The National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper, Wyoming, stands on a hill overlooking the city and the last trail crossing of the North Platte River. Although today the river, now tamed by three dams, is placid and shallow, in the 1800s it was sometimes the scene of tragedy if the waters were too deep. Opened in 2002, the center is built around a large central diorama, where visitors watch a movie reenacting some of the dramas of the transcontinental crossings of the 19th century. The principal emigrations were the Oregon migration starting in the 1820s, the Mormon migration beginning Covered wagon exhibit in the 1840s, and the California Gold Rush of 1849 and later years. In addition, the Pony Express, which followed much the same trails for it's short, romantic existence, is commemorated in the Center.
While horse- and ox-drawn covered wagons are best remembered, the fact is that most travelers walked alongside the wagon trains, so the two-thousand miles from the trailhead at Independence, Missouri were covered mostly on foot. Indeed, a fair number of Mormon travellers pulled handcarts up the prairies and over the mountains to Utah. About six percent of the hundreds of thousands of migrants died on the trip, which generally took four months. If the party started too soon they would face late winter and spring storms on the prairie and lack of forage for the animals; too late and the wagon train might not beat the early autumn snows in the western mountains. Independence Rock, engraved with the names of many travellers, was so named because a party which reached the Rock by July 4 would be likely to complete the trip in safety.
As the years passed, the crossing grew more civilized: ferries and bridges were constructed, resupply points were established, and the body of knowledge of the hazards of the journey made later travel safer. From the moment the Golden Spike was driven in Promontory, Utah, linking the rail lines A butte in Wyoming from East to West, travelers began to choose the safer and much faster journey by train. But the trail remained in use for decades, and there are still a few places where the original nineteenth century wheel ruts, or swales, can be seen.
The museum is practically brand-new and incorporates many technologies designed to attract both adults and children. Maps indicate the different routes, and many displays incorporate journal entries and letters from the pioneers themselves. You can climb into a covered wagon for a simulated, bouncing trip across the river, you can experience the terrible conditions faced by a family who left too late in the summer and got trapped by winter snows. The relationship between the Indians and the travelers is described from the conflicting points of view. Seeming at times a bit like Disneyland, with its showy, interactive displays, the Center is probably best appreciated by school groups and families with children, but we "mature" travelers found plenty of facts and figures which were new to us, along with the more-familiar human stories of hardship and boredom on the long journey.
Kemmerer, Wyoming, is the birthplace of the J. C. Penney Company. We decided that after our visit to the Wal-Mart headquarters, we should give Penney's equal time, especially since they were for decades our source of short-sleeved white shirts. Kemmerer is a tiny, tree-shaded town at the western edge of Wyoming. Today it exists because of the largest open-pit coal mine in North America just down the road.
A small, old-fashioned Penney's store is the principal commercial establishment in downtown Kemmerer. The clerk told us that Sam Walton once J. C. Penney, Kemmerer, Wyoming worked for Mr. Penney. The biography supplied by the company describes the growth of The J. C. Penney Company in terms similar to Wal-Mart -- attention always directed to the customer, employees called Associates, concentration on the details (e.g., the importance of correct price tags) that verges on the obsessive. We hadn't known that James Cash Penney had earned a gigantic fortune by the 1920's, had set up several charitable enterprises and then lost his shirt in the Crash; he later recovered enough to live very comfortably. His tiny house with its white picket fence, just down the street from the first Penney store, looks charming; unfortunately for us, it is open only through Labor Day.
The friendly folks at the visitors center interrupted their staff meeting to talk to us, and strongly recommended we stop at Fossil Butte National Monument outside of town. We thought of our friend's son Ben, a paleobotanist, and headed for the visitor center. We were delighted! Fossil Butte was a very well-known site in the nineteenth century, where a few dedicated desert dwellers extracted and restored the abundant and beautiful fossils for sale to collectors. Today the site is restricted to scientists. Only reproductions of fossils are for sale in the store in the visitor center, although the collector can still find the real things for sale in town, extracted before Fossil Butte came under the National Park Service.
There is a productive layer of rock, averaging around eighteen inches thick, which contains the most spectacular fossils. Scientists lift off a top layer to reveal beautifully preserved fossils, which they then carefully clean to show near-perfect detail. The visitor center exhibited fish, turtles, Fossil palm reptiles, even flying animals, as well as an entire plant frond several feet high. The scientists have decades of work ahead of them, mapping the evolution of these ancient life forms, and comparing their anatomy to fossils and living fish found elsewhere in the world. The fossil layer is 50 million years old, and it gives one pause to contemplate the enormous time when the earth was full of life but devoid of mammals, including humans. As we left a high-school group was setting out on a hike to the work site; perhaps a future paleobiologist would be inspired by the experience.
Wyoming is our least populated state. Only a tiny amount of land close to a river is suitable for planting, and much of the rest is so dry it supports very few cattle. Between its isolated small towns are miles of open road through sagebrush desert. Here and there are mines, most of which are highly automated and provide but few jobs for the community. Summer tourism, especially to Yellowstone and the Tetons in the northwest corner of the state, is another major part of the economy. On our crossing of the state we were delighted by the herds of the pronghorn antelopes, and only a little disappointed at the fall colors, most of which consisted of aspens which briefly turned yellow and then shed their leaves.
When we think of the variety of countryside through which we've passed in recent weeks we are struck with awe. Even though the people may be getting homogenized by television, the scenery remains strikingly different from state to state. And of course even the people are constantly being reinvigorated by the tide of immigrants. The young lady who greeted us at Fossil Butte National Monument was a Russian, and Casper proudly advertised it was home to fifty different ethnic groups.