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1536C - Smoky times remind of Yellowstone fires

As I write this, the beautiful view of the Wind River Mountains out of my window is obscured.  It is so smoky we are leaving our windows shut because it smells like a brush fire a short distance away.

         In this case, that brush fire is 1,000 miles away.  Northern California and parts of Oregon and Washington are burning up.

         This smoke is covering up towns all over Wyoming especially in the Big Horn Basin and Wind River Basin.

         It is hard to find a city or town from Cheyenne to Evanston or Powell to Gillette in which smoke has not dominated the view. At least the sunsets and sunrises have been magnificent!

         Here in Lander, we enjoyed one clear day between all the smoke from the northwest to local smoke from the Little Bob fire on the Wind River Indian Reservation.  They are letting it burn and it is over 1,500 acres and growing.

         These ash clouds also remind of a time 27 years ago when Yellowstone National Park literally burned up. Here is what I recall of that event:

         Is this hell?  Or is it Yellowstone? That was my exact thought as I piloted a small, single engine airplane over the vast expanse of Yellowstone National Park the last week of August, 1988, during the horrible fires that year.

         Flying with me on that day was Larry Hastings, one of the best pilots and instructors in Wyoming history.  Also along and helping take photos was Mike McClure, a legend in his own right, as a premier photographer.

         Both men lived in Lander. We had been talking about making this flight for some time.

         It was my bright idea.  We had seen TV coverage of the fire but no one seemed to have a good aerial view.  I always want to figure out a way to take a big picture in the easiest way possible and flying over the park seemed the best plan.

         Hastings was aware of the altitude restrictions, which caused us to be quite high as we flew over the world’s oldest national park while it was literally burning up.

         The view was both impressive and unimpressive.  It was impressive because as far as the eye could see was smoke.  It was unimpressive because it was impossible to make out landmarks.  Not even the mountains were very visible.

         What was visible were a large number of hotspots where fire would shoot 200 feet in the air.  It was hot down there.  The park I loved was going to be changed forever.

         That event two and half decades ago was unprecedented in the history of the National Park Service.  There were contrasting programs of fire suppression and “controlled burns” in place, which caused the people responsible for the park’s existence to be incapable of dealing with the conflagration.

         Cities and towns in a wide circle around the park enjoyed the most colorful sunsets in history.  Lander, which is a two-hour drive southeast from YNP, the evening views were unprecedented.  It was an awful time for folks with respiratory problems.  No wind and no rain could relieve these conditions. 

Fighting the fires in 1988 cost $120 million which is $230 million in today’s dollars – almost a quarter of a billion dollars. It covered some 800,000 acres or over one third of the park. 

         Biggest fire was the North Fork fire, which was started July 22 by a cigarette dropped by a man cutting timber in the neighboring Targhee National Forest.

         One of the most amazing scenes of this fire was when embers from it were sent airborne across the massive Lewis Lake by 80 mph winds setting new fires on the other side of the lake.

         This complex of fires burned 140,000 acres and was finally extinguished when some welcome rains fell later that fall.

         Stories about other parts of the park and the valiant effort of more than 13,000 firefighters, 120 helicopters and other aerial devices, plus National Guard and civilians detail bravery but were to no avail.  Important structures like Old Faithful Inn and the Lake Hotel were saved but efforts to stop the fires proved to be impossible.

         Mother Nature wanted that fire to burn and it did until she was ready to put it out.

         And that memorable day 27 years ago we were flying above a scene right out of Dante’s Inferno. I experienced a memory that I would both like to forget and yet, always recall.

1536B - Pursuing Trump, Jeb and Hillary in Iowa

The center of my world is Wyoming.  But Wyoming is often a long way from the political center of America.

The center of the world when it comes to American Presidential politics right now is the state of Iowa. 

         Located in the middle of the country and smack during a time of what locals call “dog days,” those humid, sticky days in mid-August, the 20-plus candidates for president all come to the Hawkeye state.

         The middle of the state in the middle of the country is Des Moines, Iowa’s state capitol. It was a busy place this year.

         I found myself in Iowa for 10 days in August as we were attending my wife’s high school reunion one weekend and the wedding of a niece the following one.

         GOP presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush, Donald Trump and Mike Huckabee showed up.  Democrats Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley were there too.

         One of the biggest events of the summer in the Midwest is the famous Iowa State Fair. It is there the Des Moines Register hosts its “soapbox” for candidates and they all show up

         On a Friday in August, former Florida governor Jeb Bush was the big attraction. I waited in traffic for 90 minutes before finally getting into the fairgrounds. I was positive that I was going to be late, but made it with 10 minutes to spare. The crowd was huge and crushing. It was hot and humid. It was exciting and electric.

         Bush was not late. He was right on time. And he did a terrific job. There were a few protesters yelling about either Planned Parenthood or the Iraq War but mainly his talk went well.

         He mainly boasted about being a reformer in Florida and how much that is prepping him to become president.  He sounds like a guy wanting to put US troops into the Arab region to deal with ISIS, which received a cool reception in generally anti-war Iowa. It appeared he was trying to back away from his brother, former president George Bush, but was also blaming current President Barack Obama for the Iraq debacle.

         The slimmed down Bush (he’s lost 40 pounds) seemed youthful and energized.

         The next day Donald Trump showed up at the fair about the same time as Hillary Clinton.

         Trump is mad at the Des Moines Register so he skipped their event and landed his helicopter on a softball field near the fairgrounds. He answered reporters’ questions and was very critical of both Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.

         He contends Bush is a puppet to his donors and Hillary is in deep legal trouble because of her email accounts possibly having classified documents on a private non-government email server.

         Trump flew his fancy helicopter into the fairgrounds and gave children rides in it. 

         Both Trump and Hillary created huge distractions at the fair with large crowds that prevented them from seeing a giant statue of a cow made of butter.  I saw it.  Not that big a deal.

         It is traditional for candidates to eat pork chops on a stick and drink beer at 10 a. m. in the morning. Bush did these things as did Trump and Hillary. Crazy times in a crazy place.

Over 1 million people attend the fair. It reminded me of Cheyenne’s Frontier Days.

         Earlier, on our way to Iowa, we stopped in Laramie and visited with the folks at the University of Wyoming Alumni Association.  We hope to be working with Keener Fry and Chase McNamee on some future promotions.

         Keener told me he was hosting a UW event in Omaha on the following Monday, which was just 35 miles from where we were staying in Iowa.  Thus we showed up and joined a rousing group of UW grads at the Upstream Brewpub at Omaha’s Old Market, hearing some exciting news about the university being told to some very enthusiastic grads. Lots of fun.

         At Nancy’s 50th class reunion in Harlan, Iowa, we discovered that two of her classmates had spent much of their adult lives in Wyoming. Rhea Jean Magnuson and her husband Gary lived in Gillette for years. They now live in Arizona.

         Jan Hughes McIntosh and her husband Tom were teachers in Green River for most of their careers. They now live in Loveland, CO.

         Out of 100 students in Nancy’s graduation class (50 boys and 50 girls), three ended up spending their adult lives in Wyoming. Seems like a good percentage.


1536 - Country`s oldest road passes through Wyoming

August has to be just about the best month to be in Wyoming.  Love the weather. Love the sights.  Love traveling around.

         Unfortunately for us, most of our August travel in the state has seen Nancy and me traveling through the state on our way OUT of the state!

         We have been in Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa so far in August and are just wanting to be back in the Cowboy State.

         I am writing this from western Iowa where we are attending Nancy’s high school reunion and the wedding of a favorite niece.

         So far, we have enjoyed traveling Interstate 80/Highway 30, also known as the Lincoln Highway, the single most important and most historic road in the nation.

         It was America’s first road from sea to shining sea.

Besides ending the Civil War, freeing the slaves and launching a national railway, President Abraham Lincoln also thought it important to have a designated roadway crossing the country from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

         And although Wyoming would not become a state for another 25 years, that road has crossed from one of our borders to the other for the past 152 years.

         From the 1860s to the 1930s, it was often known simply as “Lincoln’s Road.”

         The road did not handle automobiles until some 50-plus years after first conceived.  With most of the population of America living east of the Mississippi, their logical route was going west on the Lincoln Road.

         It is hard to find a travel historian in Wyoming the equal of Cheyenne’s Randy Wagner, who not only knows about the Lincoln Highway but also, in my opinion, is our state’s number-one historian of the Oregon-California-Mormon trail. 

         Wagner wrote a chapter on the highway for my 2014 book, MY WYOMING 101 Special Places, in which he pointed out the road first opened for autos on Oct. 31, 1913. He writes:

 “The Lincoln Road, like the legendary transcontinental covered wagon trails and railroads of the nineteenth century, conquered the Rocky Mountain barrier of the Continental Divide via a route through southern Wyoming.  Here was a break in a mountain chain that stretched from Canada to Mexico.  The southern Wyoming corridor offered manageable grades and reasonable elevations between the towering Snowy Range to the south and the impassable Wind River Range to the north.” 

With that, travelers back east headed west.

Dan Kinnaman of Rawlins recalls helping his dad outfit travelers cars with canvas water bags for trips across the Red Desert in the 1960s. “Many a car had the water bag on the front bumper and even on fishing trips when the car labored up hills. These bags also made excellent fishing creels.  He recalls early Highway 30 in Carbon County was on the original Union Pacific track grades.

Advice was plentiful for these intrepid adventurers and lists of equipment suggested included the following: Since gasoline stations were still rare in many parts of the country, motorists were urged to top off their tanks at every opportunity, even if they had done so recently. Motorists should wade through water before driving through to verify the depth. The list of recommended equipment included chains, a shovel, axe, jacks, tire casings and inner tubes, tools, and a pair of Lincoln Roadway pennants. Also one guide offered this advice: Don`t wear new shoes.

         Not sure what those early tourists thought when they hit Wyoming but we know our state did not bore them.

         They were already bored out of their minds by traversing the vast prairie lands of Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska.  By the time they got to Wyoming, there was actually a chance to see a mountain!

         They entered at Pine Bluffs with an eye on getting to that most famous of all wild-west towns, Cheyenne. Then it was onward to Laramie, which included some of their first mountain experiences. Then it was over the high plains to Rawlins, which was a sleepy railroad town back in those days. Getting across the North Platte River must have been wild.

         From there it was across the Red Desert country, which surely was amazingly scary to folks used to seeing water all around them. Nary a drop for miles. Rock Springs probably looked like an oasis.

         Next, their route traveled through more high desert country into Kemmerer and then it split into 30N to Burley, ID and 30S which went to Evanston. Then their Wyoming experience was over and they headed out of the state.

1534 - Traveling the Lincoln Highway + other things

Of Wyoming’s four seasons, this one can be the longest and the butt of the most complaints.

         We are talking about “road construction,” one of the four seasons used to describe Wyoming by some grumpy curmudgeons. The other seasons?  How about Almost Winter, Winter and Still Winter.

         I repeat this with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek. As someone who loves all things Wyoming (even that wind), this is a fun way to describe the Cowboy State.

         Between book tours, business meetings and trips to Iowa for a wedding and a high school reunion, well, we have been covering lots of miles recently.  Thus, those experiences become the topics of my weekly columns.

         If you are traveling some of the roads that I travel, well, some interesting things seem to pop up.

         We love having better quality roads but right now the trip from Lander to Rawlins on Highway 287 can be daunting.  Lots of delays as they are making major improvements to this historical federal highway.

         More on highway 287 would be the following:

For example, our Main Street in Lander is the same as Laramie in that US 287 runs through our town.

         We spend lots of time in Dallas, Texas, and one of the main highways heading into the Metroplex from the northwest is highway 287.

         As a board member of the MountainWest AAA, our headquarters is in Helena, Montana.  Main Street of that capital city is highway 287.  It is all the same road.

         On this trip we made it to Jeffrey City after myriad delays for construction when a warning light came on telling me that “oil maintenance” is required.  When you are in Jeffrey City with 850 miles ahead of you, what do you do?

         Well, you stop at Three Forks at Muddy Gap and try to figure it out.  Everything seemed fine, so we decided to keep going. Ken’s Toyota in Laramie was the next logical stop so we made it there and their folks took super care of me.  No problem. The warning is triggered by the odometer, not by the oil. Whew.

         In Rawlins we admired their new award-winning Main Street.  In Laramie, we spend some time at the wonderful Marian Rochelle Gateway Center.  What an amazing building.

         A major Interstate 80 landmark is the giant statue of Abe Lincoln on the summit between Laramie and Cheyenne. I was surprised to see it still there as it has been scheduled for refurbishment this summer.

         Tourism officials reportedly convinced highway department folks to hold off until after Labor Day.  The big bronze head will be hauled to Lander where the renowned Eagle Bronze foundry will apply a new patina, which will protect the big face for years to come.

         The statue was built in 1959 for Lincoln’s 150th birthday and marks the highest point of the Lincoln Highway (former highway 30 and now Interstate 80), which is in Wyoming. It was sculpted by the late Robert Russin of Laramie, whose ashes are interred in the base on the structure.

         I am writing this from western Iowa near Omaha, Nebraska. While crossing the Bob Kerrey Memorial Footbridge from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Omaha over the Missouri, I read that the longest river in America is the Missouri, not the Mississippi, which most of us would assume.

         Not long ago, I was in the town of Three Forks, Mont., (not Muddy Gap), which is the headwaters of the Missouri.  I was at one end of the country’s longest river and now to the other end over a two-week period.

         Big news back here in Iowa is the onslaught of the state by political candidates.

         Folks ranging from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton and everyone in-between keep showing up at oddball events all over the Hawkeye State.

         My sister Marybeth Smith and her husband Steve own the Winthrop News, a wonderful weekly newspaper in Buchanan County.  They gave me a press pass so I can get into some events and possibly interview some of these characters.

         Stay tuned to see how this works out.

         Meanwhile my wife Nancy is complaining about how she looks at her 50th high school reunion.  She looks great and does not take any solace when I remind her she will be hanging out with 70 other 68-year old guys and gals. Most of these folks might be better restored than us, though, as most made fortunes on the corn farms and retired years ago.