I trekked to the great lands of the American West as summer drew to a close. The basecamp: Laramie, WY. The guide: childhood friend Carson. The activities: epic.
Highway 187 (Colorado + Wyoming)
My adventure started on Highway 187 north from Denver to Laramie, so I’ll start here.
- The sunlight is different and beautiful out here. It doesn’t beat down like it does in the East – it filters down through the clouds to bathe the land.
- Spacious skies? Check. Purple mountain majesties? Check. Amber waves of grain? Sort of – there was more green corn and cut hay. Beautiful America? Check.
- I love how sunflowers grow like weeds along this Colorado highway. It’s the little things.
- The little town of Longmont and the larger town of Fort Collins lie along the route, which took me through the charming downtown centers of both. I can imagine both would be great home bases.
- As I went further north, my mouth started to gape at the mountains and rock formations. There are shelves of rock ripped from the earth which make you grateful you weren’t around when the earth was young.
I arrived in Laramie on Thursday evening and spent patches of the next few days using it as my homebase, thanks to the hospitality of my friend. This little college town of about 32K+ is home to the university of Wyoming and nestles into a prarie valley amidst the Medicine Bow National Forest at an elevation of over 7000 feet.
- There probably aren’t many cool hangout spots in Laramie, but I imagine the coffee and frozen yogurt shop at Huckleberry’s Sweet Cream Cafe would be one of them.
- The pace of life in this town is even slower than that of the notoriously slow South. There are just fewer Joneses out here to keep up with. The people are friendly (many of them know each other), and it’s quiet at night. My friend insisted there is no crime in Wyoming.
- Laramie is quite bikeable and walkable, with a nicely preserved downtown and beautifully maintained campus shade trees.
- For a small town, there are a surprising number of cute girls in Laramie. Even in the wilds of the Snowies I ran into a few that made me stand up a little straighter.
- There are cowboys everywhere (on the store branding). However, I only saw one person who might plausibly be a cowboy.
- The steaks here are incredibly cheap, perhaps due to proximity of thousands and thousands of cows – I bought 2lbs of steak for less than $5 thanks to a buy-one-get-one deal.
- That week’s local walking tour guide Germaine (a lady born in the 1930s) is a G. My friend and I both would have adopted her as a surrogate grandmother given the chance. Anyway, according to her, the city was largely built on prostitution, and after getting the background of quite a few downtown buildings I couldn’t disagree.
The Snowy Mountains (Wyoming)
On my second day in Wyoming, my friend and I took a road trip and passed through the town of Centennial (population: 200) on to the Snowy Mountains on the west side of the Laramie valley. This was the highest elevation we reached, at about 9000+ feet, and gosh was it beautiful.
- It was just about the last week of summer here (or so I was told) and driving into the Snowies I could see the markers of the deepest snowfall. Apparently some 20 feet of snow could fall on the roads which we took up to our destination.
- Lake Marie is one of the most gorgeous and pristine natural spots I’ve ever seen. The whole national forest area is green and beautiful, stripped clean by wind and elevation and snows.
- Mountain lions exist up here – a fact which did not appropriately frighten me at the time (rather exciting me). We found a recently-stripped deer ribcage and looked down on a possible mountain lion den early in our hike. I found a sharp rock and told myself I’d see the mountain lion first.
- Either my friend and I look sketchy, or Wyoming drivers (like most modern American drivers) are not so keen to pick up hitchhikers.
The Prairie (Wyoming)
On the morning of my third day, we hit the prairie for some bird (and other animal) watching.
- Bird watching is surprisingly fun. On the prairie (as, indeed, in many places) there is a great variety of birds that you only really notice when you try to ID them. And the birds are gorgeous and a bit alien, too, with yellow eyes or beautiful plumage.
- Prairie dogs also like bird watching, but for different reasons (hawk avoidance). We saw one prairie dog staring intently at a yellowtail hawk.
- Natural lakes and ponds dot the prairie landscape – something I didn’t expect – providing life to many species of birds and kayaking/fishing to local Wyomingans.
- You don’t have to look far for prairie dogs. Just look down and you’ll see their tunnels dotting the landscape and even cutting into footpaths. They’re fascinating little creatures, and I was especially excited to see my first.
- Pronghorn are some of the most alien-looking large land mammals in North America. They look a bit like something you’d meet on an African safari. And yet “the antelope play” in pretty significant numbers here, pretty much wherever they want to go (including close to town). It would be fun to hunt these.
- Prairie grass is soft and sweet, and the sun out here makes you a good kind of tired.
- Driving with the windows down is lovely if you don’t mind the wind and have a good playlist (Willie Nelson suggested).
The Happy Jack Mountains (Wyoming)
On my last day (after some touring of curiosities like the country’s smallest town – Buford – and the local pyramid – the Ames Monument) we hiked the Happy Jack trail of the Medicine Bow National Forest.
- The air is just sweeter in these high-elevation forests. It’s like the best kind of air freshener.
- Wild raspberries abounded. This place may be lean in the wintertime, but you could find a good bounty of berries in the summer.
If I had the opportunity to spend a summer in Laramie I’d take it. And if you have the chance to visit, you should.