Hello and welcome to yet another chapter of our Great Swing Back East. We’re now fully east of the Rockies for the first time since February, and it almost brings a tear to my eye to report we probably only have another 5-10 blogs before our journey concludes.
When we left you, we were fleeing Mormon Country as fast as our newly purchased wheels could carry us. Our destination was to the northeast, the Cowboy State – Wyoming.
Wyoming is an absolutely gorgeous state that has a lot of very cool and interesting things. The problem is they are all roughly 2 and a half hours apart from one another. And there is typically not a lot to see on the way. Visiting this state from a stationary base (as opposed to moving every few days like a traditional road trip) therefore involves a multitude of little decisions about the best single thing you can do. That is, unless you’re into ultralong, several-hundred-mile driving days – which at this point in the trip, I regrettably am not.
We did, however, have the quite long drive between Salt Lake City and Cheyenne to handle first. As beautiful as Wyoming is, there is a lot of it. And we’ve rarely encountered worse roads, including long stretches of construction (that wasn’t actually occurring) zones that narrowed a six-lane interstate down to two.
We’ve lucked into an interesting schedule where Morgan has frequently had our first day in various destinations (Vegas, Cheyenne, and now Colorado Springs) as a company holiday, meaning we get to explore the area for the first time together. On our first full day in Cheyenne, we found an ultra-Wyoming activity about 15 miles south of town – the Terry Bison Ranch.
This is truly one of those places that could only exist in Wyoming (and a little bit in Colorado, as you’ll see.) It’s a full-fledged imitation old west town, complete with general store (I got a Bison belt buckle), multiple restaurants, and a free-range petting zoo, including a fairly aggressive turkey who seemed to lock onto Morgan.
As cool as all this was, the reason for our visit was even better – the Bison train. It was rickety, it was loud, and it was filled with mostly little children other than Morgan and I. But most importantly, it took us to see one of the herds of bison that occupy this 27,500-acre ranch, roughly two-thirds of the size of the District of Columbia. Between the rolling green hills, wide open spaces, and of course, the bison, we were lucky we didn’t swallow any flies with our mouths gaping wide open. Everywhere we’ve been has been so different, but the progression of Las Vegas -> Salt Lake City -> Wyoming is particularly dramatic.
But that’s not all. When I suggested this train ride, I figured we’d get to see some beautiful scenery and bison, learn a little history, and enjoy a ride out on the prairie. What I did not expect was that we’d get to feed the bison.
I don’t want to stop you from reading any further, but this was pretty much one of the highlights of our time in Wyoming. I’ve read enough stories about people being gored by bison in Yellowstone (two recently!) that I never figured we’d ever get this close to one. We were absolutely delighted with the experience and were already loving Wyoming by the time we headed back into Cheyenne for lunch and some exploring.
Cheyenne is a very cool city of about 65,000 people, practically a metropolis in a state of 580,000 (roughly two-thirds of the population of the city of Jacksonville.) It’s the right size for us, with a historic downtown filled with a mix of old-school western stores, museums, and restaurants and breweries. Just a few minutes walking outside of the center of the city, you can find yourself in a quiet residential neighborhood, and in 10 minutes of driving, you’re out on the wide-open prairie. I’ve found myself practically gushing about the city when talking about it to those who haven’t been. For lack of a better word, the vibes felt right. I think I can speak for both Morgan and I when I say a town of this speed is much more likely to be in our future than some of the larger cities we’ve visited, or the DC that we left.
My personal favorite may have been The Albany, a combination restaurant/bar/liquor store just across the street from the train depot. Among the offerings was an open-faced (gluten-free, even!) prime rib sandwich, served with a mountain of sweet potato fries and au jus, along with the spiciest horseradish I’ve ever tasted. I was warned by the waiter, but when I tried it, it went beyond the sinus-clearing effect of most horseradish, and I felt like I almost saw into other dimensions. I used it judiciously for the rest of the meal, to say the least.
As much as we loved Cheyenne (and we did love it quite a bit), it is a bit of a small town, so we took a few great day trips while here. Our first took us about an hour south to the nearest real city in Colorado, Fort Collins. If you know Fort Collins, I’d bet it’s likely because of what brought us there as well – New Belgium Brewing Company, the makers of Fat Tire and a variety of other craft beers. They’re the reason you may occasionally see those red bikes in bars.
I may have written at some point before that, for most breweries, tours are kind of meh. I think this is mostly a failure of imagination – most people who are going on a brewery tour know the basics of how beer is made, so make it special. That’s exactly what New Belgium did. We had an amazing tour guide who told us about the history of the brewery as we walked through the facility, which was pretty spectacular, including the giant former wine barrels for fermenting sours and the mosaics around the brew kettles featuring Spongebob and an alien.
Another thing this tour had going for it is the practically obscene amount of beer we were given throughout. We’re used to getting a sample or two; we probably had two to three beers worth along the stops of the 90-minute tour – not including the tallboy we were given to take home. It was easily one of the best we’ve been on, and worth the drive down from Cheyenne.
Even though we were far from the most dramatic landscapes of western Wyoming, there were still some incredible spots close to our home base. About half an hour west of Cheyenne, I spent a day exploring the Vedauwoo area. It’s best known for rock climbing, but after watching Free Solo, I preferred to keep my feet on the ground and do some hiking.
When I look back on the trip, I won’t remember it as my best hike. The scenery was beautiful, but two members of the local wildlife community (one very large, and one very small.) I was having a great time enjoying the Wyoming wilderness when, about a third of a mile into the trail, I came across a large, and apparently fresh, pile of bear poop. Suddenly, I wished I’d invested the money in bear spray, even if I still intellectually agreed with my feelings that I’d be more likely to accidentally use it on myself than need it for a bear. I quickened my pace a bit at this point, even as I enjoyed the amazing rock formations and glacial ponds along the trail.
One of the most beautiful parts of the trek was the incredible number of butterflies flitting about, big yellow or white ones just about everywhere in the meadows. This seemed almost too perfect to be real, and I only found the flip side of this coin once the trail headed back under tree cover. At first, I thought I’d walked through a spiderweb, an unpleasant if regular enough occurrence while hiking. But when I felt it again, my eyes began to focus on what was in front of me – literally dozens of tiny caterpillars hanging from their silk, pretty much throughout the rest of the trail. Much like one of the first hikes of our trip in Helen, I spent the rest of the journey trying to not get covered in tiny bugs.
I want to just take moment to reiterate that Wyoming is just insanely beautiful. I’ve never quite seen anything like it. I mean, look at this.
A little further down the road from Vedauwoo is the next closest town to Cheyenne of any actual size, Laramie. It’s home to the University of Wyoming, along with a number of museums and one of those old-fashioned downtowns that still seem to be thriving out here. And, because it’s Wyoming, train tracks as a major feature.
After wandering downtown for a while, I headed over to the University campus. It was pretty beautiful as far as the ones I’ve seen, and felt very Wyoming with building dedicated to things like petroleum. All in all, visiting lots of colleges over the course of this trip has made me realize quite how little thought I actually put into picking American University, a decision that’s literally shaped the entire course of my adult life.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit the very popular Geological Museum (that’s the one with the dinosaur outside), though I did stumble across a bench dedicated to Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who was murdered in one of the country’s most notorious hate crimes, made famous by The Laramie Project. It’s the only memorial to Shepard in the entire state, and an ugly legacy for what’s otherwise a delightful community.
The furthest afield of our day trips from Cheyenne was one I took by myself, to what will likely be the northernmost point we reach on this trip – Scotts Bluff National Monument in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. If it seems vaguely familiar to you, like it did to me, you may be remembering it as a stop along the Oregon Trail (both the real one and the video game.) It was just under 100 miles from Cheyenne, a trip completed at West Texas-esque speeds along arrow-straight roads. Suddenly, the bluffs and formations begin to appear – you can understand why pioneers were so shocked after months on the prairie.
After grabbing my National Park passport stamp, I headed out on the trail to the top. Yes, I could have driven, but soon enough we won’t be around anything nearly this tall, so I wanted to take advantage of it. At just over a mile and a half each way, it was steep enough to have me sucking wind halfway up, giving me an opportunity to enjoy some of the increasingly gorgeous prairie views.
Essentially, Scotts Bluff is this tall because the nearby North Platte River eroded everything else over the course of hundreds of millions of years. Fortunately for hikers like me (and Oregon Trail pioneers needing a landmark), the formations have a cap of limestone on top of the mostly-sandstone below, preventing it from eroding as fast. Still, it’s getting a bit shorter every year, and some parts of the rock look to be hanging on by the equivalent of a few pebbles. I would not want to be nearby when they came down.
After about 45 minutes, I made it to the top, and the views were absolutely worth it. You could see dozens of miles north and east further into Nebraska, and a similar distance back west toward Cheyenne. I found a nice spot to enjoy my lunch looking southeast – vaguely in our general direction back toward Florida, about 2,000 miles away.
With all these day trips, you’d be forgiven for thinking there might not be a lot going on in Cheyenne itself. This could not be further from the case. Out of all the cities we’ve been to on this trip, I can confidently say Cheyenne does the most to make it easy to see all the important sights. I bought the Cheyenne Legendary Pass, which, for $25, gave me admission to pretty much every museum in town, discounts to a variety of attractions, and a trolley tour ticket I never ended up using. There are also free passes that include buy-one-get-one deals at local breweries and restaurants, discounts at almost every shop in downtown, and more. I was honestly a little overwhelmed at how much money you can save from these things – get as many of the passes as you can if you visit.
Cheyenne is home to some surprisingly great museums, including the Wyoming State Museum and the Cheyenne Frontier Days Museum. The latter was an amazing look at “The Daddy of Them All,” the rodeo and surrounding events that have made Cheyenne famous over the past century and a half. It’s the nation’s most prestigious rodeo and draws thousands of visitors to soak in Wyoming culture and check out some top country acts. We were unfortunately about a month early, which was good news because we wouldn’t have been able to afford a place here during Frontier Days, anyway. Still, everyone got us so hyped about it that we’ll surely be back for a future Frontier Day.
Along with what’s become my new tradition of visiting state capitols (this one was nice, but Utah, Texas, and New Mexico were better), I also got to check out the second nuclear missile bunker this year. About 30 minutes north of Cheyenne, I took at tour of the only remaining Minuteman missile sites open to the public. Unlike the Titan missiles we saw back in Tucson, this site was a control center for many smaller silos spread throughout the Wyoming countryside nearby. Only some actually had missiles – the idea was that the Soviets wouldn’t know which ones to strike, ensuring we could hit back.
This tour was notably odder than the one in Arizona in the sense that there were only three people on it other than the tour guide, myself included. Of the other two, one worked in this very silo and was basically here to show his friend around. It was a pretty cool experience, even if he seemed to know significantly more about it than the tour guide himself.
If you’re familiar with Cheyenne for reasons other than the rodeo, it’s probably the town’s railroad heritage. It began as one of the many “Hell on Wheels” sites along the path of the transcontinental railroad. Unlike so many others, Cheyenne actually survived and prospered once the railroad was fully built. For decades, trains were a huge part of Cheyenne’s identity, as you can see from the elaborate Depot building downtown. These days, it’s regrettably one of only two states in the lower 48 (along with South Dakota) that isn’t served by Amtrak passenger rail. That’s a shame; this state is tailor-made to be seen by train, and a commuter route connecting the city with Denver 100 miles to the south would completely transform the entire region, in my opinion.
I’ll get off my rail high horse and just say the Cheyenne Depot Museum is a great visit, even if you are not a Train Guy like me. Just watch out for the creepy fake guy in the hobo exhibit, which was actually a highlight. Do you know the difference between a hobo, a tramp, and a bum? I do – I’ll tell you at the end of the blog.
While we might have missed Frontier Days by a month or so, you could be sure we weren’t leaving Wyoming without checking out a rodeo. What else would you do in Cheyenne on a Friday night, after all? You may remember our last rodeo experience in Albuquerque, which was unquestionably a great time. This one was very different, but maybe even better.
On a gorgeous, warm, windy summer night on the plains outside Cheyenne, we sat in our bleacher seats, enjoyed our food truck dinners and $2 Coors Banquet beers, and watched a variety of events neither of us had ever seen before. Team roping. Steer wrestling. Barrel racing. Saddle bronc riding. It was all so novel that by the time we got to the bull riding at the end, it almost seemed like an afterthought. Watching a grown man wrestle and tie up a cow is even more entertaining than it sounds.
We’re now well settled into Colorado Springs, with less than a week left until we head east once again. Once again, for the first time since February, we’ll be back in Central time, as we spend a few weeks in Oklahoma City and later, northwest Arkansas. If you told me we’d be spending a month in these states even a few weeks ago, I may not have believed you. But we’ve got some surprisingly exciting things ahead – not to mention the exciting finale to our year-long ramble, now not too far away.
Nick and Morgan
PS – According to the academics at the Cheyenne Depot Museum, a hobo travels from place to place looking for work. A tramp also travels, but avoids work except when necessary. A bum, on the other hand, doesn’t work or travel and are “often impaired.”