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1907 - Wyoming winter driving is scary - part 2

Lately, highways all across Wyoming have been horrible. In a recent column, I detailed how the Cowboy State was listed in one survey as the most dangerous place to drive in the USA in the wintertime.

         That report brought out some stories about some horrific experiences some widely traveled Wyomingites have had.  Here goes:

Cheyenne resident Tom Satterfield, who used to live in Riverton, recalls one harrowing trip:  “In the mid 1970s I was working for the Soil Conservation Service and had to attend a workshop in Rawlins. I picked up a co-worker in Lander and even though it was snowing fairly hard we were off.  About where the turn off to Bairoil is, the blowing snow was so bad that we were going from milepost to milepost and came upon an accident.  We slowed down but could not see much, just a few cars and some blinking red lights. 

“Going across Separation Flats was very slow going and I kept wondering where the snow plows were because there were many small drifts to go across.  It took several hours but we finally came to Rawlins only to find the road blocked by a Highway Patrolman who asked us: ‘Where the hell did you come from?’ We told him Lander and he said, ‘That is impossible, that road has been closed for three hours.’  We did not get a ticket but we were stuck in Rawlins for two days. Winter driving in Wyoming is not for the faint hearted.”

         One day after covering University of Wyoming football and basketball for TEN years for the Casper Star-Tribune, former sports writer Ron Gullberg was curious about how many times he had driven through Shirley Basin to and from Casper to Laramie for home games, practices and media days. He estimated more than 250 round trips.

Most times, like nearly any Wyoming highway, the trips were beautiful, save for the occasional jolts caused by wildlife crossings, he recalls. Then there were nights such as the harrowing drive home through blowing snow thick as smoke following a late-afternoon basketball game.

“I tried to use the delineator posts as guides, but sometimes the whirling snow was so thick, I lost track. I came to complete stops to wait for breaks to catch a glimpse of a post and reorient myself. During a couple of those stops, I found my car straddling the centerline - with no delineator in sight. A short while later, after inching my way down the road, a school bus passed from the opposite direction!

“The entire drive through the basin was disorienting, and the most fearful I had ever been in my life,” he concludes.

Another long-time Wyoming journalist and broadcaster, Bob Bonnar of Newcastle, writes:

“I got to see most of Wyoming by coaching and broadcasting sports in my early driving years. I once left Cheyenne at midnight under clear skies in January, and three miles later was greeted by a line of semi taillights along the shoulder at the same time as the blizzard descended on me. It took me over two hours to get to Laramie.

“I couldn’t stop because if I did I would have been instantly snowed in with my dad’s old rear-wheel drive Cutlass. If I went more than 20 miles an hour I couldn’t see well enough to stay on the road.

“I also once slid slowly off the highway in the middle of a snowstorm on the Big Horn Mountains above the Medicine Wheel on my way home from the final regular season football game in Lovell. I was by myself, but fortunately the rest of the Newcastle coaching staff came along. They had a couple of hefty linemen with them. The boys pushed me out and I made it down the mountain.

“I never ended up spending the night in the car- which is lucky for the guy who wears shorts 365 days out of the year- but those were two times I sure thought I would get a chance to enjoy the igloo experience!

“Now that I’m older and wiser - and still wearing short pants - if I sniff a bad one coming, I pull over and get a room.”

Cheyenne Attorney Darin Smith recalls a harrowing experience on Interstate 80: “On Jan. 9, 1997 I left my parents house in Rock Springs headed back to UW. As I was turning onto the Interstate I saw this hitchhiker freezing and clearly hoping for a ride.

“I felt compassion for him and picked him up. He had been laid off and was going to Denver to find work. He had two little kids and a wife back home in Rock Springs. They had run nearly out of food and rent money. The weather was horrid just east of Arlington and we got in a bad accident with a flatbed semi. My truck was totaled. I walked away unscathed. The hitchhiker was hospitalized and laid up for a month.

“The silver lining was that my wonderful mother, Margie Smith, was able to reach out to this man’s family and meet their needs for food and rent until they got back on their feet. She was like the Mother Theresa of Rock Springs!”

Vince Tomassi of Kemmerer-Diamondville says his worst trip was right in this back yard: “Driving from the turnoff of Interstate 80 at the Kemmerer exit at 10 p.m. when no snowplow had been on the road. (Big problem - 10 inches of unplowed road with wind blowing and no visibility, I had to stop 5-6 times to get the snow off my headlights.  It took one and half hours to go 37 miles.”  

         Dave Reetz of Powell tells this story:  “Glo and I went to the University of Wyoming as you know.  I went to Powell over Christmas break in 1967 to meet her family.  While there I asked her father for her hand in marriage. It was scary to ask him! 

         “I drove through a horrendous snowstorm.  I had never been to Powell.  I took the Medicine Bow to Casper route and had never driven the road before.  It was lightly snowing in Laramie when I left.  The road was a whiteout most of the way driving 20 mph from reflector to reflector.  It became scary to me because I did not meet one car on the way. There were no tire tracks in the snow.  Felt like I was on the face of the moon in a snowstorm! 

“But the trip was worth it.  Oh, the things (sometimes scary) young men do to go after a girl!” he concludes.


1906- Wyoming worst state for winter driving

Interstate 80. Separation Flats. South Pass. Muddy Gap. Antelope Flats. The list goes on and on.

         These are just a few of the places where people drive during Wyoming’s horrible winter weather.

         A recent SafeWise survey claims that Wyoming is the most dangerous state in the union when it comes to winter driving. This news appeared on a wonderful Facebook site called “Yep, I’m from Wyoming.”

         In my history, there are several places where we had literally horrible experiences. 

         One time in the 1970s, we were heading into Jackson on Antelope Flats. The ground blizzards were so intense, I drove from delineator post to post to get through this god-awful situation. I was driving this stretch with two daughters, aged 5 and 7, heading for a ski weekend.  I totally lost control of the car. My life passed in front of me as we twirled around.  We stopped next to a snow bank, scared to death.

         Like Antelope Flats, many of the worst places in Wyoming are north-south highways where our constant west winds just blow an inordinate amount of snow across the front of the car.

         Another spot is Separation Flats north of Rawlins. We have had countless trips heading home where we finally reached highway 287 and turned north to Lander thinking the worst was behind us on Interstate 80. Wrong!  That 20-mile stretch is among the worst.

Another road in this category is highway 191 north from Rock Springs to Pinedale. Truly treacherous in the winter with blowing snow. 

         The worst is the infamous Snow Chi Minh Trail along Interstate 80 from Rawlins to Cheyenne.  Besides all-time world-record horrible weather, drivers get to contend with thousands of semi-trailer trucks driven by men and women desperate to get their daily mileage quota finished.

         Once we were driving on black ice on Interstate 25 south of Wheatland when we were passed by a one-ton pickup pulling a big horse trailer.  In all my travels, the fastest drivers in the country (maybe in the world) are Wyoming folks driving pickups pulling horse trailers. Man, they really skedaddle down the road.  Do not worry about passing one – it is impossible to keep up with them.

         On this day, though, we went over a hill and there was that same pickup and its trailer jack-knifed in the center median. The people were okay and someone had already stopped. My assumption was the driver may have needed to change his pants after that hair-raising experience.

         By the way, the nine other worst states for winter driving were: 2. Vermont 3. Montana 4. Idaho 5. Maine 6. Michigan 7. Iowa 8. New Mexico 9. Minnesota and 10. Nebraska. Not sure why Colorado was missed from this list.

         Among the responses to that Facebook post was one by former Gillette resident Brett Cramer who called the survey B. S. He wrote:  “Wyoming crews clear roads better than any other state. It has the least traffic and the best roads.  I lived there for 40 years and loved it. Wyoming has lots of wind and snow but chances of running into someone else is pretty slim.”  Well said.

         Julia Stuble of Lander shared with me a winter driving trip she experienced in 2007:

“I was a brand-spanking new journalist at the Pinedale Roundup and was sent to a scintillating meeting in Marbleton. A storm was brewing.

“I was in my trusty pickup with my border collie. By the time the meeting had ended, the roads were blanketed with feet of new snow and visibility was zero.

“I tried to get through to Pinedale the north way, but couldn`t even see the mile markers on the side of the road and had no clue if I was on a road. Same for the southern route across to Sand Draw.

“I turned around back to Marbleton / Big Piney. It was a boom year, so there were no motel rooms available. None of the motels even had staff around. Envelopes with room keys were taped to the doors with the names of the future—all male— occupants. I considered taking one of these keys and stealing a room, but that seemed cruel to the rig workers and maybe a little risky. I knew no one.

“So I zipped the dog into my down vest, bought candy at a gas station (fatty foods would keep us warm, I figured) and crawled into the sleeping bag my Dad insisted be kept in the truck. We spent a cramped night, occasionally clearing away the exhaust pipe to run the heater. Early in the morning, with the rig workers headed out to Jonah, there would finally be tracks to follow down the highway, so we crept home to Pinedale.

“It took hours, but remains one of those hallmark moments of my early 20s, when I figured out I could survive most anything as long as I had the dog, a truck, a sleeping bag, and gas station junk food.”

Julia needs to also remember that great advice from her dear old dad, which is good for all of us driving these Wyoming roads in winter.

1905 - Cheyenne is center of Wyoming universe now

The road from Lander to Cheyenne is about 275 miles long and we were on our fifth trip recently in a month on that route.

         During the winter, I favor the northern route through Riverton-Shoshoni-Casper-Douglas-Wheatland-Cheyenne.  It takes about 40 minutes longer but I get to avoid the fun weather events at Beaver Rim, Muddy Gap, Separation Flats, Elk Mountain, and the Summit.  Plus I am not sharing the ice-packed highway with 10,000 semi-trailer trucks.

         But I digress.

         On this latest trip, the wind was blowing near 70 mph between Wheatland and Cheyenne and it felt like a hurricane.

         Wheatland is one of our favorite towns and we stopped at Interstate Conoco to drop off some books. Brian and his staff do a great job selling all sorts of wonderful products.  We had a nice lunch at Western Skies restaurant next door, meanwhile looking out the window at the swirling wind.

         Once in Cheyenne, Nancy and I attended a couple of legislative receptions and caught up with some of our state’s lawmakers.

         Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) joked that he was convening a meeting of cancer survivors when he was chatting with Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), Rep. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette) and Sen. Michael Von Flatern (R- Gillette) at a get-together at the Old West Museum, sponsored by the Wyoming Education Association. Case runs a hotel restaurant operation in Lander. Eli operates an energy company with his brother Nick in Riverton. Von Flatern operates an airplane charter service in Gillette.

         Bebout has recovered from bouts of throat cancer and esophageal cancer.  Case is in remission from a bout of melanoma from a few years ago. Wasserburger is responding well to treatment for lung cancer.  He never smoked and said his treatment is going well. When not being a legislator, Wasserburger is the principal of the largest junior high school in Wyoming in Gillette. Von Flatern had prostate cancer but is doing fine now, he says.

         Nancy and I were attending the annual Governor’s Tourism Conference, the biggest event of the year for the state’s second largest industry.

          I have been attending this event for 30 years. The Newest trends are the emphasis on digital marketing and how the whole world is a market.

         Had a nice chat with former legislator Pete Illoway and his wife Chloe.  At 78, Pete looks hale and hearty.

         Two of my favorite people are Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody) and long-time tourism activist Kari Cooper of Jackson.  They recently got married and carry on a long-distance relationship.

         Lander is 160 miles from both Jackson and Cody so Hank and Kari get together an often as possible in my hometown.

         The venerable Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper) took issue with my question about increasing transparency in Wyoming government. He said legislators have gotten pushback from smaller governmental entities that contend they cannot afford to comply with requests about their financial affairs.

         I told Sen. Scott other states have systems where this does not require special effort. What Wyoming needs is a culture where all things are already transparent. This is good government.

         Chris Brown does good work as the main lobbyist for the tourism industry.  This industry is going through its most dramatic transformation when it comes to funding its national and international advertising and promotion campaigns.

         For decades, the Department of Tourism has been funded directly from the general fund.  Now a program is being considered that will call for a five percent statewide lodging tax, which will generate around $14 million per year to promote Wyoming tourism. As I write this, it looks like this great program will pass.

         Enjoyed eating a meal with Doug and Kathleen Campbell of Saratoga. They won the Big WYO award last year and are long-time tourism promoters as owners of the historical Wolf Hotel. Congratulations to this year’s winner, Rick Hoeninghausen, who heads up marketing for Xanterra, the Yellowstone Park concessionaire.

         Tom Hirsig, the CEO of Cheyenne Frontier Days, was there promoting his event.  It will celebrate its 125th anniversary in 2021.

         Wendy Volk was beaming.  Her project is promoting the new Cheyenne-Dallas air service.  We flew that service over the holidays. It was convenient and a great deal.

         Rachel Girt, the new communications director for Gov. Mark Gordon, was coordinating his visit with tourism folks.

         Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) was holding court. As vice-president of the State Senate, he has a lot of responsibility and says the session has been busy.

         I love visiting Cheyenne, especially during legislative sessions.  You can just feel the energy. Nothing quite like that pulse.