The Long Asphalt Trail

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Wyoming’s history shows that it was always a place people wanted to hurry through in order to reach some more promising destination. Even today it remains the least populated of our states. Those who did stay have seen days of boom and bust, not only during the building of the railroad but from the land that proved so difficult to cultivate and from the mineral wealth that promised more than it has so far delivered and that has left some deep scars.

What I found so engaging on this trip is the way the townspeople in all the places at the end of the tracks are fighting to hold on to their rich and tumultuous past. As other promises wither, these are the roots they hope will take hold and flourish to create, if not wealth, then at least the sustenance that tourism can provide.

Evanston, at the state’s western edge, has an immaculate depot, crowned with stone turrets. Not only is the station in use again by Amtrak, but a wedding reception was in full swing in the waiting room the evening I was in town. Close by stands the town’s main project for the state centennial, a replica of a Chinese joss house. This was a social and religious center for Evanston’s large Southern Chinese population, who worked on the railroad and in town, always planning to return home with their American “riches.” Here the Chinese lived in relative peace until, in what was probably arson, the joss house burned quickly one night in 1922. The townspeople helped rescue (or perhaps simply took) many of the precious furnishings, some of which were later donated for display at the nearby city museum. At some point in the town’s history a huge ceremonial dragon, which had always been unfurled for the annual Chinese New Year’s parade, went missing.

Many years later, this posed a challenge to Denke Wheeler, chairman of the historical museum. Her interest in the Chinese population had arisen in the mid-1970s when an excavation for an extension of her family’s restaurant turned up an old pewter fork with an Oriental motif. When more items surfaced, work shut down for six weeks while the site of Evanston’s original Chinese quarter was investigated. Wheeler calls the discovery of that fork “probably the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.” Because of it, in 1976 she set out to replace the dragon, which bore the name Gum Lung.

Wheeler visited a Chinese Tong (or club) in nearby Salt Lake City, looking for anyone old enough to remember life in Evanston before 1922. There she learned that she might find an ancient ceremonial dragon in Canton. “I figured it was a crapshoot,” she told me. “I’ll never be able to authenticate it for sure. But I located one and had it shipped back. It took a year to get here and a couple years more to clean it—two or three feet at a time—in my basement and back yard, with a toothbrush. By then I had a few volunteers to help, but most people in town called it Denice’s Folly.” Whatever the beast’s antecedents, Evanston at least has a ceremonial dragon back in town to recall the days of the great Chinese New Year’s parade, when for forty years Gum Lung led the march.

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP