Crossing Wyoming – Time Lapse Sample
The six hours it takes to cross Wyoming will be the most treacherous of the whole trip.
Wyoming is the least populated state in the country. It also has fewer people per square mile than any state except Alaska, which is 7 times larger, and almost a third of which is above the Arctic Circle. Wyoming is pretty desolate. A hard place to live, with crazy extremes in temperature – a highest high of 114° down to a record low of -66°F, at places just 100 miles apart.
It’s a big, high, desert. Only Nevada and Utah get less rain. What rain does fall, lands in the mountains in the far northwest corner of the state. They strain the last bit of moisture from the air like a sieve. But for that rain in the mountains, Wyoming would be the driest state of all. Those mountains, however, are beautiful.
Geographically, Wyoming is a big rectangle formed by cartographic happenstance; an imaginary mathematical ideal defined by straight lines. The northern border is the 45th parallel, the southern is the 41st – both nice whole numbers. The east and west borders are almost whole number meridians as well, at 104° and 111°. But each of those is offset by an annoying 5/100ths of a degree. Seems an arbitrary oddity. Until you learn the state was actually laid out based on the Washington Meridian. Back then, the borders were set at exactly the whole numbers of 27° and 34° west of a special rock on the Ellipse near the Washington Monument – just before the Prime Meridian was moved to Greenwich, England, making everything an imperfect mess. Danged imperious Brits. So, really, whatever is between 45°N and 41°N, and 27°W and 34°W, is Wyoming.
Our route enters the rectangle at the lower right corner, intersects with Interstate 80 at Laramie, and traverses the state in a shallow arc to the lower left corner, 350 miles later.
When plotting our course back in Virginia, I noticed some little yellow warning triangles on the map through this stretch. Some said “Road Closed” but no further details. They remained on the map for days, blinking whenever I checked back, then vanished. Probably construction or something?
We descend from the border with Colorado. Snow covered mountains to the west wear a bright mist on their crowns like a wedding veil. I’m thinking snow storm, but the sky is blue. The veil is pretty, and undulates slowly, gracefully. There’s only a thin dust of snow on the ground. The wind picks it up, though, and drives it ferociously across the road in low spots, white herds chased by wolves. It sticks and forms a thick slime, an unexpected cause for concern. I check the weather, and the radar is still clear for 100’s of miles in every direction. The sky above is blue.
The wind is getting stronger, and gusty. Windblown snow swirls in clouds around scattered buildings hunkered down in clusters on the plain. At Laramie we merge onto Interstate 80 West, and it’s clear now that what looked to us like rows of bare billboards are in fact strategically placed snow fences. Big ones. So big they show up on satellite images. Drifts trail in streaks behind them, white smears a hundred yards long.
The road climbs steadily and the wind gets stronger. We pass two highway workers climbing a ladder propped against a speed limit sign. It is hinged in the middle, the sign, and they flip down the top half. They have just lowered the speed limit from 70, past 55, to 45. This is not a good sign.
Wind is buffeting the car, catching that big luggage carrier like a sail. Snow is lifted off the plains and blows in snaking streams across the road. Further on, the road ahead disappears completely in a white-out of blowing snow. What the hell? We came this way to get away from the snow! The sky above is a clear, beautiful blue, with wispy white clouds. There is no snow falling from the sky. This is a blizzard of snow blowing across the plains, snow that fell a hundred miles west of here. The not-snow is drifting onto the road in sudden and random places. The white wedding veil is now undulating everywhere.
No one has passed us for the last half hour. Nothing on the road but a few trucks. I suggest to Emily that perhaps these people know something we don’t, and should slow down even more. Visibility is about 20 feet. The white veil parts briefly, and a tractor trailer appears, jackknifed into the median. Just beyond is another. Wind gusts now exceed 60mph. This will continue, off and on, all the way across the state.
Going into the wind we’re getting terrible gas mileage and our fuel is getting low. This is bad, because there’s nothing out here. We haven’t seen a place to stop since we left Laramie. Finally, we see a small sign for a station and get off the highway. It’s nothing but a tiny cinder block building. It’s not clear it’s even open. Snow is forming drifts behind the pumps out front. I almost get blown off my feet when I get out of the car.
Inside, two guys playing cards behind the counter. It feels like a frontier outpost. Shelves are mostly empty, random stuff on them. Moose antlers, rope, deer antlers, a propane tank, a can of stew, a battery, and a stuffed pronghorn antelope on the wall. A dirty sign in the bathroom warns not to drink the water.
A trucker bundled in black opens the door and blows in with a gust of wind and snow. He has a bluetooth transceiver blinking in one ear, and stomps and shakes in the middle of the room.
He collects himself and says, Goddam! When is this wind gonna stop?!
The two guys look up. One of them cants his head back, squints at the ceiling, thinks a moment, says, Tuesday, and goes back to playing cards. Says, The roads are closed to trucks, unless you’re carrying at least 6000 pounds.
Sheeeit! I’ve been sitting in Salt Lake for the last 10 days trying to get through. Now this.
You’ve come from Salt Lake?, I say. How’s the road ahead, you think we’ll be able to make it?
Well, if you can get through the next 10 miles you might make it. What are you drivin?
That little car out there by the pumps. The one with the big luggage rack.
The card players stand up, and the three men walk to the window to look. They all stare for a moment. No one says anything. The card players turn and go back to playing cards. The trucker taps his headset and walks away.
At Rawlins we pass a sign that marks the Continental Divide. By definition, water to the east of this ridge flows eventually into the Atlantic, water to the west flows to the Pacific. Except it’s in the wrong place. It’s off by about 50 miles. Here in Wyoming the Divide splits, east and west, and rejoins again 85 miles to the northwest. The resulting loop is known as the Great Divide Basin. Water doesn’t flow into or out of it. What water does fall into this broad, arid bowl, just sits there and evaporates. When pioneers on the Oregon Trail arrived here in ox drawn wagons, they went around.
However, it was recently determined that if this bowl ever were to fill up – through some epic geological event which would require 100’s of millions of years to effect – the water would, in actuality, spill out on the eastern side of the basin. So, after much hand-wringing and argumentation, the official Continental Divide was moved to the western ridge of the bowl.
Which is, of course, unmarked.
The Great Divide Basin
And it is a bowl. You can tell that the moment you enter. Nothing around but natural gas wells. Lots of them. There are enough natural gas wells in Wyoming for every 20 people in the state to share one. There are over half a million residents of the state.
Let that sink in a moment . . .
This, thanks in large part, to Vice President Dick Cheney’s “Halliburton Loophole”, which prevents the EPA from regulating fracking like it does every other mining and drilling operation. Dick Cheney hails from Wyoming.
entering the Great Divide Basin
gas wells everywhere
Exiting the bowl at Point of Rocks, we make another essential gas stop. Like the previous one, it’s a bare-bones operation – no scales or rotating sausages. But things are looking up: There’s an empty dining area. And a post office. The Mistress is holding court with a woman from the trailer park next door, decrying the legalization of marijuana in hedonistic states to the west and south.
A young couple pulls in and starts to gas up next to us. They’re kids, not more than 16 and 17, and they have their toddler with them. That would make the mother about 7 years younger than Emily. They look weary, but healthy and happy. Actually, they look pretty darn happy, considering.
Point of Rocks
From here the landscape changes, and takes on a decidedly more western feel. Sandstone cliffs and buttes appear and crowd the road; something, finally, to block the wind. Which would be good except it has a twofold effect: of both channeling and amplifying the wind through broad canyons, and bringing snow closer along their ridge tops.
Approaching the border with Utah, blowing snow is covering the highway faster than plows can remove it. The first car to pass us for hundreds of miles disappears into the sun over a ridge. We are driving, white knuckled, at 32mph. We see him again a short time later, spun out off the highway down a long gentle embankment. Someone is already dragging chains down the slope to pull him out.
Shadows are getting long, the sun low and cold. Soon we’ll cross into Utah, and enter the mouth of a long, narrow canyon through the Wasatch Range to Salt Lake City. At Evanston we stop one last time for gas before leaving Wyoming. There are no wieners at this gas station, but the appearance of a guess-your-weight scale is strangely reassuring, like a sign we’re returning to civilization. The store is bustling. People are moving all about. Already it seems odd there are so many.
Salt Lake City was hit by a big snow storm only yesterday, the same storm moving north to pound Jackson Hole tonight. I ask the woman behind the counter if roads ahead are clear. She says, Do I look like I know anything? I say, Why yes, yes you do. She laughs and says, Let me ask my boss. He DOES know everything. Laman, are the roads clear in Salt Lake! He shouts back from a small office in back, They were an hour ago!
down into Utah
Back on the road again. The light fades quickly. The road wriggles down the valleys and dry creek beds, to Utah, and the mouth of Echo Canyon.
Many of these photos were taken by Emily.