridges and split down the middle by a railway line that separates Main Street from the leafier suburbs.  Postcards of the town tend to ignore all of this, though, and instead depict the Twin Tunnels at the edge of town, where I-80 vanishes abruptly into two holes in a cliff-face.  But after days in the grim oil, meth and sagebrush corridor of central Wyoming, we had no objection to the lack of excitement.  It was a delight simply to be back in a town where homes were constructed from neither corrugated metal nor plastic, and where smart little houses sat on neat lawns instead of endless ranks of trailers in scrubby yards.  Green River also had public buildings that were neither diners nor Wal-Marts: there was a sleek, modernist county library, a fine little museum in a thriving historical district and a cosy second-hand bookstore selling ‘Experienced Books & Espresso’.

“Green River thinks they’re better than us,” our taxi-driver Christine had complained to us a few days ago in Rock Springs.  “They call us oil-field trash.”

Pioneer monument in Green River, Wyoming

Another day, another pioneer trail

We had left Rock Springs on a bone-dry morning, with air that cracked our lips and snapped with so much static that we could barely pick up a spoon at breakfast without getting an electric shock.  We walked out of town through a depressing stretch of industrial yards and trailer parks, and came to Green River along the old Lincoln Highway, here little more than a stony track through chalky hills, running alongside I-80 and the Union Pacific railroad.

Sally sitting above I-80 in Wyoming

Resting on the cliffs above I-80 outside Rock Springs

The town is named, of course, after the Green River, which flows from the Wind River Range in western Wyoming and into Utah, where it falls into the Colorado River in a spectacular canyon landscape.  Almost every part of its length is magnificent, except, of course, for this stretch across the plains, where we crossed it.  It was the epicentre of the early 19th-century fur-trade, the engine of western American exploration; six of the trading ‘rendez-vous’ that were held between 1825 and 1840 took place on the Green River.

We left Green River through the bar district on Railroad Avenue.  A poster in the window of the Green Gander bar was advertising the River Festival this weekend, which promised a Cajun shrimp-boil and ‘dog-fetching contest’.  But it wasn’t all fun and games: the door of the local police station was plastered with posters displaying the photographs and addresses of local sex offenders, laid out as matter-of-factly as houses in the window of an estate agent.

Sex offender mugshots in Green River, Wyoming

Not the men to bring home to meet your mother

Green River was built on coal-mining and the railroad, but today depends heavily on the mining of trona, a crushingly dull but essential mineral of the kind much beloved by the makers of educational science videos.  To cut a long story short, trona is important in glass-making, and 90% of the world’s supply of it (roughly 100 billion tons, give or take the odd ton) is to be found around Green River, giving the town’s sons steady – if very dangerous and unpleasant – jobs for the foreseeable future.  The next morning at James Town, a dusty straggle of sheds and trailers spread out along a curve in the river, we passed minibuses slowly filling up with trona miners, who stared at us groggily through the windows while they waited to be driven off to start their shifts.

Dawn over Green River in Wyoming

Dawn over Green River

We were ready for some creature comforts, and we found them at Little America, one of the oddest places we’ve stayed on our walk.  It’s as though someone took a large truck-stop – in this case, one slapped down on the high plains of western Wyoming, thirty miles from anywhere in every direction – and said to themselves, ‘You know, this would make a wonderful family resort.’  For tired cross-country drivers, it must be a pleasant surprise – rooms more reminiscent of English country B&Bs than an American motel, neat lawns and playgrounds for the children.  For two long-distance walkers who have just hauled themselves across two days of parched sagebrush scrub, it was heaven.

It’s a commonplace observation that many US states are the size of entire countries, but in Wyoming, we were discovering, even their counties could be too.  Sweetwater County, which we were leaving at last, was a monstrous patch of brushy desert roughly the size of Belgium, studded with gas tanks and the tiny white stems of distant wind-turbines.  We walked out of it in pelting rain, sheltering occasionally under interstate bridges, from which we peered out across the bleak plains to a lone chimney stack on the horizon, flaming like the eye of Sauron under a canopy of glowering cloud.  If Purgatory exists, Wyomingers are going to feel right at home there.

Plains in western Wyoming

Welcome to Sweetwater County

Days 159-162/ Aug 12th-15th – Red Desert, WY to Rock Springs, WY: Another fine meth

August 15, 2010

 “They tell people that we’re runnin’ outta oil.  It’s a lie.  They just found another well, offa the Gulf coast of Texas, that will heat the entire United States – I mean cars, houses, everything – for the next 160 years.  And that’s just one well.  Period.  End of discussion.”

We hadn’t even realised that we were having a discussion.  After another 25-mile day across the sagebrush plains of central Wyoming, we were driving into Rock Springs with Christine, a former oil-field worker, whose decade of employment with Halliburton had left her a confused but vocal advocate of the virtues of fossil fuels.  She sustained an uninterrupted monologue on the topic for the full half-hour of the drive into town.

Oil terminal in central Wyoming

Oil and sagebrush, symbols of central Wyoming

“If you go down 191 towards Vernal, Utah, there’s actually a natural formation in the land that holds oil, and that will hold somewhere in the neighbourhood of three million years’ [sic] worth of oil.  There’s a few things that people really don’t know.  Honestly – and this is no joke – cows produce more methane and do more damage to the ozone than the oil-fields ever could even attempt.  We spent ten million dollars to figure that out.  They lie so much to people about fossil fuels, it’s not even funny.”

Empty I-80 in central Wyoming

The interstate stays largely empty for an hour or two after dawn

Christine had worked as a safety officer in the oil-fields, and despite being a card-carrying believer in the infallibility of the industry, favoured us with a fund of fantastical anecdotes about accidents she had been involved in.

“I been life-flighted off a rig twice, I’ve had my fingers crushed,” she said, holding out an utterly unblemished hand for us to inspect.  “Last year, I got life-flighted off a rig, they thought I had a massive head-injury, but I didn’t.  I was in a medically-induced coma for six days.  Then I went back to work, like, 24 hours later.”

That would explain a lot, we thought to ourselves – perhaps the injury had damaged the part of Christine’s brain that distinguished fact from fiction.

“I’ve been on location when a guy got his arm ripped off, and I kept him from bleeding to death.  Watched a 19-year-old lose his head – literally.  Leaned over the drilling hole, the pipe slipped.  Took us three days to fish his head out.”

There was a snort from the back seat, and I turned around to see Sally shaking with silent mirth, struggling to suppress the urge to laugh.  I shot her a warning look, but Christine was in full flow, and utterly oblivious.

SO2 gas – you take one whiff of it, you’re dead.  In a second.  I’ve seen my friends die, I’ve come onto a rig, told my crew to back off, put on my full-face respirator, everybody on the rig was dead.  SO2 gas – by the time the alarm goes off, you’re dead.”

Union Pacific train outside Rock Springs, Wyoming

The 2:15 from Omaha comes winding through the bluffs

As she dropped us off at our motel, we asked Christine what Rock Springs was like.

“It’s an oil-field town,” she said.  “And there’s mining.  It’s a boom-town.”

To be fair, it wasn’t much of a boom-town.  Rock Springs sits on a shallow plain, overlooked by the pale massif of White Mountain to the west, and split by steep ridges into three or four distinct districts, each cut off from and largely invisible to the others.  The mansions of oil and mining executives are scattered along the clifftops, but their double-height panoramic windows look down onto a charmless town of dingy trailers, Sixties motels, petrol stations and bars seedy even by Wyoming’s high standards.  Although it was barely seven in the evening, the streets were almost empty save for a few battered pick-ups, cruising the town in steady circles, each carrying two or three wolfish teenage boys who gave us slow, predatory stares as they passed.

Crushed police car in Rock Springs, Wyoming

Rock Springs: A tough place to be a cop

Rock Springs has always had a bad reputation.  Coal-mining began here as early as the 1860s, even before the railroad arrived.  The original white miners were steadily replaced by cheaper Chinese labourers, fomenting anti-immigrant feeling that eventually erupted on September 2nd 1885, when its Chinatown was burned down and 28 Chinese inhabitants massacred.  No one was ever convicted of the murders, and it remains one of the worst race-riots in America’s history.

Nearly a century later, Rock Springs achieved infamy again, in a Sixty Minutes expose in 1970 called ‘Sin City’, which detailed corruption in its police force and local government.  Eight years later, the town’s police chief, Ed Cantrell, eloquently confirmed the essential accuracy of this portrayal by shooting dead one of his own undercover officers, who was about to blow the whistle on corruption in the force.

Religious truck in Wyoming

... insured by AIG

We were driven back out to our finishing-point the next morning by Kayla, a pretty, hard-faced girl, who had the great advantage in our eyes of not being Christine.

“I think this is the second most meth-filled town per capita in the United States.  There’s a lot of rude people, there’s a lottuv conniving people, a lotta thieves,” she said.

Candidly confessional, Kayla told us about her childhood, drifting with her mother between twenty-odd towns in a dozen different states.  She had recently bought her own trailer in Rock Springs, using compensation money she had received after her brother had been killed by a drunk driver.

“My mom got fifty grand, but she went crazy after my brother died.  She just went on a meth binge.  Within four months we were broke.  She got busted for the fifth time, and she finally quit.  But every time she comes to this town, it’s so toxic, she messes up, she drinks.  She can’t come to this town sober.”

Far from being a boom-town, Kayla told us, Rock Springs was going through a period of bust.

“We had a big oil-field boom, but it went away about two years ago.  Now it’s a ghost town.  Oil-field people, they were making thirty, thirty-five an hour, they had a lottuv money to blow, and a lottuv it went on meth.”

Kayla was still only nineteen, but very clear about her priorities.

“My number one goal is just to get outta here.  ‘Cos it just makes me feel depressed.”

Telegraph pole by railroad in Wyoming

Old-fashioned glass resistors on a railroad telegraph pole

Days 157-158/ Aug 10th-11th – Rawlins, WY to Red Desert, WY: The worst place in America

August 11, 2010

We left Rawlins at dawn through a silent caravan park, the low sun glinting off the sides of RVs that cost more than most of the houses in the town.  The sign outside the petrol station beside the interstate read ‘Next Services 38 Miles’, reminding us that at last we’d reached a part of America where it was impossible to walk between towns in a single day; to cross central Wyoming, we would have to find people willing to drive us, for love or money, to a motel from our finishing point each day and back again the next morning.

I-80 in the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming

Sometimes it's best not to look too far ahead when walking across Wyoming

The drivers we found had several things in common: they were all women, they all had relentlessly hard lives, and they all had no qualms about discussing them with strangers.  Laverne, who drove us in and out of Rawlins, established the relentlessly confessional pattern that the rest followed.

“I gaved up my first baby for an adoption – it’s an open adoption, where I can call him and talk to him.  My sister did the same thing, but hers was a closed one.  She’s still mad at me about it.”

Her problems hadn’t ended there.

“The guy I was gettin’ ready to marry, instead of payin’ the rent and the bills, he bailed his brother outta jail, and then his brother stood us up for the money.”

Her brother had moved her from Casper back to Rawlins and bought her a house to live in, but the following year he, her sister and her mother had all died of cancer.  Laverne now lived with her son and his girlfriend.

“He made me a grandma already.  Lemme tell you, I was not quite ready to be a grandma at the age of forty.”

The landscape of central Wyoming was as tough as the lives of its inhabitants, a vast, dry steppe of sagebrush and tiny cacti, studded with gas tanks and scattered with nervous families of antelope.  Even the names of the places along our route – Red Desert, Point of Rocks, Bitter Creek – were dispiriting.  The few faint ranch-tracks that ran across it had a habit of petering out in remote patches of desert, so we chose to walk instead along the shoulder of the interstate, where platoons of grizzled bikers passed by us on the way to their annual rally in Sturgis.  All of America was compressed into its narrow width as it passed over these bleak plains; cars from Wisconsin, Florida and California, all sharing the tiny ribbon of asphalt, and trucks from Texas, Indiana and Iowa carrying their miscellaneous cargo – oil, thousands of potatoes, a bulldozer, cable spools – along it and across the country.

A few miles out of Rawlins, we crossed the Continental Divide, the great watershed that separates the rivers that flow into the Pacific from those that reach the Atlantic and the Gulf.  It runs along a line of peaks from Alaska and down the Americas to Patagonia, but here in Wyoming, uniquely, it splits in two, forming the Great Divide Basin, a dry bowl of desert scrub from which the few feeble rivers that drain into it cannot escape.  We looked down into it from its eastern lip and saw I-80 curling away twenty miles to the horizon, and knew how they must feel.

Continental Divide on I-80 in Wyoming

Crossing the Continental Divide #1 of 2 in Wyoming

We exchanged friendly waves with a highway patrolman sitting in a speed-trap beside the interstate, but a few miles later, as we walked along a dirt service road, we had a more alarming encounter.  Two police cars drove up at speed and crunched to a halt thirty yards behind us.  Two officers leapt out and walked towards us with purpose, their hands on their holsters.

“Could ya come over here, guys?” one of them shouted.  “Where are you headed?”

We told them.

“Oh.  Oh, OK.  You’re not who we’re looking for.  Sorry.  Someone called you guys in.”  They were hunting for one of a trio of convicts who had recently escaped from prison in Arizona, who was known to be in Wyoming with his girlfriend.  From the vantage point of passing cars on the interstate, Sally and I had fitted the bill.

It was blowing a gale as we came into Wamsutter – but then it was always blowing a gale in central Wyoming.  It was a grim little town, the last outpost of civilization for seventy miles, built around a cluster of trailers, each with tyres on top of their corrugated metal roofs to stop them being torn off by the wind, huddled between a BP gas plant on the plain and two competing petrol stations by the interstate.  Every road had been torn up for repair, and the cars and trucks going under I-80 to the little travel plaza on the other side sent thick clouds of stone dust billowing across town.  Wamsutter had the feel of a place that could be packed up and moved somewhere else within half-an-hour if the need arose.

Biker in Wamsutter, Wyoming

Wamsutter: Serving drivers on I-80 who have no other choice

But it was also enjoying something of a boom, its only diner packed with gas workers in red jumpsuits, glued to TMZ on the television.

“This is the largest natural gas deposit in the United States,” explained Suzie, our motel owner.  “It wasn’t for BP, probably nobody’d be working, so I got no complaints about ‘em.  We’ve got two brand new ambulances, a new firetruck, and a day-care centre from them, so we have no right to complain.”

For seven miles either side of town, I-80 was reduced to a single, crawling lane of traffic, while platoons of workmen swarmed over highway bridges bristling with new reinforcing rods.

“We only got two seasons in Wyoming,” said Suzie, “winter and construction.”

Her life rivalled Laverne’s for toughness: she had lived for many years with her husband in Red Desert, a God-forsaken speck of a town some ten miles west that made Wamsutter look like Palm Springs.

“He worked at a uranium mine, then a coal mine.  We had six kids, and no water, sewer or electricity.  Ten months, we got electricity; we had an outhouse, carried water.  Not somethin’ I wanna do again.”

Cement-yard and dust-storm in Wyoming

Wamsutter: Possibly the dustiest place in America

We were scoured by blowing dust from a cement factory on the edge of town as we left Wamsutter.  Central Wyoming is, ironically, the only part of the state with no wind-farms, and we suspected that the oil and gas companies in the region had made sure of that.  At Red Desert, two young lads in a road maintenance truck, both with goatees and wraparound shades, pulled over to chat while we waited for Suzie to pick us up.  We asked them where they were from.

“Rawlins.”

“Oh.  That seems like a nice town.”  Our reflexively polite comment of choice.

“It sucks.”

“How come?”

“Nothin’ ta do.”

“Is Rock Springs any better?”

“A little.”

“When does it stop being so windy?”

“It doesn’t.”

Sally resting under interstate exit

This is what 25 miles across the Great Divide Basin looks like

We came back into town in a full-blown dust-storm, which obscured the horizon and sent the construction workers running for the shelter of their truck cabs.

“We say that Wamsutter’s the only place in the world you can stand in a mud-hole and get dirt in your face,” Suzie said.  She looked out at the town again.  “Y’know, if ya didn’t have the wind, it wouldn’t be bad at all.”

Driver carries no cash sign on truck in Wyoming

Truckers love the old gags

Days 154-156/ Aug 7th-9th – Rawlins, WY: Big Nose George

August 9, 2010

“Everything’s a hundred miles away,” explained the receptionist in the Carbon County Museum.  “You go shopping, it’s a hundred miles.  You go to the next town, it’s a hundred miles.”

Rawlins existed to fill a void in the middle of Wyoming; the archetypal junction town, it was here only because ‘here’ was so far from everywhere else.  It sits on a rocky saddle of land on the Red Desert plateau, sandwiched between two ranges of the Rockies, and split down the middle by its life-giving artery, I-80.  Cross-country drivers, and holidaymakers heading north to Wyoming’s national parks, often break their journeys in Rawlins, and so did we.

The Great Wyoming Whorehouses book

Rawlins, Wyoming's capital of culture

From the beginning, it’s been a town defined by crime.  In August 1880, ‘Big Nose’ George Parrot arrived in Rawlins in the custody of marshals, under arrest for an attempted train robbery near the town two years earlier, during which he had shot dead two deputies.  He was almost lynched on arrival by an angry mob, but was duly tried and sentenced to hang.  Parrot attempted to escape from his Rawlins jail shortly before his execution date, prompting a second lynch mob to snatch him from the prison at gunpoint and hang him from a nearby telegraph pole.  At a time when cadavers for medical research were scarce, his body was given to three local doctors to experiment on.  One of them, John Osborne, for reasons he never satisfactorily explained, removed Parrot’s skin and had it made into a pair of shoes.  He went on to become governor of Wyoming, and wore the shoes to his inaugural ball in 1893.

Big Nose George Parrot, Wyoming criminal

Big Nose George, before he was made into shoes

They were on display in the Carbon County Museum, tiny, gnarled and two-tone, like golf-shoes for a toddler.  Alongside the ubiquitous displays of 19th-century barbed wire was an exhibit chronicling the life of a second famous local criminal, Bill Carlisle, a lone bandit who held up three Union Pacific trains in 1916.  He wasn’t much of a criminal; one of these robberies netted him just $52, and he was captured the same year and sentenced to life in prison in Rawlins.  He managed to escape in 1919, and robbed one more train before being recaptured and sentenced again.  He was paroled after seventeen years, and pardoned in 1947 and, in a delightfully prosaic third act to his life, became a pillar of the local community and one of the founding members of the Wyoming Motel Association.

Today, Rawlins is a town of motels, clustered at each end of Highway 30 to entice weary interstate drivers, and bookending a typically devastated commercial centre.  Half of the businesses – High Country Pawn, Rhino Linings, an engine repair shop – were closed down, and those that remained were devoted to the sale of either cars or alcohol.

“There’s twenty-three bars in Rawlins,” said Laverne, the tattooed taxi-driver who brought us back into town after one day’s walking.  “I pick up a mixture of everybody, but mostly drunks.  It’s a small town: if they don’t know where they live at, we do.”

We asked her how Rawlins was handling the recession.

“We’re adjusting,” she said, “since everybody literally left to go to North Dakota to work on the gas pipelines.”

Downtown Rawlins, Wyoming on Highway 30

Looking down Highway 30 in downtown Rawlins

One of Rawlins’ few permanent employers is the Wyoming State Penitentiary, out on a lonely road south of town.  It replaced the Wyoming Frontier Prison, whose appropriately terrifying façade, all Gothic turrets and metal grilles, still loomed over the county courthouse at the centre of town, attracting a steady stream of curious visitors, which we duly joined.

Despite its forbidding appearance, it hadn’t always been terribly secure; in 1912, there had been a celebrated mass escape in which 19 prisoners slipped out one Saturday over its wooden stockade wall, to be followed by nine more the following day (the walls were hastily rebuilt, higher and of concrete).  Inside, though, it was as bleak as could be imagined – four stories of miserable six by eight cells, each barely fitting a metal cot, a tiny sink and a seatless toilet, and all looking out onto a bare concrete wall; a heartbreakingly dispiriting visiting room, itself little more than a concrete cell and divided into by iron bars to prevent visitors and prisoners from touching; and a pitch-dark basement shower block seemingly designed to encourage violent assault.

Cell-blocks at Wyoming Frontier Prison in Rawlins

The cell-blocks at Wyoming Frontier Prison

The prison was like a grittier, less sanitised version of Alcatraz.  It had only been closed in the early Eighties, and everywhere were small remnants betraying the details of recent prison life: battered metal trays waiting in piles in the cafeteria, blobs of toothpaste in neat lines on the cell walls where they had been used to hold up posters.

There had been roughly 500 prisoners here at any one time, and some 13,000 inmates in all, but our visit focused – a trifle morbidly – on the fourteen men who had been executed within the walls.  Initially, the preferred method had been by hanging.  After the briefest of hellos, our guide, a beaming girl of twenty, began the tour with a demonstration of the prison’s ‘Julian gallows’, a device designed to spare the conscience of executioners.  The trapdoor was triggered not by a lever, but by a vat of water that slowly emptied until it no longer acted as sufficient counterweight to keep the door closed.  The condemned man had to stand listening to the gurgle of escaping water, and presumably wouldn’t have failed to miss the clumsy metaphor for his own rapidly ebbing life.  There was only a small scale model of the gallows at the prison now, and after the demonstration was completed we walked past its spastically jerking six-inch-high puppet to begin the tour proper.

Exercise yard in Wyoming Frontier Prison in Rawlins

Within sight of freedom in the prison yard

It ended in the ‘death house’, a grid of relatively roomy cells where condemned men were brought to die.  During the Thirties, Wyoming switched to gas as its preferred method of execution – perhaps the water-bills for its byzantine hangings got too high – and the chamber, too big to remove, was still mounted in a corner beside the cells, resembling a large, silver diving bell, complete with thick observation windows.  The guide popped open the heavy metal hatch, and we watched with astonished fascination as the families in the group took it in turns to photograph themselves and their children, grinning with amused delight, sitting in the leather chair where five men had writhed and choked their last.

Carbon County Fair parade in Rawlins, Wyoming

Parade opening the Carbon County Fair in Rawlins

Days 151-153/ Aug 4th-6th – Arlington, WY to Rawlins, WY: Snicks on a plain

August 6, 2010
Cows and wind-farm near Elk Mountain, Wyoming

Bovines and turbines in southern Wyoming

After lunch in the Crossing Café in Elk Mountain, we plucked up the courage to ask our waitress, a no-nonsense woman in her fifties, a question that had been playing on our minds all day.

“We’re hiking up Rattlesnake Pass Road this afternoon,” we explained.  “Are there any, er, rattlesnakes on it?”

She gave us a look that was both pitying and withering at the same time.

“Of course.  You often see ’em lying in the road, or on rocks.  But it’s been pretty cool, so they may not be movin’ around as much.  But yeah.  Road’s crawling with ’em.”

Elk Mountain, Wyoming

Sally goes ahead to check for rattlesnakes near Elk Mountain

Elk Mountain lay in a small bowl of cottonwoods on an otherwise treeless plain, sandwiched between the interstate and the mountain itself, a glowering purple mound that took us two full days to walk around.  Little families of antelope skipped away from us as we approached the town, or hid themselves behind the high slatted fences that stop snow blowing across the highway in winter.  The Crossing Café was the only place to eat – indeed, the only functioning business of any kind – in Elk Mountain, but after two days of criss-crossing I-80 along dirt service roads and sheltering from the relentless wind in truck-stop rest areas, the glowing ‘Bud Light’ sign in the window drew us in like the Star of Bethlehem.

The Crossing Cafe, Elk Mountain, Wyoming

Helpful warnings at the Crossing Cafe

Rattlesnake Pass Road followed the course of a creek along its winding valley through the mountains and over a pass to the west, and proved mercifully serpent-free.  We followed it for well over ten miles, with no sound but the crunching of our feet on the dirt, out onto a plain of sagebrush, which filled the air with the faint scent of Christmas dinner.  Here, to our delight, we caught sight of three actual cowboys, picking their way along a dry gulch below us.  One of them, a young woman wearing a fetching sky-blue neckerchief, peeled off to come and see what we were doing.  We asked her what she was up to.

“Oh, just putting cows back where they’re supposed to be.  They’re always gittin’ out.  The fences just get weak and some of these old cows just walk right over ’em.”

Cowboys at work in southern Wyoming

Cows, cowboys and cowgirl

The creek – and, more alarmingly, the road – petered out on the plain in a small meadow next to a stack of pale grey beehives, leaving us to cover the next ten miles by dead reckoning, making our way through the scrub along a fence-line, an old rail-bed and eventually a line of gas-pipe markers, and hoping vaguely that we were heading north-west.  Three barbed-wire fences and at least a dozen ‘No Trespassing’ signs later, we came out in the yard of a trailer home next to the highway.  An elderly woman, wearing one enormous orthopaedic shoe at least eight inches high and with a wheezing pit-bull in tow, emerged to meet us.

“Oh, my.  You come outta them hills?  Y’know you’re not s’posed to be out here, doncha?  There’s a whole lotta snicks out there.”  She pointed down at the dog.  “He got snick-bit real bad last year.”

She pointed us towards Highway 130, and left us with some final advice.

“Whaddever you do, don’t drink any of the water around here.  It’s all bad!”

Fenceline path in Wyoming

'Let me ride through the wide open country that I love... Don't fence me in'

We stopped in for a cold drink at the first petrol station we came to.  The owner held court from a small daïs behind the counter, inhaling lustily from an oxygen cylinder by his side.  We were the only customers – quite possibly all day.

“You’re walkin’ across America?  Well, I ain’t got nuthin’ for ya.  There’s a stepladder out back.  Sit down on it if you want.”

We walked on alongside I-80 on the old Lincoln Highway.  It was in a forlorn state here, with sagebrush trees growing nearly waist-high out of the cracked asphalt, and its central dividing line barely visible as it ran from bush to bush.  There were no cars on it at all.  Within another decade or so, it will have vanished entirely into the desert floor.

Overgrown Lincoln Highway in Wyoming

The Lincoln Highway... going, going, gone

The views in Wyoming are at least nine-tenths sky, and all day we had been walking under a stupefying blue bowl that induced a sort of vertigo if you looked up at it for too long.  We could say with some confidence, therefore, that the sole black cloud for several hundred square miles around was directly above us as we walked into Sinclair, sweating into our raincoats as we were bathed in sunshine and persistent drizzle at the same time.  We crossed an old iron bridge over the North Platte River, the very last river on our route that flows east to the Atlantic.

Sinclair refinery in Sinclair, Wyoming

Sinclair: The nicest town next to an oil refinery in America

Sinclair’s welcome sign described it as ‘Wyoming’s most elegant company town’, and although it wasn’t clear what competition there was for this accolade, it was hard to argue; it was a miniature Santa Fe, with every building, from the town hall to the Baptist church to the post office, constructed in a pleasing Spanish Colonial style.  Its charm was only marginally diminished by the oil refinery at its centre, a tangle of silver pipes, tubes, gangways, vats and silos that had accompanied our walk into town with a series of muffled whumps as some undesirable petroleum by-product was periodically ignited.  We’ve been kept in chocolate muffins and Vitamin Waters as we’ve walked across the Midwest by Sinclair’s eponymous chain of petrol stations – with their distinctive green dinosaur mascot – and it was obscurely satisfying to have reached the town where it had all begun.  ‘Life Without Mexican Food Is No Life At All,’ read the sign outside the Su Casa restaurant, and with six miles still to go to Rawlins, we decided not to argue, and went inside for dinner.

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

August 3, 2010
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

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

August 1, 2010
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.

Days 144-146/ July 28th-30th – Pine Bluffs, WY to Cheyenne, WY: Rodeo gaga

July 30, 2010

There aren’t many young motorcyclists in America.  Judging from the hundreds of riders that have passed us on highways, interstates and country roads, an entire generation of young men wanting to be Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper jumped on their bikes in the late Sixties and took off in search of adventure.  Forty years later, they’re still on them – usually flicking us a languid V-sign in acknowledgement of fellow travellers as they roar by.  The biker who passed us on the highway into Cheyenne was no exception: in his sixties, riding with an empty sidecar, with a white handlebar moustache and a blue bandana on his head.  He caught sight of us as he passed, then slowed and wheeled around in a sudden U-turn to come and talk to us, nearly getting spatchcocked across the grille of a large truck as he did so.

“You guys want a ride into Cheyenne?”  We looked doubtfully at the side-car with its single seat.

“Oh, no, thanks.  We’re walking in.”

“OK!  But you get there before nine, they’re doing a free breakfast for everyone in town.  For Frontier Days!”

Child with gun at Cheyenne Frontier Days

"Roll up! Roll up! Twenty dollars for a licence to hunt this child!"

Frontier Days is, by some distance, the most important event in the calendar in Cheyenne, and possibly in Wyoming.  In a region where every small town has a rodeo ground, and no county fair is complete without bulls being ridden and cows roped, Frontier Days is one of the largest rodeos in the world, billing itself as ‘The Daddy of ‘Em All’, held every year during the last week of July.  We’ve contrived to just miss state fairs, town centenary celebrations and Fourth of July parades as we’ve walked across America, but fate had brought us to Cheyenne for Frontier Days, and we weren’t about to miss it too.

Traffic crawled into town from two miles out, and for several blocks around the venue, enterprising children were standing in their driveways with signs advertising a day’s parking for twenty dollars.  The showgrounds were huge, covering an area perhaps five blocks square, ringed with stables and corrals filled with expectant, stamping horses.  Half of the space inside was taken up by a fairground, and a line of stalls selling saddles, chaps, patchwork quilts, mink-tails, cowboy boots and, of course, guns.  There was a small queue in front of a sign reading ‘Get Your Hat Cleaned and Reshaped While You Wait’, and it was hard to credit, in a sea of Stetsons, that barely three weeks ago we were wondering when we’d see our first cowboy hat.

Wyoming Gun Owners donation form

Something tells me this means Democrats

We spent the afternoon in our seats overlooking the large dirt arena, watching men named Brock Butterfield, Beau le Doux, Hunter Herrin and Spud Duvall competing in a series of unfamiliar but utterly compelling events.  They had worked their way up through small-time rodeos in towns like Verdigre, Nebraska, Kaycee, Wyoming, Spanish Fork, Utah and Apache, Oklahoma, and this was their turn on the big stage.

There was steer-roping, in which a cowboy rode furiously after an escaping calf and lassoed it around the neck, often jerking it backwards with such whip-like force that it was flung off its feet and into the air before crashing down on the dirt, where its legs were roped in a blur of hand movements.  Steer-wrestling required no ropes, and involved larger cows, onto whose necks the cowboy leapt from his horse before flipping the understandably uncooperative creature to the ground in a kind of judo throw.

Bronco rider at Cheyenne Frontier Days

Another quiet Wednesday for Spud Duvall

The marquee events, though, were the bronco-riding (with and without saddles) and bull-riding, a truly terrifying spectacle during which competitors endeavoured to remain on top of 1,500 pounds of writhing, kicking, bovine fury for eight seconds.  Few did.  The riders were awarded marks out of a hundred, with fifty for their own technique and fifty, rather sportingly, for the level of rage exhibited by the bull.  The event was sponsored – rather morbidly, but undeniably appropriately – by the Dr. Carlton Reckling Spinal Center in Cheyenne, and in the minute or so between events – rodeo crowds having a very short attention span – a dashing rider would gallop across the arena carrying a billowing pennant emblazoned with its logo.

Bucking bronco at Cheyenne Frontier Days

The very best riders simply levitate their horses

The events were accompanied by a steady stream of commentary from the cowboy-hatted emcee, who had a delicious turn of phrase.

“Lookit him go, folks!  I declare he could catch and tie a woolly mammoth!”

“He clung to that bull like a monkey on a vine!”

Bull-rider falling off at Frontier Days

Bull-riding: Not as ridiculously easy as it looks

He barely changed style for the less successful competitors.  After one rider had been painfully gored in the buttocks, he looked up at the video-screen and said:

 “Let’s see that slow motion of him taking the old ivory enema, ladies and gentlemen.”

And, after a bucking bull had landed on the knees of a competitor it had just thrown:

“Man, that guy is tougher than a rat sandwich.”

It was a transfixing and unashamedly entertaining four hours.  Near the end, a large man sitting next to us stood up in his seat and shouted out with gusto, “Ride ’em, cowboy!’, and I felt that, at last, I could die content.

A line of cowboys at Cheyenne Frontier Days

Cowboys and cowgirls at Frontier Days

Days 141-143/ July 17th-19th – Sidney, NE to Pine Bluffs, WY: The last town in Nebraska

July 19, 2010

We must have been in the West now, we decided, because only in the West could it take more than an hour to walk across a town of 6,000 people.  Sidney sprawled over a plain north of I-80, and we walked out of it in an early morning fog that cut visibility to thirty yards and changed the familiar Union Pacific into a hooting, rattling ghost train that passed by unseen in the murk.

Union Pacific train under cliffs in western Nebraska

Western Nebraska: The Union Pacific rounds the bluffs

The final fifty miles of Nebraska resembled one vast meadow, tilted down towards us like a draughtsman’s table.  There was a line of low, grassy bluffs along the northern horizon, outriders of the proper mountains still to come.  The only trees were clustered around a few small towns along the road – Potter, Dix and Kimball – and between them there was not a scrap of shade.  Along one scorching ten-mile stretch, the only shelter we could find was in the glamorous shadow of a concrete water treatment bunker.

Lincoln Highway in western Nebraska

The shadeless Lincoln Highway/ Highway 30 in western Nebraska

Kimball lay at the far end of a five-mile-long welcome mat of wheat.  It’s known as the ‘Oil Capital of Nebraska’, which is a bit like being crowned the Bikini Capital of Alaska, though the only evidence of it was three nodding donkeys rusting in the fields just outside town.  During the Cold War, nuclear missile silos were built around the town, and although they’ve long since been removed, the children’s playground in Gotte Park is graced to this day by the top section of an obsolete ICBM.  Enjoy playtime, kids!

Kimball was originally founded as a railway stop called Antelopeville, and as we approached town, we surprised one in a culvert not twenty yards away from us.  It dashed away in panic, leapt over the fence separating us from the interstate in a single bound and then sprang across it in front of several rather surprised truckers.

Rainstorm in Kimball, Nebraska

A slight evening shower in Kimball, Nebraska

We were starting to tire of Nebraska, and its last town before the Wyoming border did nothing to change our minds.  Bushnell was a ramshackle clutter of barns and bungalows, spread out along a curve in the railway line.  Once, there had been enough optimism here to build four grain elevators, running in a line beside the tracks from one end of town to the other, but they were abandoned now, patched and darned with squares of board and metal sheeting that were themselves peeling away.  Much of the rest of Bushnell was like this; almost every car rusting, almost every garden overgrown, almost every window boarded up.  The town’s two schools had closed in the Eighties, quickly followed by the elevators and the petrol station.  There were no people on the streets, and no sounds except a distant cockerel and an occasional yapping dog.

Bushnell Bar in Bushnell, Nebraska

Bushnell, Nebraska: Sadly not long for this world

Being in Bushnell felt like loitering at the scene of a bad accident, so we only rested briefly in the shade of the town post office before hurrying on towards Wyoming.  A few miles from the border, we reached the 2,000-mile mark on our walk, and decided to celebrate by leaving Nebraska.  In the distance, rising above a small town at the edge of the interstate, we could see a line of high, pine-covered bluffs.

“That’ll be Pine Bluffs,” said Sally, sagely.

The central fact of Wyoming is its emptiness.  Just over half a million people – roughly the population of Tucson, Arizona – live in an area of just under 100,000 square miles – roughly two-thirds the size of California.  Or, to put it in British terms, it has the population of Bristol living in area twice the size of England.  The size and shape of Wyoming – one of only two perfectly rectangular states – is no accident.  It’s perhaps the clearest embodiment of a far-sighted Congressional policy, which dictated that the states that were gradually formed out of the massive western territories America had obtained from France, Britain and Mexico by 1850 should be of roughly equal size.  The Rocky Mountain states, Congress decreed – including Colorado and Montana – would be 4 degrees of latitude high, while a host of other western states – including Colorado, Washington, Oregon and the Dakotas – would be 7 degrees of longitude wide.  And so Wyoming is both.

Nebraska-Wyoming border on Highway 30

No expense has been spared to mark the Nebraska-Wyoming border

There was no mighty river to mark the state border this time, only an abandoned petrol station, slowly settling into the long grass.  Just behind us, a sign reading ‘Nebraska: The Good Life’ had been bullet-riddled to the point of near-illegibility, no doubt by mischevious Wyomingites from Pine Bluffs.  We paused to celebrate our completion of 460 miles across Nebraska, and stepped into Wyoming – where a small sign announced that we now had 405 miles to walk to reach its border with Utah.  You don’t get long to savour triumphs when you’re walking across America.

Hiking boots with 2,000 miles of wear

Sally's boots - one new, one with 2,000 miles of wear