Photo: Sulae

4 Lies Guidebooks Will Tell You About Wyoming

by Michelle Tanaka Feb 2, 2016

Wyoming is peppered with quaint, old-fashioned Main Street towns

The word “peppered” is a tad generous, considering the old Wyomingite adage that “There are seven people in the state, and four of them are passing through.” As of 2014, the state housed 584,153 people—significantly fewer than the number of people residing in, say, Oklahoma City.

Being as it’s the tenth largest state in the country yet the least populous, its city centers are not quaint and old-fashioned so much as they are decaying or nonexistent. Wyoming’s smallest town, appropriately named Lost Springs, has an area of 57 square miles…and a population of four. In its fifth-largest city, Rock Springs, neglected buildings from bygone eras rot and crumble on the sides of principal streets.

A statewide tour to Wyoming’s meager population centers will reveal that the comely thoroughfares of touristy places like Sheridan and Cody are the exception, not the norm. Yet there is intrigue and a bit of mystery, if not charm, in the decaying, faded skeleton of a forgotten mercantile.

Wyoming is populated by friendly cowboys and ranchers

Wyoming locals’ bawdy response to that: “It’s where men are men, women are men, and sheep are scared!” While the premier calendar event in Wyoming (other than Old Faithful’s hourly burp) is Cheyenne Frontier Days, the state is not exclusively some grown-up Disneyland for Wild West enthusiasts. Her people are notoriously conservative and share an often unsavory past regarding social and ethnic minorities. We should not, for example, forget that Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered outside Laramie or that the state does not contain a single piece of hate crime legislation.

Sure, Wyoming was the first state that allowed women to vote—but primarily out of a desire for a larger voice in Congress than a sense of civil ethics. That being said, the state is wonderfully diverse for such a sparse and decidedly un-metropolitan place. Rawlins, a sleepy town of 9,000 located on the dreaded I-80, has a phenomenal Thai restaurant (more amazing when you consider there are, according to the 2010 census, only about 90 people of Asian ethnicity); and Rock Springs is home to 56 nationalities.

The biggest scourge to the image of Wyoming as a haven for the good ol’ days of riding and ranching is the surge of Coloradans from the south—“greenies,” as they’re disparagingly referred to. Any Wyomingite will happily bitch for hours about how them damn greenies are buying up the land, raising the taxes, congesting the streets. You may have been born literally in a barn or on the back of a horse, but if that barn or horse happened to be located in Colorado, as a dreaded greenie, you’ll be regarded as a wussy city slicker with no brains and too much money.

Wyoming can be very windy.

This is a dirty, stinking lie. Wyoming is not “very” windy. It is not “extremely” windy. Wyoming is traumatically, disturbingly, eyeball-searingly, homicidally windy. Pioneers making their way across the country in the nineteenth century took their own lives because of the wind. Thanks to modern insulation and therapy, wind-driven suicides are on the way out, but wind-caused accidents still occur frequently. Crossing the border from Colorado north on I-25, you’ll find entire semis laid out on their sides from gusts reaching upwards of 100 miles per hour.

In a state that doesn’t favor or encourage much infrastructure, electronic signboards straddle highways warning motorists of the wind conditions, much the same way rush hour commuters in Los Angeles are told how many minutes it will take to reach a desired exit. Snowy Range in southern Wyoming contains forests of trees with branches growing on only one side of the trunk because the persistent wind prevents anything from growing on the other. Snow never lasts on the plains, as the wind blasts it away at speeds that regularly outstrip modern land transportation.

If you weigh less than 150 pounds and fancy a walk on the prairie, seriously consider weighting your pockets down, unless you’re looking to be whisked away into Nebraska.

Wyoming is chock full of natural beauty

Guidebooks are full of this kind of language, implying that Wyoming is a state that is jam-packed with spectacular vistas at every turn, a veritable showcase of nature’s finest splendor. Google image Wyoming, and the stock photos alone will take your breath away. While Wyoming certainly can boast about housing many of the jewels in America’s natural beauty crown (Yellowstone and the Tetons will not be ignored), most of the land between her borders actually looks as if some long-ago, catastrophic nuclear holocaust quashed any hope of new or exciting growth. A drive through the state will find you questioning your very existence in the presence of such vast nothingness—or worse, if you’re one of the poor bastards making the trek west along I-80, struggling not to open up your veins as you pass hours of landscape uglier than dog shit.

Mention charming, popular places like Jackson Hole to Wyoming natives, and they’ll scoff that “That’s not real Wyoming—that’s where the billionaires pushed out the millionaires!” By all means, if you’re looking for dramatic ranges to backpack, alpine rivers to fish, and abundant wildlife to spy, go to Wyoming…but stay up in the mountains and in the boundaries of her venerated National Parks. Beyond them, the starkness may take your breath away, and not necessarily in a good way.

That being said, the “real” Wyoming has her own beauty: meteorological phenomena that trump any work of theatre, a subtle grace in the austerity of the seemingly ceaseless plains. The trouble is, you’ve got to work for it—and it’s much easier to stick to those colorful corners the guidebooks are always singing about.

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