American Road Trip: Wyoming

I crossed the state line into Wyoming after a fabulous day of driving through the prairie grasslands of the Dakotas and a visit to Mount Rushmore.  I quickly found myself in high desert on wide sweeping roads bordered by sagebrush. It was late afternoon and I’d been driving since 6am so I was trying to get to the closest town in Wyoming with cheap accommodation and ended up in Gillette.

Whilst this town didn’t seem to be anything particularly attractive or special (admittedly I was in the strip mall zone around the cheap motels) I instantly liked the people with their laid-back friendly style and felt quite at home there.

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On a quest to find wine that evening I stumbled upon what may be the best invention ever.  It was a restaurant that was also a wine bar that was also a pub that was also a liquor store.   And in true American-style it was tucked away in an obscure concrete strip mall behind a truck stop.  To top that off I’d been redirected there by a Walmart employee with no teeth.  But let me back up and tell the whole story.

I went to buy supplies for dinner from Walmart and decided to treat myself to wine but I couldn’t find any.  That was pretty incredible because amongst all of the totally messed up and confusing liquor laws I’d experienced so far in America, Walmart always managed to sell wine and beer.  But not in Wyoming,  hardly a state known for getting zealous about booze.  So as I checked out I asked an employee if she knew where I could get some wine.  She said her favourite place to go was just across the street and they had a wide selection.  She also added that she’d been working at that Walmart for three weeks and had only just noticed that they didn’t sell wine.  Anyway…

I followed her directions and pulled up at a very dubious strip mall that is kind of in the same complex as a big truck stop complete with a gas station and a fast food restaurant.  On one side of the entrance is a dodgy looking laundromat and on the other is a comic book store.  I figure that the Walmart lady was wrong but decided to give it a shot anyway.  I walked in the door and felt as though I’d passed through some kind of wormhole and was suddenly in an upmarket suburb.  There were lots of trendily dressed locals and bearded hipsters wearing cowboy hats.  Some were imbibing in fine wine from around the US and the world whilst snacking on organic mezzes plates.  The bearded hipsters were busy trying craft beers in the pub and others were discussing various vodka distilling techniques in the liquor store.  The décor could have matched any LA wine bar.  After circling the building in confusion I engaged in an extensive conversation with a staff member about the merits of various varieties of sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, purchased a few bottles of the former then exited this haven of sophistication to the view of a trucker taking a piss behind his big rig that was parked under a huge neon K-Mart sign.  Suddenly I was back on the road trip I recognised.

Confused yet happy, I headed back to my room and poured over my map with a glass of warm yet expensive New Zealand wine.  My goal the next day was to get as close to Yellowstone National Park as I could in order to explore that region.  That meant I was going to take a long drive pretty much clear across Wyoming on relatively unused state and county roads.  It certainly was a day of variety.

In the morning left Gillette and spent some time on the interstate.  They are famed in this part of the west due to the rare and very much appreciated 80mph speed limit.  That is the standard interstate limit in Wyoming and Montana, with 70mph being the limit on most other highways.  To give a comparison, limits in other states rarely go above 70 on the Interstates and 55 or 65 on other highways.  For me it meant I could put my foot down and get some serious miles behind me quickly.

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I soon got onto the backroads and found myself winding up a mountain range in Bighorn National Forest.   This was a beautiful wilderness region with some great views toward the mountains to the west and my most memorable experience on this particular stretch of road was definitely in keeping with the region.   I came around a corner and found a group of people on horseback complete with cowboy hats, checked shirts and wrangler jeans.  I quickly braked as the horses galloped across the road from one part of remote forest into another.  As they finished crossing and one cowboy took of his hat to wave it in the air as a thank you.  All that was missing was his lasso.  It would have made a fabulous photograph with the forest and mountains completing this utterly American West scene, but I was too busy trying not to hit any horses to worry about my camera.

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I climbed down from the green forest and found myself on an incredible desert floor with the earth in shades of deep pink and red.  Bright green trees surrounding the various rivers and streams coming down from the mountains and broke up the dry landscape as did various ancient rock formations.

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This eventually gave way to slightly greener ranch land and the GPS took me off the main tourist route to a shortcut over what I thought was a flat plateau.  In other words, I thought I was driving on a wide valley floor but suddenly the ground to my right opened up to reveal a deep canyon in incredible shades of pink and looking very Utah-esque.  It was a wonderful surprise in this otherwise unchanging landscape.  I pulled over at a lonely scenic viewpoint and it seemed like I was the only tourist to stop there in a while.  The place was in disrepair but there were still interpretive markers discussing the geology of the canyon and the wildlife in the area.

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Before I even left the car I was checking for rattlesnakes.  It just had that feel about it.  I like to call it being a bit ‘rattlesnakey’ and sure enough I found warning signs not too far away.  There was a path I could take for a better view but it just seemed like tempting fate based on my previous snake experiences, particularly the recent one in North Carolina.  I’m always a bit careful about going onto a track when there is nobody else around anyway just in case I slip and don’t get found for days like that movie 127 Hours.  I don’t think I’d be any good at self-amputation so I enjoyed the spectacular view of this unexpected canyon from the roadside then carried on.

Cody is a cool little town named after William Cody aka Buffalo Bill who founded it in  1895.   A local told me that Buffalo Bill was an entrepreneur so he did a deal with the railroad company that basically said that if they directed Yellowstone tourists via his proposed town site he’d build a town worth stopping at.  It reminded me of the story of Virgin Galactic and Spaceport America in New Mexico.  Apparently Richard Branson told then Governor Bill Richardson that if New Mexico built a spaceport then he’d build a spaceship to fly out of it.  And that is basically what happened (although still a work in progress right now) so maybe the wild west hasn’t changed so much after all.

Some of the original buildings Buffalo Bill had constructed are still there and form the main touristy centre of the town.  The main street is incredibly wide and I later found out this is because Buffalo Bill wanted to build a town that was convenient for everyone so insisted that the main street was big enough to turn a horse and cart in, the 1800’s version of a U-Turn I guess.  Thus the lovely wide streets which are a huge asset today because this tiny town gets four lanes of traffic to ease congestion during the busy tourist season.

I checked in at the only motel in town I could find for less than $150 and pulled up outside my room.  When I got out of the car I noticed two guys sitting outside the room next to mine having a beer.  “Hey, we’re neighbors!” one of them called out.  I assumed they meant that our rooms were next to each other but after much confusion I realised that they were from Minnesota and were referring to the Wisconsin license plates on my rental car.  One of the things I was loving about driving with Wisconsin plates was just how much it messed with people from Wisconsin and Minnesota when they found out that not only was I not from there, but that I’d picked up the rental car in Florida and was dropping it off in California.  These types of interactions happened numerous times on the trip and people were just utterly blown away.   And the really interesting bit was that they had no interest at all in the fact that I was foreign or on a mammoth road trip, they just couldn’t get their heads around a car from Wisconsin being collected in Florida and returned in California.  I never did quite figure that one out.

The rest of my Wyoming trip is covered off in my Yellowstone National Park and Beartooth Highway posts and I really think it is a great state to visit for a road trip and that there is more to it than just Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.  I drove pretty much from the east side to the west, then north into Montana and was very much taken with the dramatic changes in landscape along the way as well as the vastness of it all.  And I think it makes a great combo trip with Montana that I’ll cover off in my next update.

Highlights:  Bighorn National Forest  |  The Beartooth Highway  |  Yellowstone National Park  | Chief Joseph Scenic Byway  |  The town of Cody

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