Our Lonely and Amazing Roads Provide Vital Links to Citizens

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Bill Sniffin

Last week, we took our time cruising through that amazing labyrinth known as Wind River Canyon between Shoshoni and Thermopolis.

The narrow towering walls staring down on you (sometimes through the sunroof) can make a person feel pretty small.

It took Mother Nature millions of years to carve that gorge through the Owl Creek Mountains, sometimes gouging out less than an inch a year.  Over time, you get this impressive cut in the mountains.

And how important is this cut? It is a primary route for folks trying to get north or south through west, central Wyoming.  And when it is closed, well, it might easily take you half a day more to get to your destination by any other route. 

Wyoming is full of these kind of narrow, twisty roadways that provide vital links for folks trying to get from one place to another.

Biggest barrier for folks getting over mountains occurs where the towering Wind River Mountains extend for more than 120 miles between paved highways.  South Pass south of Lander and Togwotee Pass north of Dubois are the only highways that cross the Winds.  There is a gravel road at Union Pass, but otherwise getting across the state’s highest mountains any other way requires an airplane or helicopter.

Living in Wyoming, we are used to roads being closed by snow. Recent years have been brutal for travelers on Interstate 80 from Evanston to Pine Buffs, for example.

In many of those places, though, there are alternative roadways such as Highway 30, Highway 287 and Highway 789.

Our roads are our connectors that knit our state together. When they are closed, darn it, it causes a lot of heartburn and headache to get to our destinations.

Back at the beginning of this column, I wrote about U. S. Highway 20/State Highway 789, which goes through Wind River Canyon. Almost a year ago, that highway was closed by a major rockslide on May 25. 

Wyoming Department of Transportation crews were able to get the road open after just two days, which seemed like a miracle.  It was also a miracle that no one was hurt in the big storm that caused rocks and mud to tumble down over 2,000 feet to the highway.  A hailstorm at the time battered a large number of cars held up by the slide. My friend Dave Kellogg of Lander saw his new Black Ford Explorer emerge from the canyon looking like an Oreo cookie.

One of the most traveled men in Wyoming is Bishop Paul Etienne of the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne. He was trying to work his way north to a confirmation during the time of that slide and had to take the long way around.

Many people in Fremont County chartered airplane trips if they needed to travel to the Big Horn Basin.

Not sure what point I am making with all this.  But I am filled with wonderment at the foresight of our forefathers to build these amazing roads in these impossible places. And it is also amazing how well WYDOT crews do in keeping them maintained and most of all open, in present day.

Tom Satterfield of Cheyenne recalls hearing his grandmother describe a stage ride over Birdseye Pass high above Wind River Canyon. He said she described it as “scary.” His grandfather owned a trucking business and worked on the building of the road.

Greybull native Diana Schutte Dowling recalls her dad Art Schutte being a railroader who actually helped build the railroad through the canyon, which occurred before the highway.

Former Thermopolis newspaper publisher Pat Schmidt has high praise for the highway crews in Wind River canyon based on his experience. He offers two examples:

“First, in 30 years of printing the Independent Record in Riverton, usually on Wednesday, the outstanding WYDOT crews in Thermopolis and Shoshoni never failed to have the canyon road open at least the three hours needed for us to make the press run. It was closed a couple of those nights by weather after being open in daylight.

“Second, what about the other six days of the week? Jerry Kummerfeld, a Thermopolis resident who taught and coached in Shoshoni for 27 years, told me years ago he was rarely unable to make the drive.”

Wyoming folks, per capita, drive their cars more miles than people in any other state.  We always need to go long distances, and we rely on our roads being kept open and maintained.  Well done, crews.

Check out Bill Sniffin’s columns at www.billsniffin.com.  He is a longtime Wyoming journalist from Lander who has written six books. His newest is “Wyoming at 125,” which is now on sale at fine bookstores. His books are available at www.wyomingwonders.com.