The Long Asphalt Trail

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Traveling west on the Wyoming stretch of Interstate 80 (which extends from New York to San Francisco), I found that the headline of what might be the most floridly evocative ad ever written kept sounding in my mind. “Somewhere west of Laramie,” starts this sales pitch for a 1920s automobile, the Jordan Playboy, “there’s a broncobusting, steer-roping girl.” Of course, she drives the Jordan, “a sassy pony that’s a cross between greased lightning and the place where it hits.” On an afternoon in mid-June I, too, was headed somewhere west of Laramie, but not exactly into the romantic “red horizon of a Wyoming twilight” promised by the ad. Instead I was trying out a concept thought up and named Tracks Across Wyoming by the business and tourism interests of a half-dozen towns along the state’s southern tier. This itinerary is meant to slow down the driver who simply wants to get from here to there—to speed through the seemingly drab fourhundred-mile run of highway, stopping nowhere, except, perhaps, to veer north at its western edge to follow the crowds to the scenic glories of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.

Tracks hopes to lure train travelers too. Since Amtrak returned to the state in 1991, riding the Union Pacific rails that in most places parallel I-80, such towns as Cheyenne, Laramie, Rock Springs, Evanston, and Green River hope that when the Pioneer stops on its run from Chicago to Seattle, passengers will alight to spend a day or so before resuming their trips.

These rugged communities, once known as end-of-tracks towns, have lived and nearly died by the imperative of the railroad. In a matter of moments, in 1867, they sprang to life as workers pushed the Union Pacific tracks west. Cheyenne, later the state capital, swelled from a population of a few hundred in July 1867 to about four thousand merchants, laborers, speculators, and—as everyone around here likes to remind you—“soiled doves” by November.

In his good, plainspoken guide to the state, the historian Nathaniel Burt claims, “Wyoming’s towns are for use rather than for show.” But that’s not entirely true. They are for show; you just have to build in a little time, swing off the highway on a regular basis, and you’ll see what the Tracks people have in mind. For example, Pine Bluffs, in the state’s southeastern corner, population one thousand, is a major archeological site, occupied for centuries by High Plains Nomads. The graduate-student guide at the High Plains Archeological Lab in the center of town described her now tiny community as a “frontier crossroads. Any group you can think of came through here,” she said. Digging goes on each summer on a bluff overlooking I-80, just west of town. If you stop off, one of the student archeologists will happily put down his or her shovel for a few minutes to explain what’s happening.

At Fossil Butte National Monument, near Kemmerer, another end-of-tracks town, evidence of the teeming aquatic life from an inland lake of fifty million years ago is well displayed and explained in a new facility surrounded by the tall ocher bluffs that still hold countless fish, turtles, alligators, and elegantly fronded palm fossils. Not only are these awesome talismans of the persistence of life on this planet, but they are remarkably beautiful artworks. At Ulrich’s quarries and galleries near Fossil Butte, you can arrange to go on a dig (following stringent laws that protect the truly valuable examples) or just put down your money and take home a framed piece.

More tracks? This is also the route of the Overland Trail, which ran south of the Oregon Trail and came into use in the 1850s. Here and there I-80 runs into the old Lincoln Highway, the first coastto-coast road, dating from 1913, which takes you right into the 1920s company town of Sinclair, where an elaborate Spanish Colonial-revival hotel, now empty and looking for a buyer, exudes a still potent elegance. Sinclair’s Spanish-style police station has another use now, and the theater may be out of business, but its refinery continues to flare and smoke on the edge of town.

Deviating onto U.S. 30, the Lincoln Highway runs through Medicine Bow, where Owen Wister was said to have set his 1902 novel, The Virginian . Since its publication the Virginian has stood for the edgy, masculine West that followed its own morality and answered to no one. To Wyoming citizens, their much-admired outlaw of the turn of the century, Butch Cassidy, is the Western archetype come to life. Laramie’s Territorial Prison, a major restoration project of the 1990 state centennial, once held Cassidy. It is a handsome building, revitalized as a tourist attraction, with wonderfully bleak Richard Avedon-like oversize photographs of the early inmates that glare down from whitewashed walls.

There’s nothing of the stage set about the Wyoming Frontier Prison in Rawlins; this raw, damp, fortresslike facility closed down as recently as 1981, and in imagination at least it still reeks of crime and blood. It does have its admirers, who found it worth restoring and opening to the public. The prison’s greatest fan may be the director, Mark Setright, whose vivid tour probably owes something to the fact that as a child in Rawlins he went on school trips to the then-populated penitentiary on a sort of cautionary lesson. Setright now finds former guards and even prisoners among his visitors.

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