Saturday, September 20, 2014

Day two of touristing on the high plains

At Oregon Trail Ruts State Historic Site: Mike Shay and Brian and Eileen Casey. Thousands of wagons passed this way during the heyday of the trails that cut through Wyoming. 
Why all of the sheriff’s cars at Hawk Springs Reservoir?

A Sunday drowning. But on Tuesday morning, I didn’t know that. We stopped at Hawk Springs to take in the reservoir and the bluffs beyond. We were touristing so stopped at almost every site we came across. When I travel Wyoming, I’m usually zipping to or from a destination and I need to be there at a certain time. Not just work trips but personal ones, too.

I used to be the guy who stopped at all in interesting things. What’s that marker? Where does that road go? Somewhere along the line, I lost that sense of adventure that drove my family crazy.

We stopped at Hawk Springs State Recreation Area because we were escorting my sister Eileen and her husband Brian on a Wyoming adventure. Can’t have an adventure unless you take the road less traveled. Our goal was Fort Laramie but we had all day, so why not stop?

It was quiet at Hawk Springs. Wind rattled the Cottonwood leaves. Some locals fished. We didn’t know it, but search parties scoured the reservoir for a drowned man. On Sunday, James “Jesse” Nelson of Torrington apparently dove into the reservoir to rescue another person who had fallen overboard. That person was rescued by another boat but Nelson was not.

Tragedies happen around us while we look the other way.

But on this day, we were roaming around southeast Wyoming. We stopped in the town of Hawk Springs to take some goofy photos. We met the proprietor of The Emporium, one of the few eating and drinking establishments along this stretch of state road. On this day was closed for a thorough cleaning after a busy summer catering to tourists and Sturgis-bound bikers. The owner invited us to return on the weekend to dine and watch a UW game.

Ever stopped at the Homesteader Museum along Torrington’s main drag? Me neither. You can’t miss it – it’s in the old train station across from the sugar plant. A big caboose sits adjacent to the museum. On the north side of the museum is an old homesteader cabin that once occupied good bottom land near Hawk Springs. It was moved when the dam was built and before the water rose high enough to drown people in 2014. A couple raised their three children in this windowless log cabin. Imagine. The museum grounds also included a one-room schoolhouse and a two-story rancher’s house, all moved from elsewhere in Goshen County. Settlement history in our part of the world may be recent, but there’s a lot of it.

Did you know that Jackson Hole is not the only hole in the state? This part of of Wyoming was historically referred to as "Goshen Hole?" A valley carved by rivers over thousands of years. You get the sense of "hole" when you top of rise of the highway and look down into the valley all the way to Nebraska. 

We picnicked at the city park in Lingle. Mothers and their pre-K kids trooped into the park, set up some soccer nets and commenced a game. One of the younger kids clambered around on the bandshell that was built by the Works Progress Administration in 1941-42, just as the U.S. was entering WWII and men in those WPA and CCC crews were putting on uniforms. Beautiful red-white-and-blue concrete bandshell that’s probably been the home for many Fourth of July concerts with fireworks to follow. Across the front of it is this: “Small but proud.”

Fort Laramie was our next stop. I’ve written about it before. This National Historic Site was a favorite destination when the kids were young and we were looking for a jaunt into history. This frontier fort along the North Platte and Laramie rivers was a thriving place for much of the 19th century. It closed when the frontier was declared closed in 1890, which is also the year of the Wounded Knee massacre. The fort’s buildings almost disappeared from disuse and scavenging by citizens from the town of Fort Laramie. But, as often happens, the government stepped in and saved it. Drat that damn gubment. Now southeast Wyoming has a beautiful historic site to add to many others and an economic generator. Lots of cars and campers in the parking lot on this Sept. 16 afternoon. A big bus, too, filled with tourists anxious to explore history and plug some Euros into the Wyoming economy.

Chris and I has never been to the historic sites celebrating the wagon ruts and Register Cliff. The Oregon Trails Ruts State Historic Site marks the place where thousands of wagons and handcarts cut a swath through the side of a hill on the Oregon/Mormon/California trails. When you stand in the ruts, you can imagine the hard slog that these pioneers experienced. The major traffic would have been in June as they planned to reach Independence Rock near Casper by the Fourth of July. They already had glimpsed Laramie Peak shimmering in the distance and wondered, “How are we going to get over that?” But the trail turned northwest from here, following the path of the river through the relatively flat county on the way to Fort Caspar.

There’s a marker at the wagon ruts that celebrates the site in language a bit flowery for my tastes. A photo of it is included. I wanted to rewrite it in simple language, something a little more Hemingwayesque. Maybe you’d like to take a crack at it.

The marker at Register Cliff was a bit more to my liking, as it actually mentions the natives of this area, who also happened to etch petroglyphs into this site. Their signatures were destroyed by a sea of immigrants, a metaphor for what happened to their tribes as the wagons rolled West.   

"Wagon wheels cut solid rock, carving a memorial to Empire Builders." Not sure when this sign was installed but it could use a few updates.

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