Monday, August 3, 2009

Bookish Meanderings in the Country's Least Populous State

Lightening pulsed through the thunderheads above, providing glimpses in pink and green of the undulating hills below. The highway shimmered in the headlights with recently fallen rain. I hadn't seen a single drop the length of the drive but the pavement had been wet for miles. "Welcome to Wyoming" was announced on a small placard some distance back. In the pauses between lightening flashes the night was pitch black.

The intersection with Interstate 80 was now visible, a distant line of tiny lights moving across the horizon. I'd had a wary eye on the gas gauge the last 20 miles or so, and was looking forward to getting a refill. Arriving at the intersection, I was disappointed to see nothing but a closed Conoco Station, the tarmac chained and weeded, and a ramshackle fireworks stand.

It was getting late and I was dizzy with sleepiness. Looking at the map the closest outpost of civilization was Rawlins, a small town 25 miles to the east at the intersection of highway 287, which would lead up to the Grand Tetons. This appeared to be an actual town, and not just a highway rest stop so I hopped on 80 and headed east. Up and down the dilapidated and dusty Main St. there were a variety of hotels. Some open, some boarded up, some open which should have long since closed.

Signs on various hotel fronts cried out: Free HBO, Free WiFi; American Owned and Operated; and my favorite: Biker Owned, All Bikers Welcome. I opted for the Travelodge for its balanced look of open, normal and cheap. The guy behind the desk, Patel, said this was high season in Rawlins (which made one wonder about low season, the town was half boarded up as it was). "In the winter it's ten below with howling winds all the time, really nasty", said Patel. Gee, why would anyone live here, I thought. More specifically: how does a guy from India end up living and working in a hotel in Rawlins, Wyoming? It was a questions that would have to wait. It had been a long day, I was beat and had to get some rest.

Panoramic view from the Rawlins Travelodge

Peering out the hotel window the next morning, one definitely had the feeling of being in the least populated state in the US. At 97,814 square miles, Wyoming is the 10th largest state in the country, far ahead of Pennsylvania at 33rd. But with a population of only 532,668 souls, Wyoming's 917,814 square miles are populated by less people than the District of Columbia's 68.3 square miles, making it 50th in population on the list of US states.

Driving north out of Rawlins the road meandered through endless miles of high rolling hills and desolate sink valleys, crossing the Continental Divide several times at over 7,000 feet in high plains altitude. Elaborate snow barriers lined each side of the highway, providing a hint of life here during the long, cold winter.

At every intersection major and minor, permanently fixed signs and movable barriers warning of weather-related closures sat benign under the oppressive summer sun. Passing through one and two block towns with names like like Muddy Gap and Sweetwater Station, there were often no gas stations or eateries. Just a few simple structures, some collapsed, some semi-collapsed, surrounded by junked cars, schools buses and torn fences, nestled together in a barren landscape ringed by distant, desolate mountains. It was awesome!

Above: Main St., Lander, Wyoming

After a hundred miles or so, the landscape became more inviting as we approached the town of Lander, population of 6,867, elevation 5,358, near the entrance to the Wind River Indian Reservation along the middle fork of the adorably named Popo Agie river. Here, along a distinctly western looking main drag, lies a small town reading mecca, offering residents and visitors not one, but three diverse and interesting bookstores.

Above: Main Street Books, Lander, Wyoming

Main Street Books at 3rd and Main, is the local indie that offers a broad selection of new titles and best sellers with a great collection of regional authors and subjects worked in to the mix. It's a well organized store with a great coffee shop, a stellar kid's section and an intriguing selection of toys and gifts. A great place to start your Craig Johnson collection. Thanks for your help, Mike and best of luck with your studies in Laramie!

Above: The Book Basket, Lander, Wyoming

Directly across the street lies the The Book Basket, Marty Brace, owner. You would be thrilled to find this truly distinct and well-organized used book store in any major city across the US, but to find it in Lander, Wyoming makes it a true gem. They have a great selection of local/western titles and subjects, an outstanding kids selection, and a selection diverse and unique enough to satisfy even the most jaded bibliophile (not that there are any). Thanks for your help, Steve, and for your recommendation to visit the store in West Yellowstone. Good Call!

Above: Cabin Fever, Lander, Wyoming

Continuing further west along main street past the movie theater and grocery store filled in between by a plethora of interesting touristy and non-touristy retailers, cafes and dry goods stores lies Cabin Fever. This new book indie is part bookstore, part educational toy store, part culinary book and supply. Along with a range of toys, games and gifts, Cabin Fever really does offer a cure for the winter blues.

After a quick lunch washed down by a superb local pint of amber ale at the Gannet Grill/Lander Bar, it was off to the west again. One final chance to take in Lander's beautifully historic Main St. before running the gauntlet of national chain restaurants outside town before heading into the ruggedly beautifully Wind River Valley region.

Travelling through the Wind River Indian Reservation (shared by the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes) the landscape becomes ever more beautiful. Paralleling the scenic Wind River, the road reaches higher and higher through scenic mountain valleys and plateaus. Continuing through the high country of the Wind River Range past Gannett Peak, the highest point in Wyoming at 13,804 ft, and through the town of Dubois, the road peaks at at the top of Togwotee pass at 9,658 ft.

Here, I stopped to marvel at astounding rock cornices towering into the clouds, thick with blankets of pine stretching across wide valleys. Broken here an there by monumental cliffs and boulder fields pouring down from the heights, the astounding promontories were held together by a broad and seemingly endless plain of pastoral meadows. Alone in the silence, wind sighing in the distant trees, it was hard to imagine a place more beautiful or serene.

Above: from the top of Togwotee Pass

This would shortly be put to the test as I released the emergency brake and pointed my way down down the western slope of the pass towards the imposing Grand Tetons to the west.

Next Post: Impossible Beauty meets The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Until then!


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