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1828 - Majesty of Wyoming revealed from the air

There is probably no better way to appreciate this land we call Wyoming than seeing it from the air.

         And looking down right now is just about as good as it can possibly get. The green valleys are glistening with new growth while our purple mountains bask in the sunshine with still enough pearly white snow to sparkle in the distance.

         Our lakes are as blue as blue skies. And no skies in America are as blue as Wyoming’s.

         Ah, what a sight.  Just love seeing Wyoming from the air. Nothing like it in the world.

         I write these words as a person who piloted his own airplane for 30 years.

         The legendary flight instructors Les Larson and Larry Hastings taught me to fly in 1976.  I bought into a plane with a local accountant named J. Ross Stotts.  The plane we bought was an old Piper that had been owned by the late Mable Blakely. She was famous as one of the original “99s,” the name given to the first women pilots in the country.

         That plane was heavy but fast. Later I flew Cessna 182s, which landed like a leaf falling from a tree.  But not that original Piper – it was like landing on an aircraft carrier.

         I loved it. Every bit of it.

         As a little boy, my first flight was in a two seater.  I was jammed between my dad and my uncle Dick Johnson, both big men. We took off and flew all over the hills and valleys of northeast Iowa. I can remember how my stomach felt as we turned and climbed and soared. I even remember the smell of the hot oil coming from the engine.  When we landed on a grass strip I recall saying to myself, “Someday that is going to be me, flying my own airplane.”

         It was 19 years later when I became a pilot.

         I was part of a small newspaper company that had newspapers in Lander, Greybull, Cody, Green River and Gillette.

         Wyoming is so dog gone big; there is just about no way to make it smaller. But flying an airplane instead of driving a car definitely works.  Flying to Greybull took a little over 30 minutes. It was a 2.5-hour drive.

         That view of flying over Boysen Reservoir and looking down on Wind River Canyon, well, it was spectacular. To the northwest, the Absaroka Mountains were high and rugged. The airport at Greybull was a piece of cake. The runway is wide and long because of all the old converted bombers being used as fire-fighting tankers that were based there. Plus Greybull gets very little wind.

         Cody, on the other hand, always had a nasty crosswind that blew down from Rattlesnake Mountain right about the time you thought you had your landing in the bag.  Oops or words to that effect usually accompanied my landings at Cody.

         Later on we got involved with ownership of newspapers in Montana and South Dakota.  Thus, we flew over the entire state of Wyoming on these journeys. It was fun flying around the southern tip of the Big Horn Mountains.  Huge herds of domestic sheep could be seen. Crazy Woman Canyon near Buffalo was spectacular.

         I fell in love with buttes during these flights.  The Pumpkin Buttes southwest of Gillette were probably my favorite although Pilot Butte near Rock Springs comes close. One of the Rawhide Buttes outside of Lusk is sure an odd piece of rock. Looks more like a pyramid.

         The historic Oregon Buttes on South Pass were so significant in our history. When those 500,000 emigrants reached these buttes, they knew they had crossed the Continental Divide.

Crowheart Butte south of Dubois is a landmark that you can see from a long ways off.

         And flying over Devils Tower is unforgettable.  What a monolith!  I learned to love the Wyoming Black Hills from flying over them so many times.

         I rarely flew directly over the top of mountains. But I could look out the window and see the jagged peaks of the Wind Rivers or the impressive canyons of the Big Horns.

         Flying over Elk Mountain and Kennaday Peak between Rawlins and Laramie could be frightening.  Crazy odd winds along that route, known on the ground as the Interstate 80 Snow Chi Minh Trail.

         Here is part of a wonderful poem that I love, which talks about the love of flying. It is called High Flight by John Gillespie McGee Jr. Its final lines go like this:

“Up, up the long delirious burning blue,

“I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.

“Where never lark, or even eagle, flew;

“And, while silent, lifting mind I’ve trod

“The high untrespassed sanctity of space.

“Put out my hand, and touched the Face of God.”

1827 - Biggest upset in Wyoming political history

A porta-potty. In a rancher’s pasture?  Really?

         Possibly the biggest campaign idea helping lead to the biggest political upset in Wyoming history was hatched in the Mint Bar in Sheridan in late October, 1976.

         John Jenkins, Byra Kite and a political consultant named Bob Goodman were trying to find a differentiating issue that would help their huge underdog candidate Malcolm Wallop surge ahead of U. S. Senate powerhouse Gale McGee.

         Much like today, Wyoming citizens in those days were chafing over what they considered federal over-reach.  The Cowboy State seemed to be a place full of good old boys (and gals) who just wanted to be left alone.

         But a series of Democratic Congresses had instituted many onerous federal regulations that even annoyed folks way out here on the frontier. Sound familiar?

         McGee was a Democratic stalwart who had served 18 years in the Senate and his whole campaign was based on all the “clout” he had accumulated during his time in Washington, D. C.

         When Republican Wallop brought in Goodman to help his campaign, he was trailing McGee in the polls by a factor of 72 percent to 18 percent. National newspapers were calling McGee’s Senate seat  “safe” which would help maintain the Democrats huge Senate lead of 62 Democrats versus just 38 Republicans. Much different than today.

         In Wyoming, the Congressional delegation was 2:1 in favor of the Democrats with Sen. McGee and U. S. Rep. Teno Roncalio on one side and Republican Sen. Cliff Hansen on the other. Wyoming was a much different state politically 42 years ago than it is today.

         McGee pretty much used his own staff to conduct his campaign. He did little polling and had no outside consultants. And why not?  He was an overwhelming favorite.

         So how could the Wallop campaign overcome such a deficit to win in November?

         Four decades later, John Jenkins, a Buffalo rancher and owner of an oil company, recalls that campaign when Wallop hired him, Goodman, and Kite. Goodman was advocating using extensive polling and something new – widespread TV advertising.

         Wallop had lost in the Republican gubernatorial primary two years earlier and was in hot water with state GOP officials because of his perceived lukewarm support of the ultimate nominee Dick Jones. That 1974 Republican primary was arguably the most amazing primary in the state’s history.  These were great candidates jousting hard with each other until conservative Jones emerged the winner.

 Jones lost to Democrat Ed Herschler in the subsequent general election in a race still recalled and bemoaned by Republican state political leaders.

         The Wallop campaign correctly tagged McGee, who was the chairman of the Senate Postal Committee, as a proponent of big, over-reaching federal government.  McGee defended the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA), both of which were angering Wyoming folks who just wanted to be left alone.

         McGee was also one of the biggest backers of the Vietnam War.  As a young editor back in 1976, I recall chatting with McGee at a big Democrat rally in Hudson just before Election Day.  McGee told me he was wrong. “In hindsight, it wasn’t wise for us to go there.”  I was not able to publish that comment until after the election.  Even patriotic folks in Wyoming had gotten bitterly tired of the war, which did not end until 1975.

         As Wallop gained in the polls with general election day nearing, those three men gathered in the Mint Bar in Sheridan, as Jenkins recalls. They brainstormed what kind of message could they create which would best tell their story?

         The final TV ad (and accompanying newspaper ads) showed a cowboy getting ready to go out to work on the range in the morning. Strapped to his pack animal is a porta-potty.  The voice-over talked about how the feds can’t even let you “do your business” out in the field without their regulations interfering.  It was an instant classic.  Wyoming voters were captivated. The needle moved. A lot.

         When the general election votes were tallied, it was not even close.  Wallop won with 84,810 votes to McGee’s 70,558.

         Rodger McDaniel has a new book out about McGee that details this campaign in much more detail. I am anxious to read The Man in the Arena: The Life and Times of U.S. Senator Gale McGee. It looks like a wonderful history of one of Wyoming’s great political characters. It will be available in September from University of Nebraska Press.


1826 - Lander is bombastic July 4 capital of USA

So help me, there truly is nothing like it. Anywhere!

         In cities and towns across Wyoming, people see July 4 as a time of fireworks and blowing things up. But one town tops all the rest in the state and perhaps the nation.

         While watching televised images of the nighttime bombing of Baghdad during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I turned to someone and said: “I’ve seen that before.” It looked just like a typical night of July 4 in my hometown of Lander.

         The Independence Day holiday has always been a big deal for Lander since it is the home of the oldest paid rodeo on earth – predating Cheyenne’s.

         But in recent years, this holiday has become a pyrotechnic maniac’s dream. 

         In this town of 7,500 people, you can find at least 30 different locations where neighbors have banded together to light big displays of fireworks.

         And this is in addition to the fire department’s official fireworks on the night of July 4.

It should pointed out that the Lander Pioneer Days holiday includes a big pancake breakfast, lots of distance races, two days of rodeos, a wonderful parade on the morning of the fourth (watched by 12,000 people), a huge Rotary Buffalo Barbecue at City Park at noon on that day plus lots of other activities.

         Because the July 4th holiday is such a big deal in my town, just about all the high school reunions are held during that time, too.  It is truly a homecoming for folks to remember.

In our case, my family always shoots off fireworks on the evening of the 4th, but not to the extent of our neighbors. One of our traditions is to use cigars to light them.  Some years ago I went to Europe and managed to sneak home five Cuban cigars to smoke at some later time.

         Imagine my surprise (and horror) to come home to where our fireworks display was already starting and seeing that my wife Nancy had passed out my Cubans to the folks there to use to light the fireworks instead of my traditional Swisher Sweets. Incredible!

Sharing the credit (or blame) for Lander’s pyrotechnic excesses is Mayor Del McOmie.  A Lander native, he has always felt this was a “tradition” that he can remember during his entire life of growing up locally.

         “We want people to be safe and to be responsible,” he says. “But people deserve to enjoy fireworks on the fourth. It has always been a tradition here, where Independence Day is our biggest holiday of the year.  As long as I am mayor, we will try to make it as much fun as possible.”

         There is another side to the story. Lander resident, in an earlier column about Lander’s July 4 racket, resident Nancy Debevoise has this to say: “From sun up until late at night on July 4, I feel as if I`m in some bomb-besieged third-world country.

“While some people are fairly responsible about fireworks, too many seem to spend the entire day and evening (and their paychecks) setting off round after round of peace-shattering noise, with no consideration for neighbors, others` property or passersby’s,” she says.     

Lucie Whisler recalled a fun-filled July 4 at her neighborhood at Lucky Lane in Lander, which consisted mostly of mountain climbers.  “Some bright souls decided to put a big firecracker in a bowling ball.  The ball went to pieces, flying over houses, cars and people. Fortunately, no one was hit or hurt, and nothing was damaged.  Don`t try this at home,” she cautions,

         The folks in the Indian Lookout neighborhood pool their resources and explode perhaps the most serious “amateur” show in town.  People are stationed with hoses to extinguish fires that may erupt in the neighboring nature preserve.

         It is almost impossible to adequately describe what Lander on the night of July 4 looks like.  You just have to experience it. The sight is incredible.  Lander sits in a valley and a lot of folks live in the hills around town. They tell amazing stories of what it looks like, peering down at the siege.

In recent years, some amazing color time-exposure photos have been made of the explosions. Last year, one enterprising photographer sent a drone up into the middle of the flak to get some of the most amazing images ever. 

         There really is no way to describe how it looks, feels and sounds to be in Lander on the night of July 4th.

Probably somewhat like Baghdad, huh?

1825 - Gov. Matt Mead honored for service to Wyoming

So just how good a governor are you to be ranked the number-one governor in America for popularity?

         Based on the large crowd that gathered Friday, June 8 in Cheyenne, Gov. Matt Mead and First Lady Carol Mead are loved.

         The event was organized to recognize the Meads for the last seven and a half years of service. He will depart office on Dec. 31. 

         The star-studded night included speeches by U. S. Senators Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and Dr. Laurie Nichols, president of the University of Wyoming.

         Enzi talked about how “honorable” Mead is and has been during the past seven and half years. Among his comments were:

“When Matt was running for governor, he said Wyoming needed to be proactive to fend off federal regulations.  I’m not sure he knew how much he’d be doing between 2011 and 2018, but he has been a valuable partner to the Wyoming Congressional delegation in that fight.  

“We’ve stood shoulder to shoulder since he was sworn in as Wyoming’s 32nd Governor to fight the Clean Power Plan; the Stream Protection Rule; the moratorium on coal leases on federal lands; and the rest of President Obama’s War on Coal.  The Governor has made a lasting emphasis with lawsuits challenging the War on Coal, and with President Trump in office, we’ve had some success in that effort.  Miners are starting to mine again!  

“Matt, as residents of the Powder River Basin, Diana and I thank you for fighting for coal. But it’s not just the coal industry you’ve helped.  The oil and gas industry is appreciative of your leadership on sage grouse management that helped keep the bird from being listed as endangered.  Your advocacy for Wyoming’s existing hydraulic fracturing standards was also crucial in getting President Trump to repeal the Bureau of Land Management’s fracking rule.  

“And Matt’s successes don’t stop there.  His voice was critical in delisting the grizzly bear in Yellowstone and continuing the black-footed ferret’s recovery.  I’ve enjoyed working with him on the annual GRO-Biz Conference, which helps Wyoming companies to do business with the federal government. We couldn’t have opened Wyoming’s first Job Corps Center in 2015 without Matt’s help.  

 “Matt also created the ENDOW Initiative to diversify Wyoming’s economy after revenues from oil, gas and coal slid to the point that budget cuts were necessary.  His quiet leadership and effective explanations are unmatched.”

Sen. Barrasso listed other accomplishments by Gov. Mead but listed what he called “the great eight” as worthy of highlighting. These are honors bestowed on Wyoming during Mead’s two terms:

2011 – 2018 – Wyoming named best state business climate.

2011 – Wyoming named best-run state.

2012 – Wyoming named the state with the most cost-effective state highway system.

2015-2016 – Wyoming named best state for retirement.

2016 – Wyoming named best state in which to start a business.

2017 – Wyoming named best state for being most confident in the U. S economy.

2018 – Wyoming named best state for individual return on bachelor degree program.

2018 – Wyoming’s Matt Mead named most popular governor in USA.

Barrasso saved his biggest praise for Mead by telling the overflow crowd that the governor never missed a deployment of Wyoming servicemen or an opportunity to welcome them home.

“Plus he opened it up to recognizing all veterans all across Wyoming, which was long overdue,” the senator said. He said Mead even started a program to recognize new recruits.

Dr. Nichols said Mead had never-ending support for higher education. He is a huge supporter of the university, she said.

During his rebuttal, Mead said, “Thank God we live in Wyoming!”  He talked about his great grandfather who served in the state senate, his grandfather who was a governor and a U. S. Senator and his mom, who ran for governor and lost.

But the loudest roar of the night came when he talked about how he thought he was shooing a kitty out from under a bush at the governor’s residence and got sprayed head-on by a skunk.

As he staggered into the house, his wife First Lady Carol ordered him “get out of this house!”

Ultimately he took off all his clothes and figured out a way to hose himself off and then went into the garage to somehow get the skunk spray off his body. “Where does a skunky governor go?” he asked.

He ended his talk by quoting a family motto about living in Wyoming.  “Find one blade of grass and replace it with two,” he concluded to a long, standing ovation.


1824 - My 2018 Wyomng Bucket List

By definition, the term “bucket list” stands for those places you want to visit or those things you want to do before you die.

         For some time now, I have been publishing my own version of this Wyoming list and have gradually been checking a few off my list.

         And yet, there are so many other places to see and my list seems to be getting longer rather than shorter.

         For example, participating in a dinosaur dig has zoomed to near the top of my list. The dinosaur dig east of Thermopolis is terrific, I have been told.

The Vore buffalo jump near Sundance is amazing.  After seeing that one, I now want to get out in the Red Desert and see the jump on the summit of Steamboat Mountain between Rock Springs and Farson.

Among the things that I wanted to do, and did do, were finally seeing Sybille Canyon between Laramie and Wheatland.  Also, I finally took that Red Desert back road from Rock Springs to South Pass and visited Boar’s Tusk and the Killpecker Sand Dunes.

         Also, I finally drove that fantastic Wild Horse Loop from Green River to north of Rock Springs above the White Mountains.

        We also re-visited the fantastic petroglyphs just south of Dubois with our Texas grandchildren. Amazing.

         But I still have not made it to some very important locales. So here goes by 2018 Wyoming Bucket List:

• I am hoping to take a closer look at the Vedauwoo area outside of Laramie.  Again, I have driven by it hundreds of times. It is time for a closer look.  Also, to spend some time at Curt Gowdy State Park.

         • There is a man-made rock arrow in the Red Desert called the Hadsell site.  It is between Jeffrey City and Wamsutter and will make a nice jeep trip.

         • Between Jeffrey City and Muddy Gap is an odd rock formation I call the castle.  Reportedly it has names written on its walls, including John Sublette.  Sometime this year it will finally get checked off.

         • Near the listed area above is a true Stonehenge site near Jeffrey City that can be seen on Google Earth.  Only problem is these huge boulders were moved into a geometric design by humans with big machines during a mine clean up some years ago. Bravo to these guys for showing imagination while doing an otherwise boring job.

         • Our family lived on Squaw Creek for 23 years outside of Lander and our view looked out at Red Butte.  Hope to climb it this summer.

         • If Fossil Butte is not on this list, my friend Vince Tomassi will scold me about it.  He serves incredible meals every Thursday night in Kemmerer-Diamondville at Luigi’s.  Perhaps a tour and dinner, Vince?

         • In 1993, I spent a very nervous time hunting a bighorn ram in the Double Cabin Area northeast of Dubois, while dodging grizzly bears. It was not any fun knowing I was not at the top of the food chain. Packing a .30-06 helped alleviate the nerves a little.   Would love to go back for a more relaxed trip this time around.

         • I still need to take the time to tour UW with a knowledgeable guide and see first-hand all the new buildings and new programs.

         • Some 47 years ago, I photographed what looked like a horrible scar on Togwotee Pass where the area was clear-cut. Would like to go back to those areas and see if the timber has recovered or not?

         • Historian Phil Roberts says he will give me a tour of the “breaks” north of Lusk?   I flew over that area by private plane many times and looked down in awe at this rough country.

          This past year Nancy and I toured eastern Wyoming spending time around Hulett, Sundance, Newcastle, Lusk, Torrington and Wheatland.  What a great area full of beautiful sites and wonderful people. Would like to take my grandkids over there this summer.

         • A tour of Wyoming’s giant coalmines makes sense.

         • Author John Davis of Worland wrote a great book about the Spring Creek massacre. Would very much like to see that site south of Ten Sleep.

         • Am hoping Dan Dockstader might give us a tour of the Star Valley area.  The few times I have been there, the beauty was amazing.

         • The Bear River area around Evanston is worth a trip as is a visit to their fantastic railroad roundhouse which as been restored.

         • Jim Hicks of Buffalo has promised me a nice trip to Crazy Woman Canyon some time soon.

         • I would like to visit the famous authors, the Gears, in Thermopolis and run up to Ucross and chat with Craig Johnson. Love their books.

         • Maybe I can talk Dave Peck into a tour of Big Horn Lake behind Yellowtail Dam. It’s been on my bucket list for a long time.

         • On the Wind River Reservation, I would like to visit the mountains at the extreme north end of the rez.

         To wrap this up, my friend Tom Hayes does not like the term “bucket list” and calls his a “leap list” for a list he does every leap year to plan their visits over the next four years. 

         So that’s my Wyoming bucket list.  What’s yours?