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1630 - America`s Stonehenge is our Medicine Wheel

So, there I was.  Hiking as fast as I could at 9,642 feet above sea level. This was a spooky, surreal and spiritual place.  This is America’s Stonehenge, the famous Medicine Wheel, high in the mountains between Lovell and Sheridan.

         And I was totally alone.  The sun was going down. It was breezy and getting cool.  My chest ached from walking along this lonely ridgeline as fast as my 61-year old legs could take me.

         It was September 2007.  I had been trying to drive from Jackson to Gillette in one day. Along the way, I also was hoping to  to visit the Medicine Wheel for the first time.

 Now Yellowstone was a problem.  A fire was trying to burn up the east gate of the park. On this day, at this time, I was able to top the 8,500 pass and drive down through huge clouds of smoke.

         Although I love the towns of Cody, Powell and Lovell, I dashed through as fast as I could.  Having never driven up the U. S. 14A, this was a treat. Man, is that road steep and spectacular.

         I arrived at the Medicine Wheel as the rangers were pulling out. I swear one of the rangers told me if I were the last one out, to “turn out the lights.”  Of course, there were no lights.

         So I started hiking up the 1.5-mile gravel road in my dress shoes and nice clothes, thinking not only will this be worth it, but also it should be a snap.

         After about 300 yards, the altitude took its toll. I was huffing and puffing and very much aware that there really was not a lot of air to breath up there above timberline.

         Finally I made it. It was well worth it. But I did not hang around.  No wonder those early native peoples thought this place was spiritual.  You could almost hear the spirits moaning in the evening breeze among the long late afternoon shadows.

         As I headed back to my car, the road started to take a toll on me.  Lots of heavy breathing and perspiration.

         There was no cell service and the thought crossed my mind that if I had a heart attack up here, well, I would just have to go to the Happy Hunting Ground with this perplexed look on face.

I recovered and finally finished as the sun went down. With my headlights on, I drove the 2-mile gravel road to 14A and then headed to Burgess Junction and then east for my meeting.

         I had not been back to the Medicine Wheel since, although it has been featured prominently in two of my three recent coffee table books.

         Thus, last week, I loaded up my wife Nancy and three members of our Texas clan, daughter Amber Hollins and granddaughters Daylia and Emery, and we re-visited this amazing location.

         It has not changed much. This time, we got there in mid-afternoon on a hot July day.  It was 97 degrees in Lovell but 76 degrees up top with a cool breeze blowing.  This time, I had on good walking shoes. Another daughter Shelli Johnson had equipped us with walking poles.

         We made the hike in fine shape, although Nancy was irritated with me when I would not chatter with her.  I was saving my breath.

         The Texas clan disappeared into the distance on the hike to the Medicine Wheel without catching a breath.  I maintained a stolid and solid stroll and with Nancy’s constant feedback, thoroughly enjoyed the amazing views and the wonderful weather.

         This time, there were three female rangers manning the station.  Nine years ago, they were all men.  They were ambivalent when I asked them to agree with me that the Medicine Wheel pre-dated the Pyramids in Egypt, right? One ranger gal said a log found in the center cairn was carbon dated to between 200 and 700 years old. That was not what I wanted to hear.

         I had just dragged my family all the way to the top of the mountain to the prehistoric “America’s Stonehenge!”

         According to WyoHistory. Org, the site could be 1,500 years old. Now that sounds better. Prehistoric people inhabited the area up to 7,000 years, which again made my explanation all the more plausible to my now skeptical relatives.

         But the big news is that this is one of America’s premier mysteries and a place that all Wyomingites should try to visit during their lifetime.


1629 - The economy how bad is it?

There is this new sad joke where the new Wyoming state license plate depicts the back end of a U-Haul truck with our Steamboat bucking horse emblazed on the end gate. – Pat Henderson, Sheridan


         In a recent column, I opined that a lot of Wyoming is going through good times along with the obvious bad times hitting places dependent on energy industries.

         Many of my friends let me know that even places that appeared healthy are nervous and confidence is breaking down. For example:

In Sheridan, foundation director Pat Henderson said: “Good Times? Lots of high-end new homes. It is hard to find enough contractors. Lots of new faces in town, people moving here from high tax states like New York and California. I think the bubble is going to bust. 

         “Bad times is today’s measure of taxable sales: First quarter of 2015 compared to first quarter of 2016 for Sheridan County, minus 5 percent.  Johnson County, minus 24.1 percent. Campbell County, minus 40.1 percent.

         I have been through Johnson, and Campbell counties a lot recently.  It looks doomsday there. It will break your heart.  They have people standing in food lines.”

         In Laramie, two friends wrote, magazine publisher Kati Hime: “It’s affecting our company. Ad sales for my latest issue are down. My usual ad clients are pulling back.

 “Our wedding expos across the state were affected, but mostly in Gillette, Casper and Rock Springs. Cheyenne and Laramie shows saw only a 10-15 couple decrease per event, which to me was an on-par attendance. Makes me wonder if people are eloping to save money.”

         Retired University of Wyoming Professor Charles Ksir: “There are plenty of concerned folks in Laramie, and I suspect Cheyenne.  State budgets and the UW budget are being slashed.  People who have left have not been replaced. Many are concerned about cuts for the upcoming fiscal year.

“The issue most legislators don’t want to touch is that non-extractive contributors to the state’s economy (tourism, tech startups, etc.) will not replace the mineral royalty revenue upon which our state has grown dependent for government operations, school construction, etc.  We can diversify the hell out of the economy but unless we can figure out how to raise some tax revenue from it, Wyoming will be a much shabbier place.”   

Author John Davis writes: “In Washakie County, it’s the oil and gas industry that is suffering.  There have been hints of a comeback, but it’s been a painful stretch for people in the drilling and production of oil and gas. 

“Fortunately for Worland, Pepsi our biggest business is doing very well.  Agriculture is doing okay.  Each of these industries produce jobs in related industries, such as the sugar beet plant in Worland and Crown, Cork & Seal, which makes Pepsi cans.”

         Steve Mossbrook, who owns “A walk down Main Street might not show much difference in Riverton, but talking with merchants yields a different story.  Everyone is experiencing a slowdown. Money coming from the non-Indian sector is quietly easing. 

         The tribes were going great guns with all the casino money flowing in, but even that is dropping off, with the Wind River Casino laying off 100 employees.  Real estate is not selling and the number of homes for sale is rising steadily.  Riverton is going to experience some shrinkage.”

Retiree and pundit Jack Pugh of Cheyenne writes: “I don’t think the extensive use of coal we have seen will come back.”

         Library Director Frances Clymer, Cody: “All budgets for Park County departments and entities have been cut significantly.

“A cabinet maker I know is as busy as ever building custom cabinets for a local projects. Cost cutting is the order of the day in most public areas.

         “It looks like there may be a special purpose tax for Park County and its municipalities on the November ballot. We live in interesting times!”

         Attorney and former Wyoming House Speaker Tom Lubnau: “Gillette has reinvented itself several times over my lifetime.   We are in the process of evolution.   Home values are dropping quickly.   Foreclosures are up.  Restaurants are going out of business but others seem to spring up in their place. 

“For a long time, Gillette was cursed with golden handcuffs.   Jobs in the mines kept people employed but the mine jobs held down entrepreneurship.   Lots of people have healthy savings from working in the mines. It will be interesting to see if that savings turns into business here, or do they abandon ship?”  


1628 - Diversity of economies all over Wyoming

There is always a tired old saying: “When you lose your job, it is a recession. When I lose mine, it is a depression.”  That has never been truer in Wyoming than it is today.

         A few years ago, I could not find a discouraging economic word as I travelled from one end of the state to the other promoting my Wyoming-themed coffee table books.

         But lately it seems I am driving in and out of a patchwork of wildly diverse places where a lot of folks are suffering economically while nearby other folks are blissfully going along with their businesses.

         Casper is a great example.  Our second largest city is a hub for oil and gas businesses.  When crude prices suddenly started to drop 18 months ago, the impact was swift and devastating.  There are an estimated 10,000 men and women who lost their jobs in the energy industry. A whole bunch of them were working for Natrona County-based companies.

         Yet, Casper has done an outstanding job with tourism.

         Their location on the Oregon Trail, the North Platte River and Interstate 25 makes for an effective location to attract record numbers of tourists traveling to Casper as a destination and also passing through on their way to Yellowstone Park.

         Perhaps that is what a diversified economy is supposed to look like – booming in one area while another one struggles.

         Another town going through a similar situation but on a smaller scale is Pinedale.  Tourism is doing well but the downturn in natural gas prices has cooled the boom that has embraced Sublette County most of the 21st century.

         Down the road to Rock Springs and over to Rawlins, again, we see folks involved in oil and gas struggling.  But these two small cities are located on Interstate 80, on the UP Railroad and in close proximity to wonderful mountain areas and lakes.

         Three places in Wyoming where it appears on the surface to not have as much emphasis on a bust are Cheyenne, Laramie and Jackson. State government is the driver for Cheyenne, the University of Wyoming dominates Laramie and tourism booms in Jackson.  You know people are nervous but outwardly, these places seem placid.

         Beautiful small Wyoming towns like Powell, Worland, Wheatland, Buffalo and Evanston all have active chambers of commerce and good local economic development efforts.

         Here at my home in Fremont County, some of my media friends tell me that sales are down and they are worried. A walk down the streets of Lander, Riverton or Dubois just does not indicate economic stress yet.

         Evanston is one of our more unique towns because it arguably is the extreme fringe of the gigantic Wasatch Front that dominates the Utah economy.  Plus its location on Interstate 80 and as a hub for the Union Pacific Railroad provides a constant base of commerce and jobs.  Yet some years ago the oil and gas boom in that part of the state started to the cool and despite some wonderful diversification efforts some parts of the economy are still struggling.

         A ways up the road from Evanston is Alpine, one of the prettiest towns in one of the most scenic valleys in the state. One of its ironic diversification efforts is a new craft beer brewery in the town that was the beneficiary of Wyoming Business Council business ready grants.

Am I the only one who finds some irony in the fact that a valley dominated by non-beer drinking LDS folks is relying on a brewery for new jobs and new commerce? 

It must also be mentioned that the new LDS Temple in Star Valley will be a major draw and a huge boost to the local economy.

         No place has been hit harder by this downturn than Gillette.  A boomtown of over 30,000 people, it has not only been the fastest growing city in the state but perhaps its most progressive in recent decades.

         One estimate says 7,000 jobs have been lost there and it might be a long time before new ones come along to replace them. These were well-paying jobs in the coal mines and the oil and gas industry.

         In all my travels across this state, no place impressed me more with what its leaders have done than Gillette.

         But now those same leaders have a bigger test. A test they are not familiar with.  How do you handle a bust?  Gillette has not had to endure a bust for a generation. 

         Stay tuned.

1627 - Readers chime in with their favorite back roads

Although Wyoming has outstanding interstate freeways and high quality two-lane highways, if you want to get a good discussion started, just mention your favorite back roads.

         I did that in last week’s column about my favorites and the response was terrific.   For example:

         Pat Schmidt of Cheyenne: “The Transpark Highway from Lovell through Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. It was meant to go clear to Hardin, Mont., tracing the west edge of the canyon, but was halted a short distance into Montana when leadership of the Crow Tribe changed in the late 1970s.”

         Bruce McCormack: “North from Cody and through spectacular Sunlight Basin to the bottom of the Beartooth Highway and then up and over the top to Red Lodge, Mont., and back to Cody. Beartooth Highway is famous for CBS` On the Road correspondent, the late Charles Kuralt, calling it the ‘Most Scenic Highway in America.’ It`s also on lists of best motorcycling routes.”

Frances Clymer of Cody: We took the US 14A route over the mountains via Lovell. Oh, my! Coming home over the top of the world was spectacular. A truly wonderful Wyoming experience! The road via Ten Sleep is equally stunning.”

         Jim Hicks says: “the road up Crazy Woman Canyon south of Buffalo is an amazing trip.  The creek flows under house-sized boulders and canyon walls tower above the stream. It connects with the US 16 route that crosses the Bighorns from Buffalo to Ten Sleep. It`s a great half-day trip.  If you want to add side trips to Sheep Mountain Lookout and Tie Hack Reservoir it`s a great full day adventure.”

         Dave Hanks of Rock Springs: “The Greys River road over McDougal pass is pretty cool. Start in Alpine and end up at Daniel junction.”

         Eric Stone of Laramie: “Sage Creek Road south of Rawlins is home to Aspen Alley.”

         John Davis of Worland: “My favorite short trip is from Worland to Ten Sleep, and then south to Cottonwood Pass.  You go through country called the Upper Nowood, and about 12 or 14 miles outside Ten Sleep it starts to get pretty and then proceeds to gorgeous.  I could also mention from Meeteetse to the old mining camp of Kirwin.”

         John Lichty of Lander:  The road from Flagg Ranch past Grassey Lake Reservoir. Skirts the southern edge of Yellowstone.”

         Cody Beers, Riverton: “The Big Trails Road from Ten Sleep to Lysite, probably should be main road in and out of the Big Horn Basin. But no, the main road is through Wind River Canyon.”

         Dan Kinnaman of Rawlins: “In Encampment two options are possible: First, take Highway 70 past Battle Lake over Battle Pass at 9,955 feet and through Savery and Dixon to Baggs.  Second, the other option from Encampment is Highway 230 that dips into Colorado nine miles on CO 128 and returns to Wyoming on CO 127 and connects to WY 230 again.” 

         Andy Gramlich of Lander writes: “Have you ever gone through the sand dunes south and east of Bairoil? They are awesome from both the air and the ground. I think the road eventually goes through Cottonwood Canyon and by Pathfinder?”

        Judy Legerski of Lander: “The Sublette County drive above Fremont Lake to Elkhart Park!”

         Ron Sniffin of Cheyenne: “While Highway 130 between Laramie and Saratoga is by itself a spectacular drive that hugs the base of Medicine Bow Peak, taking the Barber Lake side road just above Centennial is a great curvy addition, especially in a sports car.”

Amy Surdam of Cheyenne: “I love Happy Jack Road to Curt Gowdy State Park.”

         Chuck Brown of Wheatland says: “The drive through Sybille Canyon is always a treat for locals and tourists alike, especially when wild game is on view at the Wyoming Game & Fish Research Station.”  

Tom Lubnau of Gillette: “The SA road, in Northern Campbell County, follows the Powder River into Montana.   The views are amazing.   I bet you’ve never heard of it.   Across the river is the historic LX Bar Ranch, which was the headquarters of the Kendrick Ranch. As soon as funds are available to restore the ranch, it will be a new state park.” 

         Gene Bryan:  The drive from Cora to Green River Lakes and back. Incredible scenery, loads of history and the Kendall face.”

         Gov. Matt Mead sums up the back roads of this state by politically correctly stating: “Any road in Wyoming shared with family or friends is good for me. The roads you mentioned without a doubt are special.