We set out from Monument, Colorado towards our destination of Lander, Wyoming. Monument, at 7000 feet, is at the base of the Rampart Range (part of the Front Range of the Rockies) between Colorado Springs and Denver. The elevation makes it almost as high as Australia’s highest mountain, Kosciusko. This section of road can therefore be treacherous in winter. We are heading to Lander to visit close friends from Missoula, Montana and to experience another unique part of the West.
We have travelled many miles on the U.S. Interstates. However, nothing had prepared us for driving the I-25 through Denver. We had done it before in 1996 but things have changed; Denver now has a population of 5.76 million. The horror comedy movie from 1974 has changed its name to The Cars that Ate Denver. We found the experience horrendous.
We proceeded along the Interstate north of Denver to Fort Collins. Fort Collins is the domicile of Dr. Temple Grandin. Oliver Sacks profiled her in his book, An Anthropologist From Mars. Dr. Grandin has done much for autism (she is autistic), feminism (she is a prominent woman), and vegetarianism (she has designed systems to make cattle less stressed before they are slaughtered).
After Fort Collins we took Road 287 and within miles a surreal about-turn took place. Calm and peace descended as traffic pace slowed and the landscape changed from congested city/urban to open undulating expansive horizons. We relaxed, experiencing this scenic route with its austere and compelling landscape in the comfort of an air-conditioned Ford Explorer with 50’s and 70’s music booming from the satellite radio. Oh, what a contrast to the early pioneers who traversed this route. After a little over an hour we reached the famous Western town of Laramie.
In the old part of town, near the corner of Custer and 1st Street, a pedestrian overhead bridge traverses the railway lines. The bridge has a big ‘Welcome to Laramie Wyoming’ sign attached to its side. As we had the mandatory photos taken on the bridge, a goods-train came through underneath. We took the counting challenge and 113 container-carriages later we had established new PBs (Personal Bests).
The coming of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1868 was the very reason Laramie was founded. There are many signs of early Laramie if you take the time to scratch around. The ruins of Fort Sanders, established in 1866, stand at the south edge of the city. The old goal that at one time housed Butch Cassidy is over the rail bridge. We realised after travelling in Wyoming that Butch must have got around (as far as Bolivia at one time). Many locations it seems, want to own a bit of the infamous bandit; it must be good for tourism.
From Laramie we headed along the I-80 to Rawlins. This section of highway has a few things of interest. Along the route is the historic site of Fort Steele. It was built where the new railway crossed the historically notable North Platte River, with the aim of protecting the railway from Indian attacks. Unfortunately, for us this site was not open so early in the summer period.
A large number of wind turbines caught our attention on a ridge looming on the horizon. They rotated with unerring momentum in the 40 mph winds. How did we know? Wind speed was displayed on road safety signs.
At Rawlins we turned onto Road 287. This section of the road, which takes you through Jeffrey City (misnomer now) to Lander, is just spectacular. The contrast between the Interstate we had just diverted from and this new road, like the landscape, was profound and stark. The traffic was almost non-existent, no trucks, and clear blue skies showed the expanses of sage bush and rock formations at their best. The road was smooth and generally flat; there was a sense of isolation, quietness and peace.
The lack of cell (mobile) phone coverage caused us mild concern; just think of those who travelled this route in the 19th Century. Along the road were historical markers. One noted that the road was part of a Pony Express route. Other markers noted the nearby Oregon Trail. One such marker drew the eye to the unique landmark of Split Rock. Pioneers, between 1841-69, would have noted this on their 2000 miles wagon journey. The Trail originated at Independence Missouri and terminated at The Willamette Valley in Oregon.
South Pass, located to the south of Lander, provided an accessible pathway through the Rockies. The alternative of Bridger Pass was made possible somewhat later and had the advantage of being a hundred miles shorter.
Road 287 was also the Chief Washakie Trail. He lived between 1804 and 1900 and was a chief of the Eastern Shoshone Indians of Wyoming. He was famous for his fighting exploits and as well, his friendship with the white pioneers. He assisted overland travellers in fording streams and recovered strayed cattle. He was also a scout for the U.S. Army.
As we neared Lander the snow-capped Wind River Mountains, a range of the Rockies, loomed on the horizon. There are 53 granite peaks above 13,000 feet and the continental divide runs the length of the Wind River Range. We shared a wonderful three days in Lander with friends who were staying in Washakie Street. Lander had a delightful wide street where twice a year until 1989, cattle were driven down on their way to new pasture.
There were many highlights in Lander. One surprise for us was a visit to the local museum. It had many exhibits related to the white pioneers as well as Native Americans. The Ledger Art displays (Native American drawings on the pages of old ledgers) were fascinating as were the quilts and a beading artwork of a battle.
Our walk in Red Canyon was such an exhilarating experience as we got the four seasons in one day. We started out in cloud then felt fierce wind and some rain. A few minutes later it abruptly stopped and the sun came out as we hiked along a dirt track with spectacular views of red rocks, snowy mountains and deep valleys. An antelope was startled ahead of us and bounded away, its white rear stood out against the greens and greys and reds of the landscape. Friends took us to this beautiful canyon and it was such a joy that they shared their local knowledge with us, as we would never have found it on our own. The silence after the rain and wind was deafening.
We visited the small town of Sinclair, immediately after Rawlins on our way back to Laramie.
If you drive the roads of America, you will note a major gas (gasoline) outlet called Sinclair. The Sinclair Company acquired this town, originally called Parco, and developed an adjacent oil production facility. The facility with its multitudinous silver coloured pipes and stacks stands stark against the surrounding treeless, rolling hills. We detoured from the Interstate to have a closer look and try to find a cafe.
Surprisingly, the town had a number of interesting buildings on the National Register of Historical Places and a wonderful small restaurant called Su Casa. The food was a hit not just with us; the place was packed. It featured delicious Mexican style food like burritos, enchiladas, tacos and they reckon they made ‘everything themselves except the ketchup’. Once again, there was the ‘bottomless’ cup of coffee. As the saying on the coffee cup goes –‘Coffee does so much for us and asks of nothing in return’. It was a rewarding Homer Simpson experience to see that the waitress asked no money in return for the large number of cups consumed.
Back in Laramie we tried a new hotel, the ‘punny’ AmericInn. We missed out on the Annie Oakley room but the concierge said ‘if you can bear with us, we’ll give you the Grizzly Suite’. We took it even with the alarming wall paintings of bear attacks – we just hoped we would make it through the night!
From Laramie we re-joined Highway 278 and a few hours later. After a lovely visit in Longmont with an old friend from 1996 days, we did battle through Denver once more. A rare navigation mishap led us onto a toll road but a nice recovery by Tom Tom finally got us back onto Interstate 25 and to our base in Monument. Our tour is done and one more trip to the Denver airport will see us fly home.