As most of you know, I have a lifelong love affair with the West. One of my favorite books is Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, and one of his quotes is also a perennial favorite.
“It should not be denied… that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led West.”
I thought I’d start the blog post with this quote because this entire trip was a reminder of how much I delight in the West.
Our recent visit to Casper, Wyoming, reminded me that the history of the West is as brutal as it is beautiful. In a twist of fate, our trip was book-ended by colorful excerpts from the western story.
The history of the West starts long before wagon trains, but I am going to concentrate on the small part of the story we stumbled upon in Casper. It had been quite some time since I’d spent any time thinking about pioneers, and it’s probably been some time since they’ve crossed your mind. This is a trip that not only got me thinking about this period in history, but took me directly to the spots where that history was made.
This was my first visit to Casper, Wyoming, but I am not a stranger to the North Platte River. I’ve tanked it in North Platte, Nebraska, watched cranes roost in its waters in Grand Island, Nebraska, and fished it in Saratoga, Wyoming. This river that has played a small role in my life, but has played a major role in the history of this country.
More than 500,000 souls made their way down the Overland Trails (Oregon, California, Mormon and Pony Express) from Missouri westward. All four trails more or less followed the North Platte River from Missouri to Wyoming. Just past modern-day Casper is where the trails diverged, heading to various locations in the western part of the country.
The National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper, Wyoming, tells the story. I’m not going to retell it to you here, but I will convey that the NHTC does a great job. From the film at the beginning of your tour to the interactive exhibits, it’s totally worth going, and it’s free to visit.
Where were things like this when I was a kid? I have always liked museums, but I don’t remember getting to experience what it actually felt like to pull a handcart or ride in a wagon over a river. The interactive exhibits here are fun, and not just for kids.
The NHTC is a good spot to reacquaint oneself with the pioneer history we all learned about as school children. Also, it is located on a hill overlooking Casper, and has a rather breathtaking view. It’s also just up the street from a brewery and from the Hilton Garden Inn, where we stayed. A convenient location.
While there are replications of the signatures from Independent Rock depicted on the walls of the center, nothing can replace seeing the real thing.
About one hour out of Casper, on WY-220, is the Independence Rock Historic Site.
We hadn’t planned to make this part of our trip, we are glad we did. Despite the rain, it was as if the story told at NHTC came alive here, in the carved names on the rock. And the rain served as a reminder that pioneers who came west were stuck walking in every type of weather imaginable. At least we could get in our dry car after visiting and turn on the heat.
The West has always been a place where weather plays a huge role, and its weather that gave Independence Rock its name. If a pioneer arrived at this rock before July 4, it was more likely that they could cross the Rocky Mountains before the snow started to fall.
More than 5,000 names are carved here with the earliest from 1824. For the most part, the rock has been changed only by the natural world. Wind and erosion have faded many names from the lower regions of the rock.
However, visitors can climb to the top of the rock and walk around. For those willing to climb, a real treasure trove of American history is there to be found. My husband, Ryan, worked his way to the top and was surprised at just how much he found.
The following video is long, but if you watch a bit, you can get an understanding that this is an expansive area and there are a lot of signatures on this rock.
There is a trail that circles around the rock. This is open range, so avoiding cow dung is the only obstacle.
While Ryan used his GoPro on top of the rock, I was busy walking and photographing wildflowers below. There were a lot of wildflowers here.
I am so glad Independence Rock became part of our trip to Wyoming. Seeing the names carved in stone brings to life everything we learned at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center. The idea that someone, nearly 200 years ago, carved his or her name into this rock is proof, not only that they came this way, but of their very existence. This person, who carved their name in the rock, played a part in the story of the west.
I am reminded of a quote by Walt Whitman, “The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
What will my verse be? What will yours be?
Thank you to Visit Casper for this memorable weekend.