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1614 - How to survive Wyoming`s spring snowstorms

How do you prepare for a 36-inch spring snowstorm that is headed your way?

         Before I answer that question, let me set the scene for you:

         It was on a fantastic and amazing Easter Sunday afternoon when we got the news that this wonderful warm weather was about to change – and it was about to change in the most dramatic way possible.

         Three feet of snow? 

         I always tell people that the Wyoming winters are mild. It is spring that will lay you low.

         Here in Lander, we average 110 inches of snow per year and most of it comes to March, April and May.

         To make this whole event even crazier, Nancy and I had spent 37 days in Las Vegas in our old motor home during the end of January, all of February and the first week of March. Weather in Vegas was wonderful but it was also perfect back here in Wyoming.

         In 49 years of marriage, this was the very first Easter that Nancy and I had spent alone with no kids, grandkids or other members of our very large extended family.

         Our children had taken their kids and headed to Utah and Washington on Spring Break vacations. We stayed home because of some book commitments that I had long ago arranged.  We went for long walks in the perfectly dry weather. Then we barbequed steaks and enjoyed a very nice time.

         Big snowstorms are not a rarity here at the foot of the towering Wind River Mountains.  We have endured many 30-inch snowfalls . . . but not one in several years.

         It was not long ago that people here were worried about the low snowpack in the mountains. After this monster, the new worry might be about spring flooding.

         Such flooding happened in 2010 when we suffered through a 50-year flood event because of enormous, wet spring snowstorms.

         Biggest snowstorm in our history occurred in April 1999 when 52.7 inches fell.  We owned the local newspaper and I was proud of my headline: “STORM OF THE CENTURY.”  Yes, it certainly was.

         I was hoping this one would not mimic that event, which had knocked over trees and caved in roofs.

         So, how do you get ready for such a storm?

         First, we bought lot of groceries, batteries and refreshments.  Check.

         Second, we made sure we had all our shovels and brooms on the ready.  Check.

         Third, we went through the mail and paid all the bills. Check.

         Fourth, we rounded up two four-wheel drive vehicles and stored them out of the weather so we hopefully could get in and out of our long driveway. Check.

         Fifth, we dug out the snowmobile boots and heavy parkas. Check.

         Sixth, we put away lawn chairs and patio furniture, which we had optimistically gotten out during all this wonderful warm spring weather, not realizing it all was going to end.  Check.

         And seventh, and perhaps most importantly, we made Nancy’s famous chili, which would sustain us during this event. Check.

         What I did not prepare for was the 8-hour power outage that arrived at 10:30 a.m. on the second day of the storm.  Power was not back on until about 7 p.m. that night.  So much for the chili, which was cool in the refrigerator and not nearly so tasty as when it is heated.

         Originally the National Weather Service predicted two to three feet. In the middle of the storm, they predicted 33.4 inches.  How could they be that precise?  It was snowing like crazy on Tuesday night when that forecast came out.

         The storm started as heavy rain on Monday evening and I thought maybe we had dodged a bullet.  We would rather have rain down here in the valley as long as snow is falling in the mountains.

         By the end of the first 24 hours, over a foot of the heaviest, wettest snow had fallen.  Temperatures were still in the 30s and a lot of it was melting.  The snow was so dense it was almost impossible to walk through.

         Then it let up for a couple of hours. Alas, then it came down heavier than ever.

         It snowed again all day Wednesday and even a little came on Thursday. Then it finally quit. We now had endured the wettest March in Lander’s history, according to the Weather Service.

         Once we got the power back on, though, we were snug as bugs in a rug.  We had nary a care, nowhere to go and lots of hot chili.

         It was even possible to look out and view the snowfall as one of the most beautiful things you can see in nature. And it was happening right here in our back yard in Wonderful Wyoming.



1613 - Wyoming could help pick Donald Trump

Have you ever seen anything like the current political race for president of the United States?

         After watching from 1956 to 2012, I have never seen anything like this bizarre Trump-Cruz-Hillary-Bernie circus. It “trumps” any other presidential election.

         Perhaps its craziness can be blamed on GOP front-runner, businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump. Or maybe it is because of the incredible length of the campaigns and the fact everyone, everywhere can keep up with every single sound bite and rumor?

         So here are some thoughts that go through my mind when it comes to this amazing event we are seeing:

         • Not sure if Donald Trump has ever visited Wyoming but this state might play a key role in his effort to become president. Let me explain:

         Wyoming Republican delegates will be the last ones to vote in the national GOP convention.  It is possible that when they do the roll call votes, the key to whether Trump can nail down a first ballot victory might come from the 29 delegates casting votes from Wyoming. Now that would be history making.

         It happened once before in 1960 when Wyoming Democrats put John F. Kennedy over the top as the last state voting at the end of the first ballot.

         • Our freakish spring weather prevented big speeches by major candidates earlier in March when Bernie Sanders had to cancel visits to Casper and Laramie and former President Bill Clinton called off a visit to Cheyenne.

         Our winters are mild in Wyoming – it is the Spring Weather than can knock you flat. 

         • Getting back to Trump, one of my concerns about him is that he obviously relishes the chase and the competition of this long primary campaign.  But what if he did get elected? Does he really want to govern?

         Much like many companies, the entrepreneur who started the place often ends up not being a very good manager, as the two jobs require quite different skill sets.

         • It was interesting watching the candidates react to the terrorist attacks in Brussels compared to how President Barack Obama reacted.

         The candidates came out swinging.  Trump was in a total tizzy.  Ted Cruz wants to patrol Muslim neighborhoods here in America.

         Obama merely said we are doing the best we can but the reality is that is can be pretty difficult to weed out crazy individuals.

         Based on those reactions, you can tell the difference between who are the candidates and who is the sitting president.

         Cruz was apoplectic about Obama not leaving the baseball game in Havana between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team when the Brussels bombings occurred.  Obama stayed put. Then the president flew to Argentina and publicly danced the tango!

         • One wag from our Fox News All-Stars coffee group correctly opined that every time there is a terrorist attack somewhere around the world, Trump gains more votes.  Hard to argue with that assessment, and it creates total chaos on the part of the other candidates.

         • Most recently, a Cruz supporting running ads in Utah showing Trump’s wife posing the nude. And then the National Enquirer claiming Cruz is a serial philanderer. Never saw stuff like that before. Ever. 

         • To me, the biggest surprise of the campaign season has been Bernie Sanders.  He is a 74-year old Jewish man who is not even a member of the Democrat party. He is the only independent in the U. S. Senate and yet is running a close second for the Democratic nomination behind Hillary Clinton.

         His battle cry resonates. He feels the middle class has been left behind because of poorly planned international trade deals signed by the USA over the last 25 years. He has attacked Clinton for deals made by her husband, which obviously cost lots of Americans their good jobs.

         • Right now, to me, it still looks like either an easy Hillary general election win over Trump or Cruz. 

Or, it could be an easy Trump win?

         If Trump gets all of the Romney votes from four years ago (few of them will vote for a Democrat) plus if he picks up unhappy blue collar Democrat workers (known as Reagan Democrats) plus possibly even picking up perhaps 20 percent of Hispanics (who also want tough law and order), well, you can visualize an almost impossible scenario that might occur.

         Four years ago, the Republican nominee Mitt Romney lost a huge number of potential votes when he was secretly recorded criticizing the 47 percent of Americans who receive some kind of federal aid and live below the poverty line. Those folks may vote for Trump with the promise of good, old-fashioned American jobs being restored due to better trade agreements with China, Japan and Mexico.

         Well, well, well.  What a crazy election. Never seen anything like it before in my life.

         And there is still a lot of time left. Stay tuned. 


1612 - Our amazing Wyoming road system

Last week, we took our time cruising through that amazing labyrinth known as Wind River Canyon between Shoshoni and Thermopolis.

         The narrow towering walls staring down on you (sometimes through the sunroof) can make a person feel pretty small.

         It took Mother Nature millions of years to carve that gorge through the Owl Creek Mountains, sometimes gouging out less than an inch a year.  Over time, you get this impressive cut in the mountains.

         And how important is this cut? It is a primary route for folks trying to get north or south through west, central Wyoming.  And when it is closed, well, it might easily take you half a day more to get to your destination by any other route. 

         Wyoming is full of these kind of narrow, twisty roadways that provide vital links for folks trying to get from one place to another.

         Biggest barrier for folks getting over mountains occurs where the towering Wind River Mountains extend for more than 120 miles between paved highways.  South Pass south of Lander and Togwotee Pass north of Dubois are the only highways that cross the Winds.  There is a gravel road at Union Pass, but otherwise getting across the state’s highest mountains any other way requires an airplane or helicopter.

         Living in Wyoming, we are used to roads being closed by snow. Recent years have been brutal for travelers on Interstate 80 from Evanston to Pine Buffs, for example.

         In many of those places, though, there are alternative roadways such as Highway 30, Highway 287 and Highway 789.

         Our roads are our connectors that knit our state together. When they are closed, darn it, it causes a lot of heartburn and headache to get to our destinations.

         Back at the beginning of this column, I wrote about U. S. Highway 20/State Highway 789, which goes through Wind River Canyon. Almost a year ago, that highway was closed by a major rockslide on May 25. 

         Wyoming Department of Transportation crews were able to get the road open after just two days, which seemed like a miracle.  It was also a miracle that no one was hurt in the big storm that caused rocks and mud to tumble down over 2,000 feet to the highway.  A hailstorm at the time battered a large number of cars held up by the slide. My friend Dave Kellogg of Lander saw his new Black Ford Explorer emerge from the canyon looking like an Oreo cookie.

         One of the most traveled men in Wyoming is Bishop Paul Etienne of the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne. He was trying to work his way north to a confirmation during the time of that slide and had to take the long way around.

         Many people in Fremont County chartered airplane trips if they needed to travel to the Big Horn Basin.

         Not sure what point I am making with all this.  But I am filled with wonderment at the foresight of our forefathers to build these amazing roads in these impossible places. And it is also amazing how well WYDOT crews do in keeping them maintained and most of all open, in present day.

         Tom Satterfield of Cheyenne recalls hearing his grandmother describe a stage ride over Birdseye Pass high above Wind River Canyon. He said she described it as “scary.” His grandfather owned a trucking business and worked on the building of the road.

         Greybull native Diana Schutte Dowling recalls her dad Art Schutte being a railroader who actually helped build the railroad through the canyon, which occurred before the highway.

         Former Thermopolis newspaper publisher Pat Schmidt has high praise for the highway crews in Wind River canyon based on his experience. He offers two examples:

“First, in 30 years of printing the Independent Record in Riverton, usually on Wednesday, the outstanding WYDOT crews in Thermopolis and Shoshoni never failed to have the canyon road open at least the three hours needed for us to make the press run. It was closed a couple of those nights by weather after being open in daylight.

“Second, what about the other six days of the week? Jerry Kummerfeld, a Thermopolis resident who taught and coached in Shoshoni for 27 years, told me years ago he was rarely unable to make the drive.”

Wyoming folks, per capita, drive their cars more miles than people in any other state.  We always need to go long distances, and we rely on our roads being kept open and maintained.  Well done, crews.

1611 - Watch out, here comes another bust!

Is Wyoming on the downhill slide toward another bust?  

         Our coal mining industry is under attack.  Oil and natural gas prices have plummeted so fast that expensive fracking projects scheduled all over the state have been cancelled.  Thousands of men and women have been laid off.  Tax revenues are down and continuing to decline.

         Whoa, this is starting to sound familiar. Are we going back to the future? If so, this is not our first rodeo.

         Back in 2008, the whole country reeled over the biggest recession since the 1930s. But after a whole lot of shuddering the USA appears to have survived it.

         Back in 2000, the younger folks in the country learned a big lesson about the economy during the Silicon Valley high tech  meltdown in which all those hot company stocks plummeted. Again, Wyoming was on the rise back then and thrived compared to the rest of the country.

         But, back in 1984, Wyoming saw oil, natural gas, coal and uranium prices plummet and it took almost a generation to recover.

         I lived in Wyoming through all those times and did my best to operate several small businesses through that long struggle.  I know first hand just how painful such trying times can be. 

         All this brings up a unique Wyoming mystery. We are referring to whole lot of missing people. We have written in this space before about one of the unique stories of our state. It is that we have a “lost generation” of working folks who bolted out of Wyoming during that 1984-1999 bust and never came back.  If this economic spiral really goes deep, we will lose folks again?

         Again, during that 1984-1999 bust then-Gov. Ed Herschler said my hometown of Lander was hit hardest of any town in the state.

Along with Mayor Del McOmie, I founded the (currently) longest running economic development group in the state in 1984.  Called Leader Corporation, it is a group of hard-working folks who have met almost 2,000 times in that decade and a half period. This is the group who worked tirelessly to pretty much completely diversify the town of Lander from the most mining-oriented town in the state to a vibrant place based on tourism, outdoor recreation, non-profit corporations, medicine, education and other businesses not totally dependent on the energy industry.

What we did in Lander over a 15-year period from 1984 to 1999 is the same thing that the state of Wyoming has attempted to do since that time.  And in some ways and some places, this has been accomplished. Our governors, the legislators, the Wyoming Business Council and local economic development entities have created a more diverse Wyoming that looks much different than the state looked back in 1984. Lots of non-energy businesses are in place and a vast expansion in community-based infrastructure has occurred.

Thus, as we go forward into this downward spiral, we can hope that we can hold things together so that our descendants will not talk about the bust of 2016 in the same way that we speak about the bust of 1984.

Let’s look at some other interesting nuggets of information despite the obvious negative news that dominates our economy. For example:

• State Treasurer Mark Gordon and his team have done an extraordinary job in investing state money so that we have large bank accounts and rainy day funds, which can sustain us during this bust period.  We have nearly $19 billion in our savings accounts.

Wyomings third leg of state income in the form of interest earned on investments has been truly remarkable.  Good work, Mark.

• Wyoming spends about 60 percent of its expenditures on education.  The general public does not realize that most legislators really see the nearly $2 billion rainy day fund as a cushion to keep education spending at an adequate level. They really dislike tapping into that fund for anything but sustaining the quality of education.

Yet, this time they did tap into it, which was the right thing to do.

• Our second largest industry, tourism, is having banner years.

And much like a teeter-totter, the same curse of low oil prices is fueling the tourism boom as Americans can drive their cars all the way to Wyoming with the lowest fuel costs in a decade.

We are moving forward toward a trying period in Wyoming’s history.  With leadership, ingenuity, hard work and a refusal to fail, we can come out of the other end of this period stronger than ever.