Saturday, August 12, 2017

This train is bound for glory -- maybe

Chris and I helped our city celebrate its 150th birthday this week.

One hundred and fifty years ago this summer, Col. Gen. Grenville Dodge staked out the city of Cheyenne on the windswept southeast Wyoming prairie. It featured Crow Creek and its consistent water supply lined with a few hardy trees. More importantly, it was right along the path that Union Pacific had chosen for its transcontinental railroad. The plains tribes already used the gangplank of the Laramie Range to cross the mountains. They followed the herds and the weather.  The railroad was just trying to link up with the Central Pacific on its way east from the West Coast.

Just as it did for native peoples, the Rocky Mountains presented one of the biggest challenges to the railroad. Terrain and weather presented problems. Cheyenne was founded in July and winter comes early. Cheyenne became a base to build the highest elevation section of the railroad, and base camp to build bridges to cross canyons. It spent more time as a Hell on Wheels site that any other railroad town.

Cheyenne still is a railroad town. It is the state capital. The intersection of two interstate highways. One of these -- I-80 -- follows the rails except when it comes to Elk Mountain, the most-closed section of interstate in the U.S. every winter. All of us who have done time driving I-80 curse the Elk Mountain stretch. Beautiful and scenic in July. Cringeworthy in January.

Cheyenne has lots of celebrate. It shouldn't be here, as the weather isn't the most temperate. Its tomato growers are a persistent bunch, always coming up with creative ways to plant and ripen our fruit in an 90-day growing season, even 100 or 110 during good years. We have to watch out for late frosts, early frosts, freezing winds in June that kill the flowers, July hail that rips the plants to shreds. Still, Cheyenne is home to a huge Master Gardeners program and, soon, the most impressive botanic gardens conservatory for a city of its size in the U.S.

Thus summer marks a milestone for Cheyenne. What will it look like in 150 years? I won't be around, but someone will be growing tomatoes in my neighborhood. It may be an android tending an indoor hydroponic set-up. But maybe not. Humans like to grow things. That's how we survived all of these years.

I can envision a dystopian version of our future. Since we are high and dry, many coastal Americans will flock here, possibly sparking a refugee crisis that alarms the U.N. Trump may start a nuclear war. That will wipe Cheyenne off the map as we are host to the largest assemblage of nuclear missiles in creation. Cheyenne may end up being a slave labor pool for oligarchs. Diseases may wipe out all humans, clearing the way for a generation of giant bugs such as those seen in "Starship Troopers," filmed back in Wyoming's heyday at Hell's Half Acre. Wyoming has a long relationship with the devil and his minions. Devils Tower, of course, and the original white man's name for Yellowstone, Colter's Hell.

Dystopian versions for the world are big right now. Perhaps that will continue. I tend to think that the future is a mix of Utopia/Dystopia. Just like the present. You can have a great party for your hometown even while a lunatic sits in the driver's seat. We don't know where this train is headed, or if we'll arrive safely. But darn it, we can party hearty along the way.

Happy birthday, Cheyenne!

UPDATE 8/13: When reading the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle's "Cheyenne at 150," I discovered that I had demoted Gen. Grenville Dodge to colonel. I corrected that mistake. Along the way, I researched Dodge and found him a fascinating character. I also wondered why there is no Dodge Street in Cheyenne. Many other people important to the city's founding have namesake streets. Why no Dodge?

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