Queen Of The Highways

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These highways are the latest manifestation of Wyoming’s tradition of people passing by on their way somewhere else. Little America’s future neighborhood was crossed by the great westward routes of the 1840s and 1850s, the Oregon Trail and the Mormon Trail. The Pony Express rushed through during its brief life, and various freight-wagon roads passed by until the transcontinental railroad superseded them in 1869.

Granger, now a tiny settlement with some 130 residents, resonates with echoes of the trails. Before it was a town, it was a Pony Express station and then a stagecoach stop. The Oregon Trail passed a mile or two west. The Union Pacific made Granger a town in the summer of 1868, as the railroad headed west toward its momentous meeting with the Central Pacific in Utah. At the site of the original Little America you can still watch the Union Pacific freight trains rumble by.

A few miles east of Little America a lonely historical marker along 1-80 describes the vanished railroad boomtown of Bryan, also built as the Union Pacific crept westward in 1868. Bryan had about 5,000 residents at its peak and served as a railroad repair and supply center until the Union Pacific moved its facilities elsewhere.

The Donner Party came through this area in 1846, Brigham Young in 1847, followed by the Gold Rush forty-niners and Mark Twain on the Overland Stage in 1861. I followed them at the age of six in the winter of 1943 with my parents, my infant brother, and our Boston terrier, Cubby, in a 1936 Hudson Terraplane. We were headed to Washington State, and we probably stopped at the original Little America.

Thirty-four miles west of Little America was Fort Bridger, now a state historic site. Established as a trading post in 1843 by the famous mountain man Jim Bridger, it became a stopping place for some 300,000 emigrants. Bridger was a prototype Little America, providing provisions, repairs, fresh oxen, travel advice, pasturage, and a place to rest during the long haul. East on 1-80 from Fort Bridger you pass through a nearly lunar landscape. You see a few herds of sheep, a few gas-drilling rigs, some pronghorn antelope—and a billboard for Little America. The sky is almost always light blue, marred only by the white feathers of jetliner contrails. Little America becomes visible several miles away, a huge American flag in front of its neocolonial wood and brick buildings. It’s a place of wind and sky. Elevation 6,426 feet.

My experiences at Little America had been limited to hotcakes and coffee, writing postcards at the coffee-shop counter, and stretching my legs in the truck parking lot to the music of idling diesel engines until last April, when I spent five days there, looking and listening. Dave Mortensen, a tall, friendly man who has been at Little America since 1976, showed me around the half-mile-long spread with evident pride. The rooms offer goose-down pillows and 31-inch TV sets. The coffee shop and the dining room seat about 250. The huge menus list more than a hundred items, from granola and eggs Benedict to buffalo burgers, Rocky Mountain trout, and cappuccino. A trucker from Dallas told me he stops at Little America for the steak. “It’s not frozen. Everywhere else the steak is brown.” You can buy The New Yorker at the newsstand. The gift shops sell not only T-shirts and sweatshirts but also crystal chess sets ($1,375), ceramic dog sculptures ($514.98), and a large bronze cast of Frederic Remington’s Bronco Buster ($2,019.98).

In the summer about 5,000 travelers enter the main building every day: vacationers, Illinois women going to California to see their grandchildren, gamblers en route to Vegas, people moving to new jobs, seniors rambling, local folk coming for Sunday dinner. I met two groups headed for Utah: a Mormon family of 10, and a women’s softball team from Colorado. Miners and Union Pacific railroad workers stop for a beer on their way home.

The beating heart of Little America is the truck fueling center, whose million-square-foot parking lot can accommodate 320 tractor-trailers. “Two-thirds of our sales are generated by truckers, mostly for fuel, repairs, and food,” Mortensen says.

Ten stately red fuel tanks stand near the center. Each of them holds 17,000 gallons, and another 80,000 gallons are kept underground. Sixteen tractors can fuel at one time, taking on 55 gallons a minute, fete Roitz, the fuel manager, says he sells an average of 1.5 million gallons a month, typically 125 gallons a truck. There are about 20 ways to pay for fuel, from cash and credit cards to credit accounts. A fast turnaround for fueling is 15 minutes, including an oil and fluids check, cleaning the windshield, and perhaps knocking ice off the headlights. Inside are 17 showers, a TV lounge, a laundry, a deli, and a full selection of truckers’ supplies: tire thumpers, tools, direct-current TV sets, migraine medications, work clothes, paperbacks, CDs, pet food.

I spent a lot of time drinking coffee at the fuel center while drivers wolfed down their fried food. They talked about dispatchers, weather, wind delays, and long hours. They wondered about people back home. They spent a lot of time on the phone. Jack Martin, a wiry driver from Dallas wearing a straw hat and a massive Texas belt buckle, who was bound for Chariton, Iowa, with a load of supermarket food, said, “I always stop here. They treat you right, and the food’s good. Did you see that crystal chess set?”