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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.