Queen Of The Highways

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In sunshine or darkness, good weather or bad, whether I’m wide awake or dead tired, the most beautiful roadside sight for me is a sign that says WE NEVER CLOSE . I have warm memories of such homes of 24-hour gasoline and coffee: in the Poconos on I-80; another in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania; Sandman Plaza in Bordentown, New Jersey; dines Corners on I-40 east of Albuquerque; at the Sacramento River crossing south of Redding, California; on I-90 west of Missoula; a handful on I-80 in Nebraska and Iowa. A few years ago, coming into Wyoming on 80 headed east out of Utah, I saw a billboard that describes my favorite one of all:

LITTLE AMERICA QUEEN OF THE HIGHWAYS A PROMISE KEPT A DREAM REALIZED 68 MILES

Little America is the ultimate truck stop, big and classy, an oasis in a high desert of sagebrush and solitude—the brown, wind-filled vastness of southwestern Wyoming. I’ve been stopping there for more than 40 years for gas and coffee and a short stack of buttermilk hotcakes—the first time in September 1961, driving east on U.S. 30 through an early snowstorm, when I pulled in for breakfast before dawn. “Nothing else open for miles in any direction,” I wrote in my journal.

Little America, at its present location since 1949, is a 24-hour interstate highway village offering fuel, vehicle repairs, food, a convenience store for travelers, 140 guest rooms, gift shops, and a cocktail lounge. It has its own water department, fire department, post office, postmark, and Zip Code (82929). It has a view of the magnificent snowcapped Uinta Mountains 50 miles away. From 220 to 250 people work there, 70 of them full-time residents, and many others get there by a free shuttle service from 25 or more miles away.

Little America’s owner is 77-year-old Earl Holding, who became its manager in 1952. By hard work, diligence, and hands-on management, he and his wife, Carol, made the money-losing truck stop profitable. They personally cooked, waited on tables, made beds, pumped gas, and washed windows. In 1966 they bought the place. From this beginning Holding has built a privately held business empire that includes Sinclair Oil, Sun Valley Resort in Idaho, and the Snowbasin ski resort in Utah, along with other hotels, travel plazas, and around 500,000 acres of Western ranchland. Today he is said to be a billionaire. His son, Stephen, 37, general manager of Holding’s Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, says that all his father’s properties “are dear to his heart, but especially Little America, Wyoming. He refers to it as the goose that laid the golden egg.”

Little America’s story begins with a man named S. M. Covey. He came to tell it very well. “Away back in the nineties,” he wrote in a promotional brochure half a century later, “when I was a youngster, and herding sheep in this dreary section of Wyoming, I became lost in a raging northeast blizzard and was forced to ‘Lay Out’ all night at the exact place where Little America now stands. That long January night in that terrible storm, with a fifty mile wind and the temperature about 40 below, passed very, very slowly, and oh, how I longed for a warm fire side, something to eat and wool blankets. I thought what a blessing it would be if some good soul would build a house of shelter of some kind at that god forsaken spot. Many times in my heart I’ve promised one there. …” According to Stephen Holding, “Mr. Covey was only a teenager. It took about 40 years before he and his two brothers had the means to come back and build. By then they had been successful at raising sheep and some other businesses.” In 1934 the Covey brothers opened the first Little America, on both sides of old U.S. 30 just south of Granger.

Their immediate inspiration came from another remote place. As S. M. Covey tells it, “When I saw Admiral [Richard] Byrd’s picture of [his base] ‘Little America’ in Antarctic[a] and his isolation so many miles from his base of supplies it reminded me of my experience in that Nor’Easter. The thought came back to me to fulfill that promise, to erect a monument and haven of refuge on the spot of my harrowing experience. The name, of course, was a natural, ‘LITTLE AMERICA. ’”

The Coveys’ haven was relatively modest: 12 guest rooms, 2 gas pumps, and a 24-seat café. According to Dave Mortensen, the general manager of Little America, it was “quaint, with little cabins, a room called the Palm Room for dancing, and a small bar and cocktail lounge. But even then most of the services were open 24 hours a day.” And from the start the connection with Byrd’s supply base was manifested in Little America’s symbol, the penguin.

The original operation was destroyed by fire in 1949, and the present Little America went up a few miles to the southeast, on a busier stretch of U.S. 30 that became an even more desirable location when 1-80 replaced that road. Although a private business, not a town, Little America is on most highway maps. The closest community of any size, Green River, is about 25 miles away. The Sweetwater County land is mostly desolate and empty except for sheep, soda ash mines, pipelines, and an occasional natural gas well. America’s transcontinental main street, Interstate 80, came to Wyoming beginning in 1957 and was completed in 1977. The section past Little America, Exit 68, opened in 1968.