50@50 – Casper WY
Our mantra on this month-long cross country adventure was “there are no wrong decisions, only different ones”. We had planned to spend a two to three days in southeastern Wyoming exploring Cheyenne, and Medicine Bow National Forest, but a tire problem in Utah ate up a day of our time. Snowy Canyon and Fort Laramie will have to wait. We changed course and headed to Casper. The landscape along the route from northeast Utah morphed from lush rocky forests to arid grasslands and high desert. Summer this year has been brutally hot and dry, so I’m not sure how much of the expanse is really desert or shriveling prairie.
Modern Wyoming was once populated with people from the Shoshone, Ute, Cheyenne, Lakota, Arapaho and Crow cultures. The Shoshone and Arapaho today occupy the Wind River Reservation northwest of the Casper. We drove along Highways 287 and 220 which parallel the Pony Express, the Oregon, California and Mormon Historic Trails. The landscape has not significantly altered in the last 150 years, enabling us to see the same landmarks and experience the same terrain as those who crossed on foot and in wagons. Before ~1830, people believed it would be easier to get to the moon than to cross the Rockies with wagons. Astorians heading east were told of a crossing place by native people in 1812, but kept it secret. The “discovery” by fur trappers of the South Pass of the Continental Divide in 1824 opened up the opportunity to settle the northwest.
A broad saddle shaped pass covered with sagebrush shrub and prairie grasses, the South Pass divides the high desert of the Great Divide Basin and Antelope Hills to the south and east and the colossal Wind River Mountains to the Northwest. We think of place with contemporary political borders, but in the 1830’s, crossing the pass meant entering Oregon territory. Topographical landmarks such as Chimney Rock, Devil’s Gate and Independence Rock marked not only the progress of the journey, but were significant to the psychological well-being of the pioneers. Independence Rock was so named because the pioneers knew if they reached this point before July 4th, then they would beat the early mountains snows.
Casper is full of history whose culture is truly shaped by its landscape. Situated along the wide North Platte River, soldiers, protecting the emigrants, arrived and set up a fort in the 1850s. One can visit the reconstructed military outpost outside of town. Entrepreneurs, eyeing an opportunity, set up ferry services for pioneers to cross the river on their westward journey to the South Pass. In 1859, to the annoyance of the ferrymen, Louis Guinard built a bridge and trading post, and the town was born. Cattle and sheep ranching boomed in Wyoming in the late 19th century, and the cowboy ranching culture endures, even if much of the ranching is herding tourists! We visited the Western Trails Interpretive Center, which embellished our understanding of the region’s history. The state is a geological treasure, and in spite of changing economic drivers during the last 100 years, Casper retains its entrepreneurial and Western Heritage culture.
We lacked the time to head down to Casper Mountain just a few miles south of town to do some real hiking. However, the Platte River Parkway Trail meanders along the lazy river almost eight miles from the north end of town past Fort Casper crossing the river four times down to the southwest section of town about a mile past the BLM regional headquarters.
I wasn’t sure what to expect visiting Casper. Reading about place usually pales in comparison to reality, and this certainly was the case here. The biggest surprise is Casper’s commitment to public art. Over 50 pieces have been commissioned by or donated to the city. The sculpture focuses on central Wyoming’s sense of place – the vast plains, the images of tribal life, of pioneers, wildlife, the wind and its geophysical elements. The people of Casper understand how landscape shapes culture!
 Another day we hiked in the Big Horn Mountains to visit the Medicine Wheel. This 28 spoke wheel is 245 feet in circumference. Its origin is a mystery even to the Crow who arrived in the 16th (some sources state 17th) century. Its age is estimated up to 800 years old.