Bill Sniffin Wyoming's national award winning columnist

Bill Sniffin News
Home Search

1814 - Watch out for those geezers in big RVs

In Rinker Buck’s wonderful book Oregon Trail, he offers up a classic lament shared by many others when he complains:

         “Who are all these geezers in their giant motorhomes that are clogging the roadways and causing the rest of us big problems!”

         Well, heck, Rinker, that might have been me!  So stick that in your ear.

         He does have a point.

         He was writing about how big RVs were pulling over to the side of the road and snapping photos of him and his brother when they were riding in their covered wagon on South Pass.

         Buck wrote an excellent book about their 2,000-mile trek, which was the first re-enactment of someone traveling the entire Oregon Trail since 1909. It is truly a fascinating look at the historic trail, which is one of my favorite places. 

But this column is about geezers and motorhomes.

         Nancy and I like to get away from Wyoming winters in late January and drive our 40-foot long diesel pusher toward Las Vegas and places beyond.

         We named our 2005 rig Follow My Nose, which is not about our last name Sniffin, but rather about our penchant to follow our noses when we travel. Our rig is 13 years old and the exterior is horribly faded. But the Freightliner Chassis is amazing. I can fire up that 400 hp Cummins turbocharged engine, engage the Allison automatic transmission and away we go.

         On this trip, we found ourselves driving all the way through Las Vegas during the 4 p.m. rush hour and finally emerging out the south end heading for Kingman, AZ.  We spent the night jammed among 200 semi-trailer trucks at a busy truck stop.  Very loud and smelly. Not sure those professional truckers appreciated our rig parked amongst them. We did not want to go to the trouble of parking in an RV park as we were headed east of Interstate 40 the next day.

         Interstate 80 and Interstate 25 in Wyoming are wonderful roads compared to I-40, which is narrow and bumpy with lots of cracks. It was awful in Arizona, a little better in New Mexico, much better in Texas and wonderful in Oklahoma.

         While passing through Flagstaff, we saw tourist families on the shoulder making snowballs.  Both northern Arizona and northern New Mexico have some impressively high mountains – reminded me of Wyoming.

         We caught up with daughter Shelli Johnson with husband Jerry, sons Wolf, Hayden and Fin in Santa Fe for a quick spring break get-together.    

         We saw the oldest church in the country (1620 or so) and the oldest house next to it. The famous Loretto Chapel with its mysterious stairway was memorable. We ate great Mexican food and saw incredible art.

         Our RV was parked at a fine KOA campground in nearby Bernalillo, which is a little town that features a gigantic Indian casino. There are 25 casinos in New Mexico controlled by Indian tribes.

         Bernalillo is also famous as an outpost for Spanish explorer Coronado, who ventured north in 1540 with 300 soldiers, 1,000 Indians, 1,000 horses and 500 mules.  They compiled a 4,000-mile journey into what later became the United States of America. Coronado’s expedition involved the first visits to many parts of America by Europeans.

         Here is Wyoming, there are tales of a Spanish helmet reportedly found in a cave at the base of Steamboat Mountain near South Pass. The helmet later disappeared. 

Jim Smail of Lander found an old tree on Sioux Pass near South Pass, which had a Spanish-looking cross carved into its trunk.

         Most historians believe the earliest European visitors to Wyoming might have been remnants of a Spanish group just south of Cheyenne around 1720. It was led by Don Pedro de Villasaur, which proved to be a disaster, when two tribes slaughtered them.

         We all know that Yellowstone contains one of the country’s super volcano calderas but a similar one exists in northern New Mexico, called the Valles Caldera. Not far from that site is Los Alamos where the atomic bomb was developed in World War II.

         As our trip continued, we ran into cold, windy weather around Amarillo, TX but at least there were some green grass and fresh crops coming up. It was the first green we had seen for a long time. 

         It was cold and windy in north Texas but nary a snowflake in sight.  But we truly were getting homesick for Wyoming. It was time for this geezer brigade to start heading north.


1813 - Grandpa takes granddaughter fishing

A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove, but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.                              An important quote


I spent some quality time with my young granddaughter on a Friday afternoon, some 20 years ago. Here is an old column that I wrote about that experience.

 Mallory wanted to fish in our creek.  It`s not really a creek but Big Dickinson irrigation ditch. But it sounds like a creek, it looks like a creek and it has fish in it like a creek.  And it also has leaves and limbs in it. 

Well, we fished hard, my granddaughter and me.  We were working so hard, we even set up a couple of lawn chairs next to the creek as she soaked her bait. That`s what she called the goo she put on her hook, anyway.  She had borrowed her dad`s tackle box and fishing pole and she kept smearing some kind of pink or blue or bubble gum-colored muck made by a company called Berkley on the end of her hook.

She decided she should roll the stuff into a ball first and then stick in on her hook.

We were having a little family celebration at our house for Mal`s seventh birthday that evening.  It was my idea that she come early and we could get in some fishing since I had been seeing some little brookies in our creek. I have some amazing Maui Jim sunglasses that allow you to see through the reflection on the water and actually see the fish and the rocks and the leaves and the limbs that were in the creek .

 I put the sunglasses on Mallory, and attached them to her head with some Croakies. Now she could see much more clearly what was in the water.  This seemed to make a big difference to her and she got even more excited. She kept snagging leaves and limbs, though, and the fish seemed to have departed as soon as she dropped that line into the creek.  Our dog’s exciting jumping around the creek bank didn’t help too much, either. 

I had left work early Friday to be with Mallory.  Her folks were going shopping and my wife Nancy picked up our birthday girl at West School. Nancy wanted me to take Mallory fishing (since I had already brought up the idea to her) and now Nancy was busy cooking a birthday dinner for the family.

So there we were, a little girl and her grandpa, sitting on lawn chairs next to the creek, watching intently to see if we got any hits from these elusive little brookies. 

Time and again, she pulled out more leaves and more limbs but no fish. She tried other colors of the Berkley Trout Bait.  She tried the pink and she tried the blue but to no avail.

As we sat there on the creek bank, I couldn`t help noticing the setting sun glistening through the yellow Aspen leaves.  The blue sky was almost cloudless.  The air was dry and there was no wind.  It was Indian Summer in Wyoming and I was exactly where I wanted to be fishing with my oldest granddaughter.

It was ironic that the following Monday, I attended a meeting with 200 other people where the emphasis was on increased relationships among grandparents and grandchildren.

Part of Lander’s Healthy Communities/Healthy Youth initiative was confronting the fact that in today’s mobile society often we aren’t lucky enough to spend time with our own grandchildren or our own grandparents.  It was emphasized that we can find surrogate young people or older people who would like our company.  Such interaction promotes healthy relationships, which can overall help a community.  It makes a lot of sense.

But back to Mallory.

She showed incredible patience for a seven-year-old.  We drank some Pepsi and fished in several places along the creek bank.  Finally, she got bored and we went for a long walk.  As we got back to the house, her folks were arriving for her birthday party.

She ran up to her dad and told him about her fishing experience.  Her dad turned to me and asked how it went?

“How many did you catch?” he asked me.

“Dozens," I replied.

"Really," he said. "What kind?"

"Aspen," I replied. Mainly Aspen."

1812 - Hey Phoenix Zoo, that ferret is from Wyoming

Wyoming’s Black-Footed Ferret is a rock star at the Phoenix Zoo.  In fact, you might think the elusive little critter was native to Arizona. Not so.

         An obscure place in our state was the host of one of the most impressive recovery stories of an extinct animal that has occurred in America over the last several decades.

         In 1979, the Black Footed Ferret was declared extinct in the world.  The famous naturalist and artist John James Audubon first painted and published reports of the critter around 1846.

         In 1981, Lucille Hogg’s pet dog Shep dragged home a carcass of an unusual animal at their ranch home near Meeteetse.  Lucille was a fixture in Meeteetse at her Lucille’s Café.  She and husband John took the odd critter to a local taxidermist to talk about possibly getting it mounted.

         The taxidermist took one look at it and after a long pause said he needed to make a phone call.  When he returned he said this animal was not only an endangered species, but it was extinct!

         Wyoming Game and Fish officials descended en masse on Meeteetse and the Hogg home. The hunt was on for the rest of the animals.

         This was an amazing coincidence involving a pesky dog and some folks who thought they had found a really odd-looking animal.  Thankfully that taxidermist was alert enough to contact the Game and Fish.

         Our local newspaper in Lander along with most newspapers in Wyoming ran news stories and ads in the late 1970s trying to locate any colonies of the elusive nocturnal animal. None were found.

         Ferrets are common in America as pets. But these are not native. These are originally from Europe. The only local ferret in America is the Black-Footed Ferret, which originally roamed all over North America.

         In a recent column, I wrote about how reliant the American Indians were on the buffalo.  Well, in this case, the prairie dog is the buffalo to the Black-Footed Ferret. The latter’s entire existence is based on killing and eating prairie dogs.

         One Game and Fish biologist described the relationship as the prairie dog providing “room and board” for the ferrets, since the ferrets also live in abandoned prairie dog towns. One study showed that an adult female Black-Footed Ferret and her litter of kits killed and ate over 1,000 prairie dogs a year for their diet.

This ferret looks a lot like a mink but the two animals are not related. It has a close relative in Europe called the Polecat, not to be confused with the expression “doggone polecat” to describe a bad guy in old-time Wyoming.

         Bob Oakleaf and Andrea Orabona, non-game biologists of the G&F, worked on the project, which is featured in a video on YouTube.

         Back in the 1980s, G&F staffers tried to locate the rest of the pack of ferrets, using an old-style trap and then some huge hand-held antennas. They walked around trying to track the ferrets, which had radio collars installed on them.

         Ultimately they found over 50 of the ferrets and the small colony seemed to be doing well.

         But this did not last long.

         The reason the Black-Footed Ferret was declared extinct in 1979 was because of a disease called plague, which had been wiping out prairie dogs and killing ferrets at the same time.

         By  1985, the number of Meeteetse ferrets was down to 18 and the decision was made to capture all of them and put them into a captive facility to prevent further deaths leading to extinction.

         The initial facility was in Sybille Canyon. As the G&F was able to breed more and more ferrets, other places around the country got involved, including Colorado facilities and the Phoenix Zoo.

         Today, ferrets have been re-released to the outdoors. A big event was held in Meeteetse on July 26, 2016 where the critters were re-introduced to their original home area.  There are now more than 1,500 ferrets running loose and they seem to be thriving. Not good news for prairie dogs, though.

         Meanwhile, I even bought a tee shirt at the Phoenix Zoo, which was emblazoned with the big photos of the Black-Footed Ferret and a big logo for the zoo.

         I cannot blame Arizonans for wanting to take some credit for this amazing survival success story. But in the brief information piece about the ferret, Wyoming was hardly mentioned and the location where they were found was spelled “Meteetse,” rather than the correct spelling of Meeteetse.  Oh well.

         The zoo has provided over 400 Black-Footed Ferrets, which have been re-introduced into the wild. So, I grudgingly have to give them a little bit of credit after all.

         Not sure I will wear that tee shirt back in Wyoming, though.



1811 - Learning to love Wyoming`s isolation

We are alone. But we are not lonely.

         To me that describes what life in Wyoming is really like. With barely seven people per square mile, our state is one of the most isolated in the nation.

         Pat Henderson from Sheridan has a brother in law from New Jersey who always claims that Wyoming people are not that friendly, after all.  Pat says his relative cites, in his strong Jersey accent: “It’s not because you are friendly out there. It’s because you are so darned lonely out there!”

         But I contend that Wyoming is unique. Interestingly, several government agencies do not list us as “rural.”  We are listed as “frontier.”

         Most Wyoming folks either live in town or in spacious subdivisions dotting some of our frontier areas.  We do have some farm populations in places like Worland, Torrington, Wheatland, Riverton, and Powell.

         Wyoming used to be populated with what was called one-horse towns. Today, the number of traffic lights sort of distinguish how big you are.

         Then again, many towns like Lander have long main streets with lots of stoplights. It is not because of its 7,500 population, but because of the million folks a year passing through on their way home from Jackson and Yellowstone. Towns like Powell and Buffalo are similar. 

         All these towns have a big mission – trying to extend that tourist’s trip at their locations a day or two outside of the big national parks. But that is another topic for another column.

         Our state’s isolation is on my mind because we have been on an extended winter road trip to explore some warmer places that are decidedly more crowded than Wyoming.

         We were recently in the Phoenix area watching the Colorado Rockies do spring training in Scottsdale. The Valley of the Sun is immense.  I swear it took 45 minutes to drive across the area. In the winter, the population swells to four million people. Amazing.

         Yet the drive to the Phoenix area crosses some of the most desolate land in America.  This desert is full of scrub and prickly cactus plants. A lot of it is Indian Country and it seems devoid of anything positive.

         We also spent some time in Las Vegas. Sin City is also big with over two million people living in Clark County during the winter months. 

         Numbers associated with Las Vegas are huge. There are 125,000 hotel rooms. More than 36 million people visit Vegas each year. There are 315 weddings per day. The downtown and the Strip contain 15,000 miles of neon tubes. A typical stay in Vegas is 3.5 days and the average hotel rate is $66 per day.

Plus during a recent weekend another million people journeyed to Vegas to watch NASCAR racing, the world Rugby championships, various conference basketball tournaments, some major prize fights and some incredible concerts. We happened to be there and there was nary a hotel room or RV space left. 

         Traffic was intense during all this activity but especially at a place where Highway 95, Highway 93, Interstate 15 and Interstate 515 all intersect. A billion dollars is being spent rebuilding it. It is a traffic mess right now. That is why this intersection is called the Spaghetti Bowl. 

         In Denver they have the Mouse Trap. In Dallas, they have the High Five. Even Missoula, Mont., has its Malfunction Junction.

         Not sure Wyoming has a horrible intersection anywhere, except perhaps when Jackson and Yellowstone get crowded.    I don’t think Pine Tree Junction between Gillette and Douglas counts. After all, it’s just a pine tree.

         We do have Snow Chi Minh Trail, though, which is the moniker given Interstate 80 during winter weather.

         Traffic jams in Dallas, Denver, Phoenix and Las Vegas have been our experience in the last few years.  Worst, though, was one time we drove our old motor home (when towing a car, it is 62 feet long) on a 10-lane monster through Silicon Valley during noon rush hour.  All sorts of Tesla drivers were giving me the fickle finger of fate for driving my diesel-spewing monster through their homeland. We were headed for an obscure RV Park at the Alameda Raceway and took the wrong road.  It was a relief to finally get off that mobile traffic jam of 80 mph vehicles.

         When we finally get back into Wyoming, it is such a wonderful feeling. We love living in such a remote land. Our favorite slogan for Wyoming is the unofficial one, The Big Empty.



1810 - You married me for my car!

Over the course of our family history, it seems that Nancy’s and my long time together always involved car stories.

         When we got married long ago in the little western Iowa town of Harlan, I was a college student and did not own a car. She had a little 1959 Volkswagen, which became “our” car once we tied the knot.

         Even now, she will mention to new friends that “Bill married me for my car,” which I cannot deny.

         One adventure with that car involved a trip back to my hometown of Wadena, Iowa, where I was taking her to meet my parents and my ten siblings. It rained all the way on the 300-mile trip from southwest to northeast Iowa. Just before we got there the wipers quit working.

         My dad, who owned a gas station, could not fix it. It was a foreign car. 

         Nancy did impress everyone and was welcomed into the family. She was 18 and I was 19.  Those were amazing times when people got married younger than today. Also, the pressure of the Vietnam War encouraged a lot of young couples to marry younger than they normally would.

         I was attending a small college in Denison, Iowa. If Nancy was married to me and worked in their admissions office, my tuition was cut 80 percent. Hence, marriage seemed logical. Plus we were in love.

         My uncle Paul in Waterloo, Iowa, was a mechanic but he could not fix the wipers either.  He helped string a cord through both side windows, which attached to the single wiper on the drivers side. With Nancy scooched up next to me, she could operate the wipers manually.  We drove 300 miles back to Harlan that way.  I knew I had a keeper after that trip.

         The reason I did not have a car was that two friends, Preston VerMeer and Larry Carlson, and I shared a 1949 Chevy. We also roomed together in Larry’s house in Denison. 

         One morning our Chevy was gone. The city had hauled it away because it was a “junked car,” and you could not park junk on the street. The impound fee was $50 and we could not afford or justify getting it out of impound.  So I became car-less.

         I worked at the Denison Bulletin as sports editor and had access to a company vehicle for work.

         After we were married, Nancy and I were able to buy a 1963 Dodge DeSoto.  It had a leaky radiator; thus steam would rise out of it after a short drive. Nancy was always calling me to say: “The car is on fire again. Is this safe?”

         We moved to Wyoming in 1970 and our first trip over Interstate 80 in the winter in a rear wheel drive car was harrowing.

         Living in Lander in the winter can be interesting. We lived in the country and did not have a garage. We had teenagers and lots of cars. All were plugged in at night so they would start the next morning.

         One Monday during Christmas vacation I got a call from Tom Davey at Central Bank saying Nancy was there and needed to talk to me.  She had left the house to go to town to do a banking errand and forgot to unplug her car. She had dragged all the cords and plug-ins to town. Would I mind walking over to the bank and unplugging this mess?  She was too embarrassed.

         I walked over and gathered up two big extension cords plus three other cords connected to them, all of which were ruined by a two-mile drag down a paved road. Not a happy sight. The various cords stretched halfway down the block.

It was probably -20, on that day, similar to how it has been lately in many places in Wyoming.

         Our three daughters, Alicia, Shelli, and Amber, all had to drive to school on terrible winter roads and each one had a major mishap by spinning off the road during winter driving. Luckily nobody got hurt.

         We always called a local friend who had a tow truck, which he called the Happy Hooker. Pretty soon, when I called him, once he heard my voice, he just asked: “OK, where did she go off this time?”

         Gradually we moved up to four-wheel drive vehicles and our car stories were not quite so riveting. It’s been an entertaining 52-year linkage between our car stories and our marriage stories.