Wyoming Safari

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Tom has acquired state permits to travel off the main roads, in part because he uses each trip as a laboratory in which he and his passengers contribute fieldwork to the various agencies administering Wyoming’s wildlife. It may be reporting on a trio of trumpeter swans discovered on Yellowstone’s Cow Pond. ("The swans aren’t doing so well. We want to find out why”.) Or it may mean helping a University of Wyoming scientist on a remote ranch trap and test prairie dogs for fleas that can carry bubonic plague.

Teddy Roosevelt did the same sort of fieldwork. He and his companions on the 1903 trip “spent about four hours with the glasses counting and estimating the different [elk] herds within sight,” he wrote. “After most careful work and cautious reduction of estimates in each case to the minimum the truth would permit, we reckoned three thousand herd of elk, all lying or feeding and all in sight at the same time.”

To find wild horses, we drove east from the town of Cody, jouncing onto a sere sagebrush-planted patch of the Big Horn Basin. They were here all right, in the far distance, grazing on whatever the sparse prairie could provide. As the horses became alert to our presence, the stallion formed up his ladies and colts until they stood poised like a riderless posse. Moments later they took beautiful flight, mysteriously disappearing from view in that seemingly open space.

The spoon I found could have belonged to one of the early travelers on the old Bridger Trail—or it could have been dropped last year.

It’s hard to be sure just how old these herds are; many may be only one generation away from the ranch. And that stands too for Wyoming’s human history, much of which has taken place within modern memory. It was here, on the wide plains, a rainstorm blacking out the mountains to the left, sun gilding the hills to the right, jagged buttes directly ahead, that I glanced down at the prickly ground cover and picked up an old, bent silverplate spoon with a hole punched in the top of the handle.

A New Yorker, used to finding treasure on the street, I put the spoon in my pocket and didn’t think of it until later. That is when Tom gently reminded me that history is indeed held to a short tether here. The spoon wasn’t for me to take, but for the archeologists to note, to photograph, and perhaps to leave in place. That no longer possible, we turned it over to the Bureau of Land Management.

Judging from where I found it, the spoon could have belonged to one of the early travelers on the old Bridger Trail, or it might have fallen from a sheepherder’s wagon during the 1930s. It could even have been dropped by a participant in the wagon train that followed the trail last summer to celebrate the state’s hundredth birthday. Whatever the answer, or none, I’m not likely to forget that in Wyoming a dented spoon on the ground speaks of history.

Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP