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Roads to Yellowstone

I am just back from Yellowstone with the kids. Even as I look back on what we did, the things we saw, all I can think of now is the drive and what it means to me. A discussion of the family dynamic during the vacation will have to wait. I have to clear my thoughts of the landscape and range that we journeyed through.

All week, the days stood out on their own, each one a new adventure. The geothermal wonders of Yellowstone, regardless of their touristy smugness, come across as beautiful, awe-inspiring, and heavy with meaning. A geyser reveals inner complexity of the ball to whose surface gravity glues us. If I’m paying attention, it manifests the intricacies of life and shows me just my insignificance in the Great Scheme.

To get to Yellowstone, we had to dive into the vast prairies and semi-arid grasslands and desert. Such landscapes attract a Midwesterner like me who’s always lived on the edge of the Plains. The drive alone is worth going the 1,100 miles to Yellowstone. There’s enough mindless interstate to let my thoughts wander, to think about the damage routines in life wrought on me.

Leaving out of Kansas City to the north, the interstate runs through the seemingly boundless Missouri River bottoms. I remember the first time I drove the valley, anxious to find out what awaited me at the University of Wyoming. It was the summer of 1991, and it was a new life in many ways. I wanted to visit the university before the term began and familiarize myself with the grounds and some of Laramie.

As I drove up past St. Joseph and dropped down in the Missouri floodplain, it was as if I had never seen a river valley before. I was all new eyes and wonder. I looked forward to what I might find in Laramie.

At Nebraska City, the four-lane Highway 2 climbs up out of the valley into the rolling hills that rumble all the way to Lincoln. Then, after the state capital, I was in the thick of it–Nebraska.

The state is deeply sublime. Endless horizon. The North Platte Valley, studded with lines of cottonwood and punctuated by farmsteads. Hastings and Grand Island. Cozad and North Platte, where the Sand Hills roll down from the north, a vast grassy collection of hills that look like waves on the ocean. Then came the dry country: Sidney, Dix, Potter, Kimball. These names roll around in my memory. During my two-year stint at the University of Wyoming, I made the trek between Kansas City and Laramie every long weekend and semester break—over 20 times.

I-80 is a special kind of freeway, one close to my heart. To most, it’s no different from I-70 or I-40, two interstates I have traveled many times. But each of the great freeways pull me through unique landscapes. I associate each with a particular time in my life. Things were hard when I was traveling I-80. Doubt and fear plagued me. Apprehension dogged every step. I had an infant at home and made barely enough for my own upkeep after child support. The pressures I put myself under and the ones that were there already threatened to implode me. But I learned a great deal about myself and the people around me.

I smoked at the time. I had only about twelve hours of driving in me. After that, I dropped off in nervousness and fatigue. The trip to Laramie took about 12 hours (10 today). The interstate dove straight through, hardly a curve or turn. Speed limits across Nebraska had yet opened to 75 and 80 in Wyoming. I used nicotine to keep from nodding off. I remember I always needed a smoke around Dix, where the highway grew lonely and the landscape hard and monotonous. As I puffed away, sticking my head out into the wind against the sleepies, I marveled at how beautiful the country was in a contemplative way. I thought to myself, What do they do out here? Where do they work? What kind of jobs are there in a burg isolated in all that space?

I drove a 1986 Honda Civic, a worn and rumpled little car that the Plains wind blew all over the road. It didn’t have cruise control and demanded my full attention, lest I bog down and semis overwhelm me. Bounding about on the interstate, the trip literally beat me up. Every time I made the drive, I needed a day to recover.

Cheyenne sprawled ugly and fractured on the fringes of the Laramie Mountains. Even the first time, it was a joy to get through the Wyoming capital and up on the plateau that separates Cheyenne from Laramie. That stretch was gorgeous grassy, treeless swaths of land, studded with the occasional radio tower. The plain passed the outcrop of sandstone called the Veedawoo Rocks and then broke into deep ravines and towering, piney hills down into the Laramie Valley, where the town snaked along the freeway.

I loved Laramie. It had all the earmarks of Wyoming: moldering trailer parks, ramshackle houses down by the interstate and along the highways leaving town toward the west. It had junkyards and debris scattered around isolated and broken hovels, as if wind had gathered up the clutter and blown it up against the barbed-wire fences. Rusty but preserved automobiles just sat alone in grazing land.

On the other hand, the city of about 30,000 had a lot more going for it than many other Wyoming towns. The state’s university dominated the town. Downtown lived with bars and coffee houses, tourist shops, businesses, and even a bookstore. Huge shade trees covered what might be called a Midtown area, where bungalows and older two-story wood framed houses made up the major residential district.

Laramie had strokes of gravitas, mostly due to its university. I’m trying to think now of the other major employers in town that had something other than tourist and fly fishing as their major lines of work. When I was in Laramie in 1991-93, the Amoco Refinery closed down. There was a mine of some sort, and a sand and gravel recovery operation. Otherwise, large landowners ranched, and the majority of the Laramie Valley produced stock. If it didn’t have the university, the town might still be the hard-scrabble knot it was in the early days when the railroad came through.

When I was in Laramie, I made the trip West to the Red Desert, where I could walk off  the Bureau of Land Management road and throw a sleeping bag on the top of a hill and sleep under the stars. Though I never made it much past Rawlins, when I walked from Kansas City to Helena, Montana, in 1995, I strode up through the Wind River Indian Reservation through to Dubois, a tourist town and in many ways the gateway to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

This time, as we made our way toward Yellowstone along these familiar stretches, I regaled Sydney and Nick with stories about my drives to Laramie and my walk to Montana. I pointed out sights and points of interest (to me). I told them about the people I met. While we were in Laramie, I gave them a tour of the campus and told them what I did there.

They listened attentively. They nodded and said, “Ummm . . . “ But I could tell that my memories interested them little. They were forming their own relationships with the landscapes, the roads, and the people.

It’s what each of us needs to do. I can’t tell them how to perceive the landscapes. I was living my own memories, just as someday, they would live theirs.

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