The Wedge of the San Rafael

The Wedge of the San Rafael
Someone has to live here, in the middle of desert beauty. Might as well be the Kellys.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Roads taken

I didn't mean to put bloggers on Big Ignore last week, but I was busy, driving from Wellington, Utah, to Waukesha, Wisconsin, and back again, to fetch my daughter, Liz. The original plan was to take a more leisurely trip and spend a little time with friends in Torrington, Wyoming, but Mom proposed, and daughter's cats disposed. Not to say that Mr. Pants and Flower weren't about as good as cats could be, cooped up in a minivan for three days - still, it was better to move along more quickly to avoid 1) incoming storms  2) kitty meltdowns.

The only bad weather happened where it could be expected to happen: in Wyoming behind Elk Mountain. Sure enough, there was about an hour's worth of blizzard - blizzard definition: cold (check), snow (check), wind (check).

Here's the deal with Elk Mountain. It's a big hunka mountain just west of Laramie, and I swear it makes its own weather. In the 1960s or '70s, when I-80 was going through southern Wyoming, the smart engineers in the project planned to build that stretch of highway at Elk Mountain lower than old highway 30. The locals advised the hotshots to reconsider, because doing that would mean a real problem with winter driving. In essence, the bigshot engineers patted Wyoming on its little head and said, "We're the experts. We'll put this highway lower and a bit straighter. It will save money in construction, and will shorten the travel along that stretch from Laramie west to Rawlins. We know best."

That's what happened. I-80 went through as the engineers planned. Big mistake. When the winter weather gets going, that hunk of interstate is just treacherous. Locals called it the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and wisely continued driving on old highway 30 from Laramie to Rawlins.

I took the Ho Chi Minh Trail on the way to Wisconsin, because I did want to save time. It was none too good then. On the way back, we were obviously headed into a winter storm and I did the smart thing and took Highway 30 above Elk Mountain. Yep, there was an hour of tense, watch-the-yellow-line driving, but then it cleared up and the road was fine. Even in the worst spots on Highway 30, I knew it was worse on I-80.

Sometimes it's good to stick to the tried and true path. Sometimes it's best to listen to the voices of experience, rather than the guys with slide rules (in those days) who only think they know, but who really don't know Wyoming as well as the veterans who have been driving that route for years.

Besides, when you take highway 30, you get to stop in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, the "home" of Owen Wister's 19th century Western (the first, maybe) called The Virginian. Liz and I stopped in Medicine Bow and went to the Virginian Hotel. The folks there are pleased to show off the really great old 1911 hotel's rooms. They're open for business, and plan to celebrate The Virginian Hotel's centenary in June of this year.

I'll be going through the area again in April, and I plan to spend a night at the Virginian Hotel, soaking in the atmosphere. Um, I hardly need state that there is no atmosphere on I-80 between Laramie and Rawlins. Sometimes you have to try the blue highways, instead. Safer, too, in the winter. And if you remember Wister's grand Western, you can think, "When you call me that, smile!"


  1. I just love to read your random natterings as you call them, and I anxiously awaited your series in the Valley City newspaper.

    You have a gift is a blessing that gives your readers a lot of pleasure. I hope "Borrowed Light" is successful and that you might consider a sequel. Not sure which one I would like to see first, this one or a sequel to "Here's To The Ladies".

  2. Huh. We lived in Ft. Collins, and I have an uncle in Casper with other relatives spread along I80. But I never knew why it was so awful along the stretch you mention. Thanks for the history.

    My dad was a Caterpillar dealer in Lincoln and sold tractors to build the stretch of I80 across Nebraska. His idea of a fun Sunday drive was to get on the unfinished highway and drive up and down each side of the road to see if it was as smooth and even as possible. Got to see a lot of rough weather (some of it tornados and blizzards not to mention hellish rain) that way.

    You brought back a lot of memories with your blog post. Thanks!

  3. Pat, I'm glad you enjoyed the blog. Yep, that stretch of Wyoming is best viewed from Highway 30!