USA - SEPTEMBER 2002
The drive that afternoon had finally brought me to Medicine Bow, Wyoming - a town of 389 inhabitants, and more famous people than in the whole of Belgium. What a place to come to after seeing it on the TV in the 60s! And before anyone says "the Virginian, Judge Garth, Trampas and Steve are fictional characters", so are Tin Tin, Milou, Hercule Poirot and Inspector Maigret. 35 years it is that I've been waiting to get here. It was worth the wait.
If you know your "Jules Verne", it was just down the road from here is where the Omaha train, with Phineas Fogg and Passepartout on board, came to a halt afer leaping the collapsing bridge over Medicine Bow Creek in Around The World In 80 Days. I bet you always wanted to know that.
A little way up the road from here is Medicine Bow main street. In fact, it is just about the only street. And here on the left is the only motel. You can see my Pontiac outside the last cabin at the end, if you enlage the photo.
The motel was nice, clean, pleasant, and reasonably-priced too. Good value for money. It was also just across the road from a level crossing on the Union Pacific railway line from Chicago to the Pacific coast. So all through the night there were trains. And trains. And trains. And a level crossing where trains are obliged to whistle as they approach. I reckoned that one train passed every fifteen minutes, and took fourteen and a half minutes to pass by. It was quite exciting and magnificent at first, watching and hearing them power themselves by up the hill, but after a couple of hours, I was fed up. By the time next morning came around, I was rather unsettled. Two nights without much sleep now.
But at least I had solved another puzzle. You may recall that yesterday evening I had made some comment about the demise of the American passenger rail network. Well, now I know why. However could they schedule them to a fixed timetable with all this goods traffic? Amtrak's complaints about their services being shunted off into a sidings to let goods trains roll through are completely understandable now, and it's no surprise when you see all this goods traffic heading to Chicago with all the American imports coming from China.
But it wasn't only sleep that I didn't get.
The photograph here shows the "Virginian Hotel" which was formerly the private residence of Owen Wister, the author of "The Virginian" a first edition of which I actually own. It was built in 1909 by the town mayor, who had the rather enigmatic name of August Grimm. As you can see, it's now a hotel, with an ancient and sadly rather derelict Ford flatbed outside.
So following my usual principle of "spreading the dosh about", if I'm sleeping in one place, I'm eating in another. So in I went.
"Is it possible to eat here?""
"No, we're closed" she replied, despite the smell of cooking coming from the kitchen and the 20 or so people sitting around waiting.
I muttered something under my breath, and walked out. She can't have heard my comment, otherwise she would have surely replied "when you call me that, smile!", just as the Virginian had said to Trampas on more-or-less the same spot.
Seeing as resistance was clearly futile, I went down the road to the late night service station-cum-convenience store where I bought a few bits and pieces to eat. I had a lovely smile from the serving girl's behind reading this again, I realised that should read "the serving girls behind" the counter. I'd come here again, particularly if the young serving girl with the really long hair were to be on duty behind the counter.
Back to the motel, and trains. And trains. And trains. And trains. And one went past with only two engines. That means it was only half a mile long.
And the fact that there was a level crossing just across the road that obliged all the railway engines to whistle before they went past. At 3 o'clock in the morning I was still being awoken by trains, and by half past five I was wide awake.
What I did then was go outside to the level crossing and record the sound of a train passing. They make quite an impressive noise, I can tell you.
After the train had passed, the barrier at the level crossing raised, and a pickup turned off the main highway onto the dirt track. As it gathered speed, 5 dogs jumped off the rear platform and raced the truck all the way up the hill and out of sight. This was definitely Redneck heaven.
Yes, Medicine Bow reminded me of Colebrook, New Hampshire, where I was last New Year, in exactly the same way but even more so!. I could make myself quite at home here, as long as the staff at the Virginian Hotel smartened themselves up.
There wasn't much here before about 1850 when the expedition led by the topographical surveyor Howard Stansbury and his expedition passed through. The Overland Stage passed through here too at one time, but the area was quite unstable due to native American activity, and the stage line was rerouted in 1862.
When the Union Pacific railroad arrived in 1868, there was just a saloon and a store, but the town quickly became an important military post. Of the 100 inhabitants at the census of 1870, 65 were military personnel. And this was just as well. On 25th June 1870, the Indians attacked the town, but Company I of the US 2nd Cavalry stationed here drove them off.
Once peace broke out and the settlers moved in, the town became one of the leading trans-shipment points for cattle and wool. It was this setting that Wister described in his novel, that of life on Shiloh ranch in the 1890s, and was really the golden era of the town.
The Lincoln Highway, built in 1913 to connect Times Square in New York with the California coast, passed through the town and led to the start of a tourist boom. As an aside, this highway is the northern equivalent of the later Route 66, but has received nothing like the same publicity.
Since those days, the town has gone downhill fast, and the building of the I80 on the other side of Elk Mountain, which took away all the through traffic travelling north along the Lincoln Highway, was the final straw. To give you some idea, the population in 1980 was 953. In 1990, it was 380. The census of 2000 counted 274 inhabitants.
The original station building constructed by the Union Pacific burnt down in 1913 and this building replaced it. Upon the closure of the depot to passengers, the Union Pacific gave it to the town and it is now a museum.
It was really early, about 07:00 when I walked past here, so it obviously wasn't open, but just by looking at what passes as exhibits on display outside, it was very hard to see what was so important and interesting about this particular museum. There seemed to be nothing to distinguish it from the thousands of other rural museums in the USA. It just seemed to have the usual, typical collection of artifacts found at the back of grandfather's barn that you quickly clear away before you sell his land to developers. Even the museum's own web site says nothing about the artefacts inside.
I also called Marianne from here to wish her a pleasant Sunday. Yes - it was Sunday already. Time was flying by.
HIGH PLAINS OF WYOMING
When I left Medicine Bow, I didn't follow the main highway, as you might expect "no surprise here then" - ed, I went "over the top" in the general direction of Interstate 80, along another dirt road.
I did have a very good reason for taking this road and heading in the general direction of somewhere completely off the beaten track, but more of this anon.
But good reasons notwithstanding, It was worth it just to come up here for the experience.
The photos that you can see here and above give you a good idea of what it's like up here. The High Plains of Wyoming are really just an almost-barren wasteland stretching as far as the eye can see. It was the area all up here that was farmed by cattle and sheep back in the glory days of Medicine Bow.
But before we press on, it's worth turning around and having another glance at the town of Medicine Bow, way down below on the main road, as you can see in this photograph. It's what we in Europe we'd call a linear village. You will understand this as you note how it is stretched out along Highway 287.
The Medicine Bow River is down there at the bottom of the valley, and it is along here that the original route of the Overland Stage, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Lincoln Highway were pushed.
Why I had come up here was to see the wind farm that is situated about 6 miles south-west of the town. The farm was built in 1977 as part of an experiment in alternative energy by the US Bureau of Reclamation, as here is supposed to be one of the windiest corners of the entire USA.
It completely bewilders me why there is nothing at all along the Carolina coast which is even windier, but that's another story.
One feature of the wind farm was a monster turbine, a Boeing, whichwas built in the late 1970s and commenced generation in 1981. I knew that the Boeing had been demolished back in 1987 (some stories suggest that it was actually dynamited), but I'd come to see the Hamilton Standard, which at the time of its installation in July 1982 was the largest wind turbine in the world. It weighed in at 173 tons and was 240 feet high.
But what a disappointment. but when I finally arrived here, I found the Hamilton Standard lying flat on the floor. And you can't even get to its remains to photograph it. Apparently in the interests of standardisation they decided to demolish it.
If it were me, I'd have kept it working as some kind of curio or tourist attraction, but I don't suppose too many tourists would really want to drive all the way up here. And in view of the state of the roads, I don't suppose the authorities would want to encourage too many tourists either
But don't you think that these wind turbines just here are so majestic? Compare this view with this photograph - that of the Laramie River power station. Which one do you think is the more attractive? I know which one I would rather have at the bottom of my garden. In fact, I already have one on the side of the barn, if you would care to take a look. And by the end of this journey around the Rockies I'd acquired a couple more too!
I have to admit that I quite liked this photo here on the left. So much so, in fact, that it graced my desktop at work for quite a while.
One thing that disappointed me was that there was no-one around to talk to at the windfarm. That was really a shame. But never mind - I have to hit the road (or track, as the case may be), Jack.
I did subsequently learn that in 2005 planning consent had been given for the "Clipper project", the construction of a new generation of low-speed wind turbines. If this can work, it will open up a whole new range of areas where wind power can be generated. But not, of course, along the Carolina coast
I reckoned that about 30 miles as the crow flies, or 40 miles as the road goes, should see me from here to the I80 at Elk Mountain.
This is of course always assuming I don't get lost. This isn't as strange as it might seem. One of my perpetual rants is that road signposting in North America is non-existent and up here it's even worse. I was just driving around on instinct.
And looking around, there is nothing - literally nothing - that can describe the sensation of wilderness, miles and miles and miles and miles of nothing but moorland, prairie, gorse, sagebrush, dirt road, mountains, and me, and me alone.
No photograph, no word, nothing can possibly give anyone the impression of what it's like up here. It's magnificent - and even that is an understatement. And when I transcribed the notes from the dictaphone onto the computer, the emotion in my voice was not lying, either.
It would not have surprised me in the least if a tribe of marauding Cheyenne or Sioux Indians had appeared over the ridge to waylay me as I drove past.
But what was very poignant about up here on the high plains was all the relics of an abandoned civilisation going back 100 years or so to the days when these plains were so much richer and more fertile. I mean, I wonder what tales this log cabin on the left could tell us. It looks very "end of nineteenth century pioneer" and abandoned for years.
I had half a mind to go over and take a good look round, but the presence of plenty of barbed wire and a large herd of wild animals combined to talk me out of it.
Like everywhere else in the world, overgrazing and soil exhaustion has meant the death of the small farmer and economies of scale means regroupment of land into larger and larger farms. There are thousands of abandoned farmsteads like this all over the USA
John Bourke, the adjutant of General Crook during the Indian Wars of the late 1870s and 1880s, made a very prescient remark in his excellent book On the Border with Crook while he was with the General in Arizona
"The wild grasses of Arizona always seemed to me to have but slight root in the soil, and my observation is that the presence of herds of cattle soon tears them up and leaves the land bare."
Of course, when he wrote that, he had yet to come to Wyoming, and when he did, he was far too preoccupied with other matters (such as keeping his scalp on his head) than to pass much comment on the natural vegetation, but nevertheless it shows that even a layman was aware of the perils of over-grazing long before the big beef barons smothered the country in huge herds of horned beasts.
But all in all, I'd been up on the High Plains for nearly 4 hours, if you include the time I spent at the wind farm, and I hadn't seen a soul. The isolation was really impressive. Therefore coming across this little village by the river was quite a culture shock.
Many of the bridges that you see in places like this seem to be quite substantial given the traffic that goes (or doesn't go) over them. The fact is that many of them are in fact old railway bridges that have been dismantled and removed from abandoned railways and re-erected to replace rickety road bridges elsewhere.
I wasn't sure I was ready to rejoin civilisation, but I had places to go, things to do, etc. I needed to find the highway and go back south to Colorado.
I eventually stumbled onto the interstate and headed south to Laramie. It was quite an experience, trying to stick to the speed limit and being passed by truck after truck after truck.
And on each crest that I passed, there was wind turbine after wind turbine after wind turbine. Europe could certainly learn a lot from here. Everyone hears so much about the profligacy of Americans when it comes to energy, but you don't get to hear much about all of this windpower.
Now, here I was in Laramie. So, why no photos? Probably because in a brief drive around I didn't see anything worth photographing.
It's another one of these towns on a river that was pretty much of nothing until 1868 when the Union Pacific arrived. A nice, flat tree-covered plateau with ample supplies of water was just what the railway needed, so it was no surprise that Grenville Dodge, chief engineer of the Union Pacific chose the site for an important railroad staging post.
Like most railway towns, it had something of a reputation. The author Lucius Morris Beebe once famously described at as "a suburb of hell"
Its claims to fame are that in 1870 it became the first city in the USA to give universal suffrage to women, and in 2005 it became the first city in Wyoming to ban smoking in enclosed places, much to the chagrin of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
I did however see a Honda Insight hybrid - the first one I've actually encountered in the flesh.
The principal of a hybrid car is that it has two engines, a conventional one and an electric one. When the car is running on its conventional engine, it charges up the batteries that power the electric motor. When the batteries are fully-charged it switches to the electric motor and runs on that until the batteries go flat. Then, the conventional engine starts up again.
Obviously it's much more complicated than that, but they reckon that fuel economy improves by 150% like this.
Of course, Honda isn't the first company to have an electric car. I built one in the early 1970s and drove all the way from Crewe to Chester in it. It wasn't a success though. Although it only cost me a couple of quid for the power, I had to pay £100 for the flex.
You hear a lot of Europeans criticising Americans for their wasteful lifestyle, rampant consumerism and energy consumption, but where in Europe can you see dozens of enormous windfarms and a Honda Insight all on the same morning like I just did in rural Wyoming? And what surprised me even more was that the following year in Canada, I stumbled out of Toronto airport minutes after landing and fell over a Toyota Prius, which is Toyota's version of a hybrid car.
So next stop was Loveland for the Biodiesel course. But before I leave Laramie, I should make you aware of one important fact. And that is that there is not one month of the year in which snow has not fallen. That was rather a chilling thought, but being as the city is at 7200 feet, it's not really too much of a surprise.
There were two ways to get to Loveland - either on the I80 and I25, or on the state highways over the hills. Do you really need any help in guessing which route I took?
THE OVERLAND TRAIL
I set out over the hills heading southwards along Highway 287 to Fort Collins, on what was basically the route of the Overland trail. During the early pioneer days, emigration across the USA to what was then Spanish California or English Oregon had followed the Oregon and California Trail. But the withdrawal of troops from the trail during the Civil War had resulted in the native Americans asserting their authority over the emigrants in what was later to become more commonly known as "Red Cloud's War", so in 1862 a new route was sought that avoided the worst of the difficulties that were occurring along the Platte River between South Pass and Sweetwater.
This route diverged from the Oregon and California Trail at Julesburg and headed for Greeley (known in those days as Latham), Colorado. Here, the route met the old Cherokee Trail, and one could either head south for Denver or north to rejoin the Oregon and California Trail at Fort Bridger.
It was originally operated by the "Stagecoach King" Ben Holladay, and his Overland Stage Company. However, the turmoil that had occurred following the massacre at Sand Creek in 1864 hit Holladay's company hard, and he was shrewd enough to see which way the wind was blowing at the start of the railway boom. Consequently, he sold out in 1866 to Wells Fargo. The line dramatically collapsed in 1869 as soon as the transcontinental railway connection was complete.
Here on the left you can see where the trail crosses the Colorado - Wyoming border, with a track worn into the field that's clearly visible to the left of the marker.
This photograph is another of historic significance. The valley behind the range of low hills just to the left of and parallel to the metalled road is known as Virginia Dale. There is a building there that was formerly a well-known stage station on the Overland Trail down to Denver.
The story is that the stage station isn't named after the dale, but that the dale is named after the station. So why the name then? Well, Virginia Dale is the name of the wife of Joseph A Slade, otherwise known as Jack Slade, the guy who built it. You can read a famous account of life at Virginia Dale by reading Mark Twain's Roughing It.
There was in some quite recent times some controversy over the station, in that the local authority had some plans for it. A group of protestors who had seen my site asked me to write to the officials concerned to lodge complaints on their behalf. I did so, and I'm pleased to report that I was successful.
And that was the Wyoming that was.
I was really sorry to leave it too. I'd been right at home here. There is so much to see, and so much to do. I'd only been here for less that two days and I'd barely scratched the surface. I'm definitely going to be back, and the next time I'll be here for more like two months "I bet that's made property prices around here plummet" - ed. Wyoming is a historians's paradise and it's made for someone like me.
But my opinions are not shared by everyone, so it seems. Some philistine called Christopher (otherwise "Kit") Miniclier, a staff writer for the Denver Post, wrote an article entitled "Big Beautiful Wyoming is Just a Snow Job,", in which he states "Don't believe all the chamber of commerce blurbs about Big, Beautiful Wyoming. I've just returned. If seeing is believing, Wyoming is a frigid, airplane-propelled -fanned, grayish-white fog which envelops your car and moves right along as you strain to see the next couple of yellow paint stripes on Interstate 80."
Of course, what does he know? What with working for Associated Press in Cairo during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and then in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, he's forgotten what snow is. Some people just have no taste at all.
Nothing else much happened from here on, and so I drove into Loveland and began my search for my camp site.