With plenty of snow and wind, the highways into Saratoga all closed yesterday. No morning hot springs soak for me today, just a rescheduled “Galentine’s Weekend” for this spring. As much as I was looking forward to restoring my body with a good mineral hot spring and my spirit with good friends, I was also looking forward to that winter drive.
This winter I have seen some incredible sights. In the past, I have avoided winter travel for obvious reasons. Now, moving forward on my business means traveling to Laramie for research and to any town that will have me for my presentations– no matter the season. My sister moving to Colorado, a convenient four-hour drive away, also helped to make my winter travel more active. There is nothing like an empty winter highway to capture the imagination.
After touring the Monet Exhibit in Denver, I felt like I was driving through one of his snow scenes on the way home. The blowing snow across the highways gives a frightening mystic feel to travel. A bison herd, the largest I have ever seen, graces a field I’ve now driven past four times on my way north to speak. I stopped once and thought I could picture it– the bison covering all the prairies of Wyoming in their former numbers and not just in this field. During a drive south, I found myself driving an extra two-hour detour due to an accident blocking the highway I needed home. Hopefully, the driver is okay but thanks to that detour I passed fields full of migrating antelope, endless. I was wrong about the bison, I couldn’t fathom it then. Not before I had seen those fields full of antelope, probably a thousand more camouflaged into the snow and yellowed prairie. I drove past them for what seemed like two miles, at times their numbers thick and stretching back over a hill out of my sight, others on the outskirts just smatterings of a dozen or so.
It is fun to be exploring Wyoming again. I feel almost as though I am seeing my home state for the first time, with more appreciation. Especially after working at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center (NHTIC), where I helped countless tourists plot their trips across Wyoming. The NHTIC is often the opening gateway to Wyoming, the jumping-off point for many a trip out West following the western trails. Tourism is Wyoming’s second-leading industry with 2018 alone seeing 8.9 million visitors. Depending on where you are, that might not seem like a very large number, but please consider that the entire state of Wyoming’s population was only 577,737 in 2018. Until I worked the front lines of this industry, I did not fully understand the allure of the west that brought people from all over the world to explore Wyoming.
Between the opening of the Oregon Trail in 1841 to the creation of the Wyoming Territorial Government in 1869, more than 250,000 people traveled through the future state. Today, millions travel through the same state to look at those 19th-century ruts and inscriptions left behind. Fortunately for Wyoming, there was a woman who had the foresight to research and monument the trail and other historic sites.
Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard partnered with Captain H.G. Nickerson to scout the trail and plot monuments. Both served leadership roles with the Wyoming Oregon Trail Commission, an appropriation set aside by the 12th Wyoming State Legislature. When government funds were not enough to cover the work, Dr. Hebard brought in the Daughter’s of the American Revolution to place the monuments she deemed necessary. Thanks to Dr. Hebard’s interest in photography, we have great pictures of these early efforts to mark the trail. In the book Dr. Hebard prepared to share the accomplishments of the commission and D.A.R., she remarked on Nickerson’s commitment to locate these trail sites and fort locations by foot, wagon, horse, or automobile. The automobile Dr. Hebard mentions would go on to give rise to the national parks and road trips taken to see the very places Dr. Hebard worked to preserve and honor in Wyoming. Tourists today carry on a proud tradition of just passing through, and me? I am just lucky enough now to be taking some of my own travel advice as I trace Dr. Hebard’s pursuit of Wyoming.