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1745 - Why I love this time of the year

If you were to ask the typical Wyomingite, you would find their favorite time of year is right now, and yes, it is because it is hunting season.

         It is definitely my favorite time of year but my reasons have nothing to do with hunting.

         When I look back on my life, most of the amazing events that occurred happened during October and November.  This, of course, is not counting our wedding day or the births of our children.

         I first met my future wife Nancy this time of year.    

We moved to Wyoming 47 years ago in October.

         We were able to buy the Lander newspaper in November.

         Seems like most of the major media events in our lives took place at this time of year.

         But the biggest event of all had nothing to do with business. It was personal. After three daughters, our son Michael was conceived in November and it was a miracle, all around.

         Because of some serious health issues, my wife Nancy had had her tubes tied, so we never thought we would have any more children.

         The odds are 5000:1 that a baby can be conceived after her procedure, which is called a tubal ligation.

         For whatever reason, when her OB-Gyn Dr. Harry Tipton, an old friend, performed this routine sterilization procedure, it did not take. 

         Now we played an awful lot of tennis that summer, but does tennis cause fallopian tubes to grow back together after they have been severed?

         To Dr. Tipton’s surprise and our shock, “we” were pregnant.  She was working for another doctor, Dr. Ralph Hopkins, at the time and because of her increased appetite for pickles and green apples, the other gals in Hopkins’ office conspired to have the local lab do a urine test to find out if Nancy was pregnant, after all. Could it really be?

         The test came back and as we old-timers like to say, the rabbit died.  Whoever’s urine was submitted for that test was, indeed, pregnant.

         Dr. Hopkins asked me to come by his office. He had something to talk with me about. I was totally blind-sided but, with a deep breath, accepted the fact that I was about to be the father of a fourth daughter. As a typical dad, I had always hoped for a son during perhaps at least one of the three previous female births and, by now, assumed it was impossible for us to produce a baby boy.

         Because of Nancy’s health issues, she had had a barrage of X-rays about the time of conception, so we headed off to Denver to meet with some specialists about the ramifications of how our baby could have survived such a blast of radiation.

         Their conclusions were not good. One said, “That fetus is fried.”  They recommended termination.

         Nancy and I looked at each other and made a very somber decision. If we were going to give birth to a special needs child, then so be it.  We would love this child and live with the consequences.

         Nancy went full term and even a little past. We did not know if our baby was a boy or a girl but let me tell you, it seemed to me to be the longest pregnancy in history.  We were scared to death during the entire time.

         Dr. Tipton asked to participate in the C-section and said he would then make sure Nancy’s tubal ligation was permanent this time. Plus he wanted to see what had happened to his first procedure.

         Nancy gave birth to a healthy baby.  As I recall it, there had been 10 boys born in a row in our local hospital. Thus, I totally assumed new little daughter Page was about to join her three sisters in our family.   

So at Lander’s Bishop Randall Hospital, all the doctors even wore blue.

         We were blessed and shocked to see a healthy little boy emerge.  I had also scrubbed for the event and videotaped the entire process.

         People all over were praying for us, as it was well known just how unique this whole pregnancy ended up being.

         Today, 36 years later, our son Michael is happily married and working hard in Warden, Washington.  He and his wife Lisa have four children and are leading a wonderful life.  We just visited them there.

         But please indulge me a little this time of year as I reflect on just how blessed a family can be during Wyoming’s famous fall weather.


1744 - Is Yellowstone going to explode?

So far, 2017 has been an extraordinary year for natural disasters with three hurricanes and awful wildfires. What possibly could come next?

         According to some folks, it could the big blow – the eruption of the famous Yellowstone National Park Supervolcano. Or perhaps just an earthquake?

         But first, let’s just ponder for a moment the extreme forces that have struck our country this year. Few folks can recall a time in America when gigantic hurricanes the size of Harvey, Irma and Maria slammed into Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

         And those wildfires in California have been the deadliest in that state’s history with more than 40 people dead and 6,000 homes and buildings destroyed. Prior to those fires, deadly fires struck Montana and Canada in late summer.

         So what gives? Do these events portend the beginning of the end of the world?

         Well, probably not yet.  But what is next? Well, heck, why not the Yellowstone National Park caldera causing havoc?

         Mark Davis of the Powell Tribune wrote an excellent article recently about this possibility, which for him was a “local” story. If the park volcano acts up, Powell will pretty much become toast.

As well as Worland, Lander, Riverton, Rawlins, Rock Springs, Kemmerer and Evanston.

         Davis wrote a news story quoting the world’s foremost expert on the Yellowstone caldera, Dr. Bob Smith, of the University of Utah.

Davis wrote that Smith has worked in Yellowstone since 1956 and has been a professor of geophysics for 50 years.

“Global appreciation for Yellowstone didn’t come about until 2005, when the BBC produced The Super Volcano. It brought the world’s attention to Yellowstone,” Smith said.

Smith nonchalantly stated the facts of a Yellowstone super volcano eruption at a recent lecture: An eruption that could last for days, weeks or even years, five to 10 times more powerful than the 1990 Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines that killed 700 — spewing enough material to fill the Grand Canyon twice and a volcanic winter, possibly for years, at temperatures of about 15 degrees Fahrenheit.

He reported: “A recent earthquake swarm — and the press from those on the sensationalizing end of the media — has worried many that the rumbling is a precursor to a volcanic eruption. Since June 12, more than 15,000 earthquakes have been documented. Most are weak, but are earthquakes nonetheless, Smith said. ‘It’s one of the biggest earthquake swarms we’ve ever had,’ he said.

But Smith’s concerns aren’t of the dangers of a super volcano eruption. The chances of that happening are extremely small, he said. However, before the warm comfort of the statement could settle in, he warned of the real natural killer in the region.

“What’s the biggest hazard in Yellowstone? Earthquakes. They’re killers,” Smith said.

On Aug. 17, 1959, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake rocked Hebgen Lake, Montana, killing 28 people. It was the last devastating earthquake to hit the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. By that time Smith was already into his third year of work in the nation’s first national park.

“The question being asked by the rangers at Lake and Mammoth — ‘Are we going to have a big earthquake or volcanic eruption?’ — led us to try to understand how swarms work,” Smith said.

           Smith theorizes that when the earthquakes stop, that is the time to start worrying.

Yes, Yellowstone is a super volcano, which has erupted at least three times before.  Once was 2.1 million years ago. The second one was 1.3 million years ago and the last one was 645,000 years ago.

         So what would be the signals that YNP might act up again?

         For decades in the last century, geologists were mystified by the lack of a discernible volcano cone in Yellowstone as they tried to locate the caldera. Ultimately, satellite images helped them realize that almost the entire park is the cone.  It is 50 miles long and 25 miles wide. Much of the vast Yellowstone Lake makes up this location.

         Some experts point to a bulge that is more than 100 feet high at the bottom of Yellowstone Lake near Mary Bay.  The bulge is more than 2,100 feet long and has only formed in the last few years. One expert asked, “Is this a precursor to a hydrothermal explosive event?”

         Yes, Yellowstone is one very, very large volcano. It would have a destructive force ten thousand times that of Mount St. Helens. It could truly be a world-defining event. And those of us who love Yellowstone and live about two hours from it, well, we might just become a memory.

         Some of the features of the TV show five years ago that were interesting included quite a few scenes of a fictional Cheyenne, which it treated as a major national city. Amen to that.

The beginning and ending tagline of the BBC program was: “This is a true story. It just has not happened yet.”


1743 - Plodding along the modern Oregon Trail

It seems as though whenever we find ourselves crossing the east-central and west-central parts of Wyoming by motor vehicle, I try to imagine what this trip must have been like for pioneers on the Oregon-California-Mormon Trail.

         Some 350,000 of these hearty souls crossed the country along a route that spanned the entire width of present-day Wyoming.  Their wagon trains entered the state on the eastern edge between Torrington and Lusk and headed toward Fort Laramie, by way of the Lingle area.

         The first mountain they ever saw was Laramie Peak, which towers 10,276 feet above the plains west of present-day Wheatland.  What an inspiration that must have been!

Because the power they were using came from oxen and horses, they needed to stay close to rivers and grass. Lots of grass. 

         Thus, they followed the North Platte River north and west near what today is Casper. They soon encountered the Sweetwater River, which they followed upstream all the way to the mystical South Pass. This famous pass is literally the “hole in the wall,” that allowed America (and Americans) to satisfy its manifest destiny by heading west and claiming the western third of Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and California.

         South Pass was nature’s oddball notch in the length of the towering Rocky Mountains.  This gap allowed wagon trains to pass through and head west.

         It took a series of coincidental places such as the rivers, the grasslands and the notch in the mountains to make the whole thing possible. Without water or grass or South Pass, the westward march would have been much more difficult.

         As I write this, I had just joined the trail for this trip at South Pass.

         We were on our way to Las Vegas where we planned to spend a couple of weeks soaking up the heat. Then we would put the old rig in storage until we headed back to Vegas sometime around Feb. 1 for a month or two.

         We were driving down the road in our 12-year old motorhome, just west of Farson, when I noticed that our house batteries were not charging.

         So what the heck was wrong with my house batteries?

         Not sure if anyone out there cares, but a motorhome has, essentially, two electrical systems.  The normal motor vehicle system has two big 12-volt batteries that operate the starter and provide power for the headlights and normal driving-type functions.

         The coach, meanwhile, has six big 6-volt batteries that operate everything from the refrigerator to the air conditioning when the rig is not plugged into an outside electrical source.

         Yes, it is possible to drive without the coach batteries, but this is not a good situation.

         I thought about stopping at Little America but it was such a nice day and the rig was driving so well so I crossed my fingers and just kept on going.

         We passed the road to Kemmerer and I was tempted to go visit my friend Vince Tomassi at his car dealership.  Surely, they could help get my batteries functioning?  But then again, gosh it was such a nice day, and so I kept on going.

         As we passed the turnoff to the Lyman-Mountain View-Fort  Bridger area, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to have been an Oregon Trail traveler 160 years ago in this spot.  What would you do if your house batteries were on the fritz in your old reliable Conestoga? You would probably plan a stop at Fort Bridger to make repairs.

         But I motored on.

         Next potential stop was Evanston where our former Lander bookkeeper, Marsha Redding, operates Spanky’s Bar.  Since our rig is 40 feet long and weighs over 30,000 pounds and also with the car being towed, I decided it was not a good idea to stop.

         When I got to Interstate 80, the weather was windy. Sure enough, as soon as we left the state, the wind died down. The legend of Wyoming’s big winds continued for another day.

         We waved good-bye to our Wyoming as we headed on to Salt Lake City and then all the way to St. George, Utah, where we spent the night.

         We got to Las Vegas the next day and everything got fixed.

         Like many a trail master, I had conquered adversity and made it to my destination. Then I heard it was starting to snow back in Lander. It was 91 degrees in Sin City. I had to wipe a satisfied smirk off my face.

1742 - Texas once claimed part of Wyoming

Folks who love Wyoming really love the Red Desert, which spans a huge area across south west-central part of the state.

         One popular place is the Tri-Territory Historic Site, where the space now known as Wyoming, is shown to have been parts of three vast landowners: France’s Louisiana Purchase, Britain’s Northwest Territory and Mexico.

         And yet it is highly possible there is a small spot in Wyoming that once was bordered by four different territories, parts of which together became the future home of our great state.

         This spot is somewhere in a corner of Sweetwater, Fremont, Natrona or Carbon County, according to a map created by Velma Linford in her amazing history of Wyoming in 1947 called Wyoming Frontier State.

         This one amazing spot touched countries and territories that were the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Texas in 1845, Mexico in 1848, and Oregon in 1846.

         All of these places ultimately became parts of the United States. Then in 1890 (127 years ago this year) the U. S. Congress created a big rectangle that became the state of Wyoming.

         First big owner of much of these territories was Spain as a result of Columbus’s “discovery” of North America in 1492. 

         Not much happened for a long time except that whenever Indian tribes were exposed to white men, they were nearly wiped out by diseases for which they had no natural defenses.

         Jesuit Missionaries Marquette and Joliet, who were the first white men to discover the huge drainage of the Mississippi River, claimed a vast area for France. At this time, the southwest corner of future Wyoming was presumably controlled by Spain and the northwest corner by England.

         In 1803, President Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase for $15 million from Napoleon who was in the midst of a terrible war of attrition with Great Britain. At that point, about two thirds of the future state of Wyoming became part of the USA.

         Jefferson, in 1804, sent Lewis and Clark to find out what he had purchased and they skirted our area because they were following the Missouri River. One of the Corps of Discovery’s members, John Colter, was one of the first white men to venture into our future state.

         Mexico rebelled against Spain in 1821 and finally secured its own land in 1824.  Mexico claimed land all the way to present-day Idaho and owned about 10 percent of present-day Wyoming.

         The Spaniards had explored the Green River all the way up into Wyoming and reportedly claimed all that drainage.

         A man named Moses Austin dreamed of an independent Texas nation. That job was later finished by his son Stephen.  By 1835, there were 35,000 Americans in Texas and it was ripe for prying itself away from Mexico.

         Texas won independence in 1836, despite all those deaths at the Alamo, but its boundaries were subject to dispute. Its initial claim included a finger of land that reached all the way into the heart of Wyoming.

         The battle call of “fifty-four forty or fight” was what finally rallied Americans to force England to give up Oregon in 1846.

         That was a pivotal year because the USA also went to war with Mexico and ended up in 1848 with a vast swath of land from California to Colorado, which again included that 10 percent chunk of future Wyoming. After the U. S. won that war, it paid $15 million to Mexico as a way to prove itself a good neighbor and to prevent future wars.

         By 1848, some 42 years before becoming a state, the land that today encompasses all of present-day Wyoming was firmly under the ownership of the United States. It took four decades to establish the final property lines.

         Not sure if everyone agrees with Velma Linford’s map or her conclusions, but it might be interesting for some enterprising person to go back into the files and try to determine where this “four corners” area of Wyoming would be located.

         Going by her map, as much I want to believe part of it might be in Fremont County, it surely could be right in the middle of Carbon County. There is already that Tri-Territory marker in Sweetwater County recognizing three of the territories but not mentioning the Texas claim.

         So I tip my hat to Ms. Linford, who later became state superintendent of schools.

         Her book was used as a textbook for years in Wyoming schools. Like so many wonderful history books that have been published about Wyoming over the years, it is hard for me to catch up with each one.

1741 - Interstate 80 is Snow Chi Minh Trail in winter

Back in 1978, I wrote an angry column about a stretch of Interstate 80, where I described a nightmarish drive in winter conditions.

         My memories are still vivid as I recall how scary winter driving could be along that route.

         These memories came back while I was perusing a new book about Interstate 80. The book’s title is Snow Chi Minh Trail, the history of Interstate 80 between Laramie and Walcott Junction.

         Author John Waggener is a native of Green River who works as an archivist at the American Heritage Center at University of Wyoming in Laramie.

         Waggener’s wonderful book is chock full of facts and important notations about a stretch of road that can be a mess for innocent travelers trying to cross the country.

         My column 39 years ago was describing a trip back to Wyoming from a Thanksgiving holiday in Iowa. We had headed out of Laramie but had to turn back because of a blizzard.  Then the road was reopened and we found ourselves in that same blizzard, all over again. “The wind was 60 mph and the ground blizzard was blinding,” I wrote.

         Back in those days, I had a Citizen Band (CB) radio and we heard from truckers about a big crash up ahead with semi-trailer trucks involved and cars off the road.  “We were 26 miles out of Laramie and headed into a mess while driving in a total, blinding blizzard.”

         I concluded that column by writing: “Your vehicle must be well-equipped and a CB radios is a must. In the winter, that road is a mess.”

         Lady Bird Johnson, the former First Lady, has always been blamed for the highway being built in that place instead of the route of old Highway 30. It was because of her beautiful highway initiative. Waggener says not true. It is a myth.

         Instead there were some very stubborn federal officials, headed by a rock head named Frank Turner, who were obsessed with the new road cutting off 19 “unnecessary miles,” compared to the route used by U. S. 30 through Rock River and Medicine Bow.

         Waggener even recalls a heated exchange between Turner and former U. S. Senator Gale McGee. Turner prevailed.

         Wyoming people fought valiantly in the 1960s to keep the new road out of the mountains. The federal people would not listen to them and threatened to not build it, unless it could be built on their route through the mountains.

         Waggener says there are other places in Wyoming along Interstate 80 that offer problems, such as the Summit between Laramie and Cheyenne, but nothing compares to that daunting 77-mile trip from Laramie to Walcott Junction.

         Us old-timers recall a famous CBS TV newsman named Charles Kuralt, whose specialty was traveling the country and reporting on out-of-the-way places.

         He famously declared that the stretch from Laramie-Walcott Junction was “the worst stretch of interstate highway in America.”

         Waggener says another myth was the mystery surrounding why the Wyoming Department of Transportation re-built a stretch of highway 30 between Bosler and near Rock River as a four-lane road?

         He points out the road needed re-building and speculation was that WYDOT favored the U.S. 30 route for the new interstate highway and was making a statement by creating a four-lane stretch on Highway 30 back in the late 1960s.  

         Waggener also discloses that the Union Pacific Railroad chose not to build along this route because of the wind and the snow. 

         He reveals studies, which explained why there are such vicious winds near the Elk Mountain area. Due to the gap next to the mountain being the lowest elevation of the Rocky Mountains, wind blows at abnormally high velocities as the air rushes through there, causing havoc in the roads and stirring up the large amounts of snow that pile up.

         On a personal note, I have driven Interstate 80 for almost 50 years and I still avoid the Snow Chi Minh Trail stretch during extreme winter weather. 

         One reason is the horrible snow and wind. A second reason is the huge increase in truck traffic, which makes driving along that stretch sort of a game of Russian roulette.

         Perhaps a third reason is that I like visiting the Virginian Hotel in Medicine Bow, which is one of the coolest places in the state.

         About the only positive that Waggener pulls out of this discussion over the near half century of the Snow Chi Minh Trail’s existence is that the invention of the best snow fences in the world have resulted from this spectacular testing area.

         The book is available from the Wyoming State Historical Society and fine stores around the state.


1740 - Old-timers and newcomers in state news

It’s been awhile since we wrote a little roundup of what is going on around the Cowboy State. Here goes:


         • “Why are all these people dressed up like cowboys?” a tourist innocently asked Eric Olsen, who owns a western wear store in Lander.

         Not sure how Eric answered, but it might have had something to do with the fact that, yes, they really were cowboys.

         I imagine tourists ask the same thing around Lou Taubert’s in Casper and various other “cowboy” stores in Wyoming.

         We used to joke that the only people wearing cowboy hats all the time were auctioneers, authors and realtors.  Most real cowboys wear baseball caps when they are working.  And yet it seems to me that I see way more cowboys wearing cowboy hats all the time than I used to.  Not sure if that is true and not sure why?

         Nancy and I own a tiny little pasture and we were thinking of buying a few cows.  Meat on the hoof, you see.  Some good grass-fed beef would help the budget and be healthy, too.

         My old friend Ray Hunkins of Cheyenne probably knows as much about ranching as anyone I know, so I asked him how to get my tiny herd started.

         He gave some advice but followed it up with the admonition, “and get yourself a BIG hat.”  I think he was referring to the old expression “big hat, no cattle,” which was a demeaning remark coming from real cattle-raising people about pretenders, such as myself.  Or perhaps for all those auctioneers, authors and realtors, too.


         • Wyoming’s oldest person, Grace Carlson, 109, of Meeteetse, died in July this year.

         And contrary to a column that I wrote back in February where it was reported that Leonard Ross, 107, of Jackson, was the oldest person. No, he was not.  And sadly Leonard has died since that column was written.

         Grace Carlson was married to her husband Edgar for 71 years.  She lived in her current home in Meeteetse the last 57 years of her life.

         Wyoming’s oldest person now appears to be Lloyd Baker, 106, of Etna since Betty Schelliner, 105, of Douglas, also recently passed away.

Lloyd celebrated his 106th birthday by singing and dancing in his hometown.  He appears to be enjoying his first year of retirement.  Up to last year, he still went to work every day at his surveying company.

Baker credits his long life to an active lifestyle and his diet of sweet, salty snacks, which includes a bag of peanut M&Ms each day, according to a report on Townsquare Media’s King Radio. Can anyone out there help out if you know anyone in Wyoming older than Lloyd?


         • Despite our heavy snows, cold weather and high winds, Wyoming people can feel pretty darned lucky when compared with what people in Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico have been going through.

         Has America ever seen a trifecta of horrible weather hit during such a brief time? Hurricane Harvey hit in late August, Hurricane Irma in early September and Hurricane Marie in mid-September.

         The devastation has been immense and it has been nice to see Wyoming people stepping up to help.

         One weather-watcher said that if Wyoming received 50 inches of moisture like Houston did, and it came as snow, we would be buried under 60 feet of the white stuff. Wow.

         It seemed to me that forgotten in all this weather news was the tragedy northwest of us. In Montana and other states thousands of acres of timber, grassland, homes and outbuildings burned.  Our atmosphere was nearly as smoky as I can ever recall during much of August and September.  Only worse time would have been the 1988 Yellowstone fires and during the Anchor Dam area fire a few decades ago. Oddly, we had a nice respite during the eclipse on Aug. 21, which was a break.


         • One last eclipse note: I have always wondered why the sun and moon look like they are the same sized spheres to us on earth?

         The sun is 400 times larger and 400 times farther away and yet the two biggest objects in our sky are almost identical in size, when looked at by the human eye.

         Scientists consider it just a fluky coincidence while true believers think it is a special sign from someone higher above. And thus, the eclipse becomes way more significant to these folks than just one object blocking out the other.

         All I know is that I want to see another eclipse some time. It was one of the most memorable experiences that I can recall.

         And it was fun to share it with 1.5 million people watching it on Wyoming soil.