1500 miles, in case you were wondering, is what we drove. We didn't know exactly how to do this trip and Sean and I sat down and planned it out like two days before departure, so there could have been many ways to do it. Our main goal was Mt. Rushmore so we mapped out the route and looked up things to do and see along the way. I've debated how to share but I think I'm going to try chronologically. There were multiple themes to our trip but I think it'll help me make better sense of it if I do it in order, and maybe it'll be easier to read.
It's funny when I tell people about this trip. Going on a "tour of Wyoming" does not sound exciting. I know it. But our eyes were opened and boy, did we have a time of it. Immediately we felt as though we'd entered a time portal, a persistent feeling throughout the trip. A feeling of, things are... different here. Also, I love visiting an unsuspecting place only to discover a real gem. To quote Sean, "It's nice to go to a new place and discover that it's wonderful."
In many ways, Wyoming was exactly how I imagined it but also not at all. I guess seeing it in real life gave it a more concrete shape but I had trouble processing it the entire time. Sean felt the same. This could have been because we did so many different things in a short amount of time. It was a little disorienting and didn't give us a lot of time to reflect. I am always eager to capture the "essence" of a place. Its spirit. So what was Wyoming's? One thing was how beautiful it was and vast, with open spaces. Rolling hills, little bit of red rock, badlands, grasslands. Other than the Tetons in the distance, we didn't see much that was mountainous. A lot of flat lands bespecked with the occasional small town or two. And I emphasize occasional. I'm convinced Wyoming is 90% open land. It's the main inhabitant, with wildlife being a prevalence as well. Immediately we saw deer and antelope along the roads and we were like, is this a joke? Obviously Home On the Range immediately came to mind and was played on a constant loop. Sadly we didn't see any bison or buffalo but we definitely saw signs warning us about them. Here's an example of signage we saw:
|not exactly beautiful here, perhaps. but great sign.|
Also, let's talk about the RV for a minute. We had a small 19-foot one, big enough for three people exactly.
It was a strange and fun experience, going from large spacious car in the day to tiny cramped house at night. We learned a lot about using all the hook-ups and experienced a bit of the heretofore mysterious RV culture. Sean in particular has fond memories of holding the black water tube to the hook-up only to have it come loose on him. Witnesses, Julian and I share that fond memory with even more fondness. We stayed in some nice woodsy campgrounds and some pretty dismal parking lot-type RV parks. We learned that some people RV for life, or at long lengths at a time. We saw people with welcome signs on their vehicle and permanent looking fixtures around. We learned a lot but, having only scratched the surface, I think I came away with more questions than answers. But the RV was a major player in our whole experience. Julian was super psyched to sit at the table and not have a cross-over seatbelt, just a lap belt, and to have a buddy sit with him to talk to.
|the back. invisible bathroom directly behind me. fridge and microwave to my right.|
|Are you sure this paved road wasn't JUST put in? Seriously, it was hard to gauge the passage of time.|
We had to get to Lander in a day so the first day was a lot of driving. Our first stop was Kemmerer. Small Western Town, USA and our first time experiencing the Wyoming attitude. I've referred to it as "Wyoming-*shrug*" Not to mean my indifference, but the general vibe of the people there. Like, whatever, we don't care. Easy, chill, calm, simple, quiet. Can't be bothered about too many things. It was a bit surreal at first (and throughout the trip). An example of this was when we stopped in a few antique shops where we chatted with very friendly people and I bought a ocean blue vintage electric typewriter for an astonishing $8. Sean and I thought we walked away with such a steal but--*shrug.* We saw some other older crazier typewriters and I very much had heart eyes. Look at this weirdo:
|look closely--i have a key pressed. what the what?|
Our next stop was in Farson, home of the giant ice cream cones and more of the laissez-faire attitude. So if you want an extra large scoop on your single scoop cone with no price differential, why not? *shrug* Also I got the world's coolest hat here and I reprimanded Sean for not getting one there too because they were all awesome. He got one later but I thought he missed out. We spent much of the trip boasting of our hats and respectively declaring ours the best. Seriously though, the next time I need a hat I might just drive up to Farson.
|look at that hat! explanation of this photo to come.|
We spent the first night in Lander at a campground. The table folded into a bed we thought Julian would have with me and Sean on the overhead bed. WRONG. I climbed up there, spent about 5 seconds staring at a ceiling inches above my face and i was like, NOPE. So even though he had fallen asleep by then after a long day and late pulling in, we woke him up and made him trade with me because there was no way I was sleeping up there. This was just after I had told Sean that growing up, and even now, I'd always get the shaft with the sleeping arrangements. Whatever the worst thing was, that was mine. Well not anymore! I took that nice low single bed next to the big window and felt great about it. We discovered the boon of camp showers, far superior to the thought of using ours in the already cramped toilet (can't really call it a "bathroom.") In fact, I don't think Sean used the RV bathroom once the whole trip but Julian and I sure did. Why? Because we COULD! Having a bathroom whenever we needed is a nice and weird kind of luxury.
|Julian, at bedtime one night as we were all shuffling around trying to get ready:|
"I tickled Dad and he smacked my butt. I should have known better than to tickle him while I was naked."
Tickling Sean is Julian's new favorite thing. He can't not, and I get it.
The next day we found the Sinks and the Swell, a section of the Popo Agie River where the water just sinks into the mountain to nowhere. Actually it resurfaces down the road a bit to the swells, calm pools full of trout fish you can feed from up above.
Sean has this persona that we call "Vacation Sean/Dad." Basically he's really happy and kind of over-enthusiastic about every small thing, and the dad jokes and commentary abound. He's great when he's not on vacation but perhaps a little more stressed and subdued. So Julian and I are highly amused. Vacation Sean greeted us at this river and we returned with a hearty hello. He loved the visitors center full of stuffed dead animals and various facts about the local wildlife including Bam Bam, the local Ram who up until a few years ago, was known to bash people's cars. Seemingly beloved, it was weird to see him dead, staring at us, when he had been alive not long ago. In fact, do yourself a favor and check out his obituary. The quotes from the locals are particularly good.
Speaking of quotes, I'll throw some of ours here and there in the post.
|flowing to a cave to nowhere|
|closer up. it was just weird how it just...ended.|
|Sean: I like big buttes and i cannot lie.|
Next up, more driving. We stopped in Thermopolis for a quick dip in the hot springs and a shower and I had a moment that added to my increasing disdain for public swimming pools. Especially when the water is lukewarm and slightly smelly. I was standing there, watching people around me doing various gross things and, increasingly grossed out, I just backed up to the edge and slowly lifted myself out. I wish it weren't happening but it is and I don't know if I can stop it. I was wearing big sunglasses at the counter when we arrived and the man behind it said, "Sorry, we don't allow big butterfly sunglasses here." Amused, I said, "Oh, are they not cool here?" And he laughed and was embarrassed and I was entertained and really enjoyed getting a bit of the "public regional opinion" aspect of this interaction. I wanted him to tell me more. But he was too embarrassed.
|sunglasses of shame|
Over the hills and through the Badlands, my aunt and cousins live on a huge ranch in a tiny town called Ten Sleep. Their mailing address is a PO Box and I have been getting a little bit reacquainted with them through Christmas cards and other correspondence. But they are the oldest grandkids on my mom's side (this aunt being the oldest of four, my mom being number three) and I am one of the youngest grandkids so I barely have any memories of any of them. We followed the very specific instructions sent to me by my cousin because there was obviously no GPS address we could use. Turn onto this highway onto this road onto this dirty road onto an even dirtier road until you come to a fence post that's bent a little, then turn down that. We bumped down the road to a house "as old as the hills" that was super old when my aunt first moved into it when she was first married in the 50's. This whole experience was quite surreal for us. Eleven dogs (not an exaggeration) greeted us as well as all the cousins who happened to be there and they were all so welcoming and nice and it was so good to see them.
I've always been a little sad that my parents, both farm kids who come from small towns near Idaho Falls, didn't have kids who continued down that kind of life path. A few of my siblings garden but that's about it. I myself could not be more opposite of my parents in this regard and I felt so utterly useless being there with my legit cowboy cousins. I saw how they had to live on the land, come to know the land, work the land, and develop so many skills to become self-reliant in all that ranch life required of them. While I recognized with shame how useless I would be if I were to live here, inversely, I was very glad to see that they very much continued the legacy of my grandparents and their kids, that they won't be totally forgotten when our parents have gone like I was afraid of. It was alive after all, in this family. Julian even called the ranch a "second dry farm" which I think helped to heal his little broken heart since it burned down and he still can't bring himself to talk about it. One cousin has a boy his age and they played on farm equipment, his happy place, well into darkness. Also, one funny moment was when this kid, the son of a cousin asked us about where we live and if the city was big. At first Sean and I said, "No. Welllll..." because compared to 250, maybe a population of 10,000 was big. This feeling was a common theme throughout the trip.
My aunt's kids live nearby and own land themselves with cattle and sheep and who knows what else. One is a schoolteacher at a school for kids age K-12 and it was just a marvel to catch a glimpse of the Wyoming life they live. One cousin lives on the ranch and runs it along with his kids, passed down from their father, my uncle, and another cousin there is a horse whisperer. She "does" the horses (I don't even know what to call it) to drive the cattle and the dogs help the horses with that. She was on crutches because an anxious "brood mare" (I learned a lot) kicked her and fractured her FEMUR and it was like, gosh dang. So annoying. Oh well, there's still chores to do. Every story we heard from them, bizarre bordering outrageous, and the nonchalant manner in which they were told, like a sidenote or a passing comment had me and Sean be like:
For example, a few days before, a mountain lion cub had been treed by the dogs right out front. So they had to call someone to tranquilize it out. Another was the story of a local crazy guy who drives up and down the roads harassing people and injuring cattle(? I think), at least he's suspected of doing it. He got into a row with my cousin about a deal they'd struck that he didn't own up to and actually kicked my cousin in her broken leg. Like, WTFUDGE?? And apparently he had been banned from the next county for harassing girls. Literally banned. Things just happen and people have to take things into their own hands because law enforcement is spread out and you're on your own. The show Longmire on Netflix is set in this area and they are big fans and so is my mom. I may need to watch it now that I understand the place a little bit better.
|oh this? Just a poor two-headed calf born there. Had to put it down right away because it couldn't eat. |
And then they, you know, taxidermied it themselves.
|i am horrified.|
It was all so surreal and we could not have felt more city-slickery. The most unusual thing that happened was, being there in person and seeing all of this for myself, I began to view the lifestyle differently than I had before. Where I previously had no inclination to a life like this, I could now see its allure and wished I had at least some of the skills required to live this kind of life. Like, one or two, at the very least. I was a little embarrassed.
|the ranch at dusk|
That visit had a big impact on all of us and I hope we can make it up again one day. There's something important about connecting with relatives who are so connected to the land and to each other. I admit I felt a little envious. We left the next day and headed toward Buffalo where a Longmire festival takes place every year. I made it a goal to purchase postcards in every town we stopped in and I did pretty well. I also had the wherewithal to buy some stamps so I could write and send at my leisure (if I could find a drop box or post office, that is, neither of which an easy guarantee). But this is my new fave thing to do while traveling. In Buffalo we stopped to do some cowboy shopping in a store that had a sign that sincerely read, "Western and work wear. Get rodeo ready!" Sean loves the cowboy shirts, the ones with snaps.
|yes, sean, get the shirt. you know you want it. this is not the "western and work wear" shop, to be clear.|
If I were to divide up our trip into three sections or phases, they would be:
I. Current Cowboy Experience
II. Native American Exposure
III. The Great Western Expansion
The quote from Phase I of our trip is from Julian: Are you sure we can't cuss a little when we get back to Utah--show off what we learned?
Onto Phase II beginning with Devils Tower National Monument. This was our final destination of the day and we arrived just in time to take it in and do the hike around it. On the road there, we read up on the legends and stories about it. One was that a bunch of little girls were playing and a bear was chasing them. They prayed to the land to save them and the earth responded by shooting them high up into the air. The bear scratched and climbed but could not get up to them. And then the girls were turned into stars and formed the constellation Pleiades. Unfortunately "Devils Tower" seems to be a mistaken translation from one of the Indian tribes so now I feel dumb for calling it that. Especially because it's viewed as a holy place, where people go to pray and tie prayer cloths on the trees, and after being there, we could see why. It felt like a holy place. This thing was massive. We were in awe just to be near it. The walk around was magical with woodland creatures every which way and it was just so cool to see it at every angle. So we may have heard about it from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but it was an entirely unique experience to see it for ourselves. Highly, highly recommend. We all loved it.
|The first national monument declared in America in 1906 by Teddy Roosevelt.|
|one of the columns lying at the foot. so cool.|
We stayed in a huge KOA that was so weird and, again, huge. Sort of campgroundy, sort of woodsy parking lot. There's a cabin with a gift shop and a small cafe. A swimming pool. Again, RV'ing.. such a new experience. But it was cool to be so close to the tower.
|i am wearing this same shirt as i type this.|
Next stop: crossing the border into South Dakota to Rapid City and then Keystone, home to Mt. Rushmore, our raison d'etre. Sean and Julian had been watching North by Northwest in sections to prep and finished it just in time. The monument was fantastic to see in person. First, HUGE shout out to the Black Hills which were insanely beautiful and so different from woods I am familiar with, a feeling I love. "Ooo.. it's different here." So piny green with huge jutting rocks. Just so beautiful. The climate felt different, everything felt different. At the monument, we listened to a lecture at the artist's hut (I half-listened while vigorously writing on postcards) and gave major props to Gutson Borglum, head sculptor. What a feat. So whereas the devils tower was a feat of nature, Mt. Rushmore was an awesome feat of man and we applauded both sincerely. It was so fun to see the faces from different angles. I have been reading more on this monument and feeling those uncomfortable feelings that come from learning there was stolen land and the indigenous people treated very, very poorly. So I don't really know what to think about this monument. We loved seeing it but now I'm confused and should probably explore that a bit more instead of ignore it. I felt this feeling a lot actually during Phase II.
|sean's inferior devils tower hat.|
|to quote julian: i've got my eye on you, jefferson!|
|sean tried to get a group selfie as often as possible. did you want to include the heads in this pic, sean? or no...|
|i love this kid. that's all.|
|can juuuust make out the face.|
We spent the night at a campground in the Hills and it was pretty magical. Sean and Julian went for a swim at dusk while I showered. They got in the RV just in time before the hugest torrential rain storm hit and rattled the vehicle all night long. Constant lightning and thunder. Just continuous flashes. Again, this is not a kind of storm I am familiar with. Felt so fun and cozy, though we all slept very ill.
The next day I was feeling pretty claustrophobic in the RV. If we could make stops it was ok but if we did a lot of driving and then went to bed? Ugh. So I had to muscle through that feeling. Sean told me to imagine we were on the Space Station. It helped. We had to start the journey back and had two days + a few hours to do it in. We said a sad farewell to the Black Hills and headed out, but not before stopping at the Cosmos, this weird place in the mountain where everything is topsy turvy. They claim the gravity is weird there but it's really like a big, really good magic trick. So good that I had to BAIL. Because I can't handle it if I can't get my bearings! Ha ha, it's sooo lame. But what appeared up was down, and vice versa, and I started to get totally queasy and woozy like I do when I ride carnival rides where I can't see where I'm going. I guess I need a proper horizon. But Sean and Julian had a good silly time and got some pictures while Grandma Jen sat on a bench back in the hut and then left her postcards there when it was time to go. :(
|these pics are so cool. It's too bad I COULDN'T HANDLE IT. (so lame)|
|I should really be distorting people's faces in these pics.|
|Sean: I feel like we've been further away than ever before, and yet it's just Wyoming.|
Goodbye, South Dakota. We drove through the Buffalo Gap Grasslands (I think), also beautiful and fun to see a different kind of scenery.
|goodbye, black hills.|
This was a long driving day and it showed:
This pic cracks me up. I packed this big ol' bag full of card games and activities only to have Julian refuse all of it because he'd rather look out the window, talk to one of us if we sat by him, or just think his thoughts. Ahh this little weirdo. Look at him, having the time of his life by himself. Kills me.
Sooo much driving. Finally, made it to Casper where we visited the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center and entered Phase III of our trip. This Center was cool. We learned all about the Oregon Trail (a common theme of our trip. We saw so many sights and I sorely wanted to play the game), California Trail, Mormon Trail, and the Pony Express, general wild west and the old frontier times, etc. Though I used to think this was the most boring part of Disneyland, I kind of get it now. All of it is fascinating and I was very glad to learn a bit more about it all. It also feels really real there, since it looks unchanged. It still looks like a wild frontier. I love it. I decided my role in all of that, were I to live in that time, would be as a rider in the Pony Express (obviously). It would feel so important to get people their mail, to make sure I get to the hand-off in time. If I don't ride out there to the middle of nowhere, the mail will not get delivered. I just hope the coyotes don't get me. That would be the only reason why you didn't get your mail.
We chose what I believe to be the fanciest restaurant in Casper to dine at even though we were all feeling pret-ty gross digestion-wise with all the sitting. It was nice to eat some real food. Cuisine was not a highlight of this trip, let's just say. We stayed the night in a pretty bleak RV park/parking lot. We saw a lot of permanent RV's there and again, went away with more questions than answers.
The last full day of our trip, we drove from Casper to Rock Springs. This was a very fun day full of many interesting stops. The first one, Independence Rock, a landmark for the trail-goers. If they could get to it by Independence Day, they'd make it to Oregon/California before the winter storms hit. Here was another example of the *shrug* Wyoming nonchalance. You are allowed to park and just go out and climb up the rock with a small warning to "please not walk on the inscriptions." There are engravings of people's names and the date who made it to the rock and seeing them was extremely cool though we kept being like, really? This is ok? Are you sure?? Sean was certain we were standing on a place that, in the future, will be roped off and seen only from a constructed designated pathway due to erosion and meddlement. But it just made that whole time of expansion and the wild west come alive, seeing people's names and standing where they stood. We gave them a spiritual high ten and offered a prayer of congratulations. The rock was super weird and we could see why it was selected as a landmark:
Not everyone made it in time, of course. Our next stop was Martin's Cove, where all the Mormons go for youth Trek in this part of the country as a pilgrimage to the pioneers, and we learned more about the handcart companies that left England too late, arrived in Missouri too late, and still decided to embark west. The center there is cool and there was a little museum dedicated to the family who used to own the land. Devil's Gate is nearby and that, too, was cool to see. Oh, what a barren land with a meandering Sweetwater River by and by. When the land appears unchanged, the realness is more palpable. I think that might be what gives Wyoming some of its magic.
|Why does the devil get to stake a claim to so many cool things? Huh?|
The last stop before Rock Springs was Rawlins where we took a tour of a creepy old prison. Words cannot describe this experience, perhaps the strangest, creepiest, most surreal thing I've ever done. But I'll do my best. The prison was open from 1901-1981 and when we arrived for a tour, a tour guide said "ok, let's start" and took just the three of us on the tour. This just felt weird. This place was LEGIT disturbing and the way he gave the tour-- as if he worked there and it was running presently really added to the vibe. "So what we do here is... and if the inmates do this, then this happens.." He first took us to a room full of pictures of actual inmates and their crimes and he locked the doors behind us and we honestly were so tripped out, wondering if we were actually going to come out of there alive. Julian was scared out of his skull and hung back at every turn. I laughed through my own fear and unconfidently held him close. It was easily better/worse than any spook alley or haunted house I've ever gone through. The line between real and not real was very, very faint.
|drawing by an inmate in a cell. :(|
We saw where they slept, where they ate, what happened if they misbehaved. We learned how they would intentionally get in trouble so they could be in solitary confinement in total darkness in the more modern wing because there was actually heat there. We saw the gallows and learned how they worked, we learned of the Johnson Lock--invented by a dude named Johnson which is the prison lock the locks all the cells at once. Tour guide gave us a demonstration. The sound of it--*shudder* We saw the chair where the death row inmate received a lethal injection. Located in a domed room with windows around so that doctors and experts could witness and reach through little holes with stethoscopes to confirm death. (Sean wants me to put quotes around those titles) We walked the grounds outside and saw old basketball hoops and reinforced walls because the old wooden one was too easy to break out of. I don't know about the other two but I was extremely depressed throughout. We unwittingly walked through some kind of hall of doom and sadness. Like in Fangorn Forest, when Legolas stops and says, "this forest is old... full of memory. And anger." That's how it felt. At one point I asked the tour guide how long he'd worked there. Eight years, he said. I asked him if he ever, like, "felt things" from being there for so long. He said, "Like, paranormal things?" "no... like, has it had an effect on you?" He didn't seem to understand my question which makes me wonder if maybe he didn't work there for a reason, like it really suited him. Or, if he was even real at all, because I was sure of nothing.
|and then this.|
After using the creepy bathroom and purchasing a water bottle as a souvenir and my postcard, we left the place, somber and silent and shook. (But not before a group pic)
|this picture does not capture our feelings. well maybe julian's a little. grimace smile.|
Julian was deep in thought for a long time and finally said something about it being life-changing what we did. We agreed, and drove around until we found a mail box and some strangely delicious Thai food in Rawlins, WY.
That is the end of our trip. Exhausted and reeling from the events of the previous week, we stayed the night in Rock Springs and drove the final 3.5 hours home the next day. As for the RV, would I recommend it? Definitely. I think there are probably many ways to RV. Our way was intense as we were driving a ton. We also realized cooking was more of a hassle than we wanted to deal with so we made microwave food (microwave individual-sized oatmeals for the win) or stuff that didn't have to be cold, as the fridge was pretty useless. Honestly, I don't even know how to end this post because I'm still thinking about the prison. Again. We got home a couple of weeks ago but it still comes up. The other day, Sean and I were still talking about it and we concluded there must definitely be a looming presence in a place like that, like Fangorn. I'm not sure I'll ever forget it. And add it to all of the other places we visited, so different, so amazing, so eye-opening, time-travel-y, adventure-filled, unexpected, educational, informative, awe-inspiring, humbling. These, and all of the words I cannot think of-- that pretty much sums up our Tour de Wyoming.
As I was journaling about this trip, trying to get everything down before I lost it, I concluded with this:
We got home yesterday and we are still recovering and, in my case, processing what we just went through. We’ve been doing heaps of laundry and trying to get back into things even though we feel very reluctant about it. There are too many people too close by with too many chain restaurants and not enough sky. Too much noise and too many cars and not enough animals and not enough stars. Not enough space to play and to roam, too much in Utah to call Wyoming home. And there’s a spontaneous poem for you.
If you plan to take a WY tour of your own, here's a list of movies we jotted down to aid your visit:
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
2. North by Northwest
3. Any Western
4. Dances With Wolves (immediately watched upon our return)
Also play Oregon Trail and sing Home on the Range whenever you can.
|no sleep, never enough sleep.|
|the cost of filling up the tank|
|and what i think about it.|