The greatest Western movie ever made, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, tells the story of two aging Texas Rangers, who by the year 1876 had done their job so well, they were no longer needed. Augustus McCray and Woodrow Call, as young men had tamed the wild element found in the Texas Rio Grande Valley; or as Gus put it, “we done hanged or shot all the bandits who made this place interesting.” Needing one more adventure before taking up the rocking chair, the two were told by a friend of a magical far off land called Montana, a still lawless frontier where a recent massacre by Indians of General Custer and his troops had occurred. Not hindered by a fear of hostile Indians (“We whipped ‘em down here didn’t we?”), the two former lawmen devise a grandiose and high risk plan to drive a cattle herd from Texas north to Montana and establish the area’s first ranch. “Fortune to be made to whoever has the guts and the brains to get there first,” they were told. Woodrow had other motives; “I want to see that land, before the lawyers and the bankers all get ahold of it.”
I have often bemoaned the lost chance of my generation to see such vivid and untamed wilderness; such as Montana in 1876. Today, in the lower 48 states, much of what is left in a preserved state of wild has been restricted to human use. What is still unchained and wild often requires a half day hike to experience. Other former natural and pristine areas, such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, were years ago overdeveloped where today, despite their incredible natural beauty, can be considered as only slightly above over-hyped tourist traps.
It is late September, 2014 and I am making a much put off trip to the Front Range of the Rockies. I have arrived on an early morning flight from St. Louis, MO to Denver, CO. As a child, Denver was my enchanted city. Even the name itself, in my child’s mind, would drum up images of adventure. Today, Denver is a major drag on any trip I make to the Rockies. I tolerate the town as a necessary hub for any air travel to the region. Denver is no longer as I recall it in the 1960’s: the edgy town- lit and alive with the energy of non-conforming adventurers seeking a life in the Mile High City. The modern day Denver is a dirty city exposing all the same urban decay that can be found back on the eastern seaboard. The air is bad, the infrastructure is decaying and gang graffiti is everywhere. Strip Malls abound.
I stumbled upon Encampment, WY like I have found most of the interesting places and people on my wanderings; by happenstance. I had a late afternoon appointment in Rawlins, WY to interview a bureaucrat from the United States Forest Service. He was to fill me in on the recent extensive damage from the mountain pine beetle to the forests in Rocky Mountain National Park. By killing off millions of acres of trees, the mountain pine beetle has left in its wake infested lodgepole and ponderosa pine forests. A recent decision allows, for the first time in a generation, timbering in the national forests of the area. Rational for the change in policy is the clearing efforts are to eradicate dying trees that have turned the national forest lands of the west into a tinderbox for potential wildfires.
My flight into Denver had touched down at 8:25 am on a clear and brisk early fall Tuesday morning. My meeting in Rawlins was at 2:00 pm. I had the option of taking Interstate 25 north out of Denver, crossing over into Wyoming on the way to Cheyenne, then take Interstate 80 west into Rawlins. No need to stop or slow down on the interstate route, a straight freeway shot at 80 miles per hour. Or, I could take the two lane through Fort Collins to Laramie and then due west through the Medicine Bow National Forest, raising up and over the Medicine Bow Mountains on two lanes of pavement labeled on the atlas as the “Snowy Range Road.” After crossing the range and descending into the Platte River Valley, my trail would cut north at the intersection of Wyoming State Road 130, just to the east of the 11,000 foot Mt. Bridger, then on to Rawlins. My atlas showed the entire back roads route with a parenthesized note that warned, “Closed in Winter.”
The interstate option for my trip was 150 miles from Denver and would take two hours to drive. The 40 mile route on the Snowy Range Road alone would also require two hours. It would be a challenge I was warned at the rental car desk in Denver; white knuckle mountain driving at its best, while navigating numerous switchbacks and steep mountain curves.
Time moves in one direction, memories in another. As always with me, the schedule be damned, I chose the high road, literally. I found the Snowy Range Road, as promised, to be breathtaking. Nothing clears the head of unneeded clutter like the “High Country.” I have never had a bad day above 8,000 feet. I refer often to the high country as my “Mountain of Youth.”
Three and one half hours out of Denver, I had crossed the Snowy Range Road. I then descended 2000 feet in a mere distance of 10 miles, traversing from Alpine mountain forests onto a sparkling high plain as I crossed the North Platte River at the point that its main tributary, Sweetwater Creek, flows in from the west. I entered the valley from the south on Wyoming State Highway 130 and in 14 miles crossed the city limits of the town of Saratoga, population 1690. The town sits atop a natural pass accessible from both south/north and the east/west directions, a route that would prove to be instrumental in the nation’s western movement and expansion on the Oregon Trail. Two hundred years prior, partners and employees of the fur magnate John Jacob Astor, were returning east from the mouth of the Columbia River when they passed through land that is modern day Saratoga, discovering a low point in the Continental Divide near the head of the Sweetwater River. The town of Saratoga survives to this day due to the fortunes of geography, still a cross roads community.
Mountain people are different. The rugged lifestyle they embrace- while taking pleasure in strutting their toughness in the face of an outside world of flat landers- is continuous to mere tourists passing through. Most who live closer to sea level do not understand the rigid grip the mountains can take on the true believers. This past July the body of a man lost on Mont Blanc in the Alps in 1982 was recovered and returned for internment in his home town; or perhaps re-interment after 32 frozen years on a mountain top; would be a better description. Patrice Hyvert was 23 years old when bad weather trapped him and he was never heard from again. His Grandfather told Reuters he would have preferred his Grandson had been left where he fell. "I'm a mountain man, and I would have preferred him to stay up there," he told RTL radio. "He was better on a mountain than in a coffin. He was in his element."
I parked on the town’s main street next to the Wolf Café and Hotel, a bustling area of restaurants and shops, teeming with the lunch time crowd. I pulled out my cell phone, happy to see I had service for the first time since leaving Laramie, and made a lame excuse call to cancel my impending appointment in Rawlins. This place looked too good to pass on the opportunity of getting acquainted with the locals, peeking under the hood and finding out what everyday life in this beautiful valley was really like.
When entering a new town and wanting to quickly become honed in on the character of the community, I almost always employ one of two strategies; either visit the local bar or the community newspaper. In Saratoga, I now was in a quandary necessitated by timing. It was 1 pm which meant that the local drinking and eating establishments would be packed with tourists, a clientele that could not relate to me the local color I sought. But, Tuesday afternoons, I knew from experience, is most often deadline time for local weekly newspapers, a burden requiring a narrow focus from every employee in the small shop, leaving no time to entertain a nosy outsider. I glanced across the street and quickly located the town newspaper, designated by a sign hung above its Main Street locale. Small town papers are always located on the town’s main commercial street, I guarantee it. “The Saratoga Sun, The Platte Valley’s Newspaper since 1888,” read the sign. I crossed the street and decided the paper would be my launching port in my discovery of Saratoga, WY. The bars, all six, would be bumped to this evening’s agenda. I viewed it as a win/win for both my research and my thirst.
As I entered the front door of the paper’s office, I found the week’s edition of the Sun was coming out the front door, literally. I bumped square into the backside of the editor Liz Wood. The pages for the week’s edition were laid end to end from the back of the shop to the threshold of the front door, garnering one last visual check by the stooped over editor before heading to the printer in Casper. “Have a bigger edition, you are going to need a bigger office,” I quipped (wise cracked). Ms. Wood stood, turned and introduced herself while requesting I “return in an hour.” Never argue with an editor on deadline. Besides, it left just enough time to re-cross the street and quench my thirst at the Wolf.
“I have had this job for 11 years,” Ms. Wood began, “and for an outsider, I will admit there have been times that have been rough. This is a very conservative community in a very conservative state and sometimes the paper’s views don’t always agree with the views of a majority of our readers. I grew up in Des Moines, IA but I will tell you that for me, after some rough years, I admit, to get accepted, this is home. Saratoga is a wonderful place to live.”
Joining our conversation were the paper’s two young reporters: Mike Dunn and Erik Gnatt; both also, “outsiders.” Both had taken curious paths to employment with the Sun: neither had a journalism education and both had followed a significant other who had secured employment in Saratoga. “I enjoy the job,” said Dunn. “Sometimes we have to dig into topics that might make some of the locals uneasy, but we do it professionally.” Added Gnatt, “People here are fair, once they get to know you. It is a very close knit town, not real open to outsiders, which is ironic since tourism is so important to the local economy, but it is a very supportive town. If someone has a problem come up, the whole town pitches in to help. I have seen that many times.”
Wood explained her editorial style. “’I’ never write an editorial, it is always ‘we.’ We go over things as a staff and the more controversial the topic, the more we go over it. We also respect the other side of the issue, we listen and the citizens know they have a voice through our paper. We will print other views in letters to the editor and guest editorials.” Is it not a slippery slope to navigate, Wood was asked, to balance the life line of advertising dollars from the local commerce and the risk of offending just said people who can at a whim pull those dollars? “You ask tough questions,” chuckled Wood, “but yes it is.”
Our conversation turned to the local schools. How important are they to the community’s self-image and to cohesiveness? “Very,” all three agreed. “We devote a lot of print space to the local schools,” said Dunn, who does the bulk of sports reporting. “My dad was a small town high school football coach, so I have lived the life to know how important sports are to a small town.” How are the Saratoga high school teams faring this year, I asked? “They try really hard,” Dunn diplomatically answered.
“If you want to see a good small town team and a community that supports them in unison, you should come to Encampment this evening and watch the high school girls’ volleyball game,” Wood told me. “They start in an hour. I am on my way over to take pictures for next week’s paper.”
Encampment, I was informed, was a small town of several hundred located 14 miles to the west of Saratoga. “How big is the school,” I asked. “Normally graduate about 10 in a class,” Wood said, “around 40.” 40? In grades 9-12? And they have a volleyball team worth going to watch? “Yes,” was Wood’s one word answer. I made the drive and soon I would bare testimony that the volleyball team at Encampment, WY High School, enrollment 41 (18 girls), is indeed, very good.
South Park High School from Walden, CO, 40 miles south across the Colorado boarder, provided the evening’s opposition. The visitors’ also possessed a talent level above what I had expected, but they were overmatched. The home court Tigers were outstanding, winning the match in three lopsided games.
I see a lot of high school volleyball and I expected in such small enrollment schools to see maybe one or two players on each team with talent, but also a majority of players who would possess little or no skills, a game dominated by volleys over the net and underhanded serves. Such was the arrogance on my part. I should have been forewarned of my misjudgment when I entered the packed gym, half way through the Junior Varsity match and observed the far wall covered with rows of red state championship banners, testament to the long time dominance of the locals.
I struck up a conversation between the junior varsity and varsity matches with one of the line judges, Home Economics teacher Cheryl Munroe. “I have been teaching 42 years she told me.” Assuming that “Mo”, as everyone in the school addressed her, had not begun her career in front of the class at the precarious age of 12, she was at least 10 years older than I would have guessed by her appearance. “I grew up on an Indian Reservation on the other side of the mountain and began teaching over there for seven years. I went through a divorce, moved to Encampment for a change, met a rancher, and married him and have never had a thought to leaving. This is a wonderful place to call home.”
The drive across the Snowy Range that morning had been spectacular, the vivid fall golden colors of the high country forests providing the exclamation point to a natural visual masterpiece. But, as the locals so well know, the turning of fall colors in the mountains is an onerous forewarning for all, human and animal inhabitants alike, who make these mountains their home. “This is a hard place to live,” Munroe told me, “But a great place to live. You learn to get things done. We got the last of our hay in last night or I wouldn’t be here tonight. Winter is coming and right now, everyone is getting ready. Winter up here is long and dominates your life, not only in the 8 months we live it, but in the other four months when we prepare for it.”
Between matches, I introduced myself to Encampment Schools’ Principal Mike Erickson. I told him I was surprised how good the Tiger’s volleyball team was. From his body language I felt I had offended him, or at least that my condescending praise had in some way disrespected the caliber of the students in his charge. “We expect to be good……. in everything,” he told me. Erickson was in his 8th year at the helm of the K-12 school. He confirmed to me that the student enrollment in the high school level grades 9 through 12 was 41 with 18 girls, total. According to the program I picked up at the gate, the Encampment Tigers were composed of a roster of 15 players; five freshman, four sophomores, five juniors and one lone senior. I wondered to myself if the other three girls in the student body were in attendance, selling popcorn, maybe? “You only have one senior girl on the roster, was it a weak class,” I asked Erickson? “We only have one senior girl,” Erickson responded. I reaffirmed that was my question, just a group that didn’t have much interest in sports? You don’t understand, said Erickson. “(Until this year) we only have one girl in the senior class, period.”
After leaving the game that evening and going for a work out run on the pitch black track back in Saratoga, I was consumed with pondering what it must be like to grow up in such a small and isolated community as Encampment. 41 students, total. 8 months of snow. “We had 20 inches of snow fall on the 18th of May last spring,” Principal Erickson had told me. With little transient movement of students, most had known their classmates as far back as starting school at the age of 5; almost family members, putting an incestuous label on any dating amongst classmates. 41 students, total, in the entire high school? I told Erickson that on some days as a principal, “I have suspended more students before noon than you have in your whole school.”
“We have a great school and a great community and you will find that pride in everything we do,” Erickson told me. “We expect our kids to be involved and we expect them to be successful and as you can see we are, across the board; athletics, academics and activities. I will put our small student body up against schools 10 times our size and I will assure you, we will compete head to head very well.”
Upon entering Encampment, it was obvious that the town was isolated. I found none of the commercial clutter that detracts from over developed and overpriced mountain towns like Aspen and Breckenridge. A sign at the city limits proudly proclaimed to any environmentalist who might sneak in to stir up the locals, that Encampment was a “multi-use community,” meaning if you leave us to our hunting and four wheeling, we will leave you to your hiking and cross country skiing. Yet, the surrounding mountain peaks dressed in their full color splendor where of the finest I have seen anywhere in in the Rockies. How had this treasure gone undiscovered, but even more importantly, undeveloped? “People here like the outdoors and a variety of activities,” Erickson had told me. “We have been able to keep the lifestyle without a whole lot of outside interference.”
Less than one hundred miles south of Encampment sits the town of Steamboat Springs, CO. Many I talked to on the front range of the Rockies pointed to Steamboat as a former rustic and isolated mountain town that had lost its quaint allure over the past twenty years of overdevelopment. “Too much damn money, too much damn glitz,” bemoaned a man I spoke with at a book store in Denver, lamenting his distaste for present day Steamboat Springs. Having found Encampment, I needed to dig deeper into this overlooked treasure I had blindly stumbled upon while crossing the Platte River Valley. Could this be finally a hidden jewel of the former state of the frontier so many yearned for? Could somehow, the “lawyers and the bankers” have overlooked Encampment, WY and this beautifully underdeveloped land, nestled between the peaks of the San Juan and Sierra Madre Mountains?
Could I hang around for a few days and visit the school during the day, I inquired of Erickson, at the completion of the evening’s volleyball match? With no hesitation, he graciously agreed. “And by the way, you sure have a good volleyball team,” I added, in thanks.
The next morning, I was buzzed into the Encampment school by an intercom security system that has become common place today in even then most pristine and safe of school settings. It was in some ways an affront to my vision of this small town’s education system, but a mandated necessity in any 2014 school building, I will grudgingly admit.
The highlight of my day of visiting the school was my interaction with the students. I immediately recognized Cassidy Little as a high jumping and hard hitting junior I had watch perform at the previous night’s volleyball match. I congratulated her on the team’s fine performance. She was embarrassingly gracious at first, but quickly informed me the Tigers had bigger fish to fry this season. “We went to state last year,” she told me. “We intend to go back this year and we plan to win it all this year.” Been there and done that and now hell bent on adding to the proud legacy set by those before her; to add to the collection of state championship banners hanging in the gym. I complimented her with all intentions of stroking her ego. She deafly ignored my praise but added, “the little girls look up to us just like we looked up to the older girls when we were little. That motivates us all. Besides, I am better at basketball.” She was the quintessential leadoff hitter for my introduction to the students of Encampment. Little shared that she hoped to someday become an elementary teacher in a small town and Encampment would be at the top of her wish list for future employment. “I really like working with the younger kids here, helping them with their reading. We go into a class one day a week.” Any down side with living in such a small town? “The drama, my, oh my, we do have that up here,” Little told me. “But it’s good, in some ways. You are for sure not going to get away with anything here that will not be back to your parents by the time we get home.”
Harold Jackson is the president of the student body and a ready spokesman for the benefits of an Encampment childhood. “We have to get along,” he tells me. “We all hang together, we have no choice. We spend a lot time hanging out at my house and everyone knows they don’t need an invitation, just come on over.” Can there be such a thing as too much familiarity with your classmates. “Maybe, but we make it work. As for dating, no one around here is really into that. If they are, often they will date someone from another area school. Around here, dating would be awkward, we are too much like brothers and sisters. We have a new student who moved in this year and we immediately invited him to hang out with us, both in school and after.” Has he come around yet, I asked. “No, but we will keep asking. Sometimes I do worry that it will be hard for me to adjust to a totally different environment when I go away next fall to college. I mean, we don’t even have a TV at my house. But still, this is a great place. I can’t imagine any school with any more of a…, a…, I can’t think of the word.” Nurturing, I offer? “Yeah, that’s the word, we are a nurturing school, or a more accurate statement might be; ‘we are a nurturing community.’ Everything I need to be happy is right here in this valley, everything.”
Luke Pantle is a senior who spent his sophomore year at South Park in nearby Walden, CO. “Our ranch is in both districts, and both states,” said Pantle. “I can choose which school I want to go to. I like it back here.” He never offered why he had left Encampment, or Walden; and I only slightly pressed him on the issue. Owning an outstanding 31 on the ACT college entrance exam, Pantle will have his choice of many colleges. “I am interested in some kind of engineering, but I don’t want to go too far away and I also would like to play basketball in college; so I will probably end up in a small school, which is ok by me.” Luke’s mother recently retired as a social studies teacher and earlier that day had gave me an informative tour at the area’s outstanding and award winning community museum. “My family has been in this area for a long time and I doubt I will settle anywhere too far away,” Luke said. When asked about his preparation from a small school whose enrollment would limit curriculum choices available to him, he hedged his answer, “bigger in some ways would be better, but bigger is some other ways would be worse.”
Junior Guy Erickson has a tough gig for any teenage high school student to endure; his dad is the principal of his school. “I am use to it by now,” he told me with a shrug. “It has been this way since we moved to Encampment when I was in 3rd grade.” An accomplished athlete as well, Erickson said he fits in well with his classmates. “Sports are big here and we start playing very young, so right away when I moved here, it gave me a good connection with the kids my age. I can’t imagine school or my day without sports. We play and practice all the time and we know the community is behind us. We have high expectations for our basketball team for the next two years. We have some good players.” There is talk of drug testing all the athletes at Encampment and nearby Saratoga High. I ask the younger Erickson his thoughts on such an intervention. “Not needed, but go on and test, if you want to, is my answer. We don’t have time for any of that stuff. Plus we all are together so much that if someone did have a drug problem, the rest of us would know right away and we would see that it stopped.” I inquired as to future plans. “I would like to do something in the medical/science field,” Erickson told me. “We are a small school but I don’t think that will hold me back. Sometimes, we might not have all the advanced classes that a large school might have, be we do have the internet and we can take on line classes. Whatever I end up doing, I don’t see myself ever moving very far away. This is home, to me.”
Winter and the incessant snow it brings dominates life in Encampment, on that all I spoke with agreed. The bitter season is never far off. There is ice along the banks of the Platte River in early October and often the year's first snow falls before the World Series—a biting white and wet snow that swirls across the high plains and drifts amongst the fall leaves on the one block downtown main street of Encampment. There will be snowbanks by Thanksgiving of over 10 feet and winter may not end until one final wet blizzard is deposited on the flower beds of May. Last year was an especially long snow season, I am told. All who call this area home must learn to enjoy such extreme weather. “We moved to Louisiana when I was in 4th grade,” Cassidy Little tells me. “I hated it, no snow. I was so glad when we moved back after only one year. I missed the snow and I missed the quiet that comes with it.”
Now several weeks removed from Encampment, I must confess, I am still smitten. What would it be like to hunker down for a long winter in a small Rocky Mountain town, cut off from the outside world for 8 months of the year by twelve foot snow drifts? Conjuring up images of hot chocolate filled frigid nights snuggled up to a warm fire, wrapped in a homemade quilt and engulfed in a good book? Naïve? Probably, no place is perfect. What about cabin fever. One local in Saratoga explained to me that the long winters play havoc on marriages. “Always a new lineup when the spring thaw comes than what we had back the previous fall. Lots of nights we will drive around on snowmobiles just to see whose truck is parked at whose house, it is our winter entertainment.”
Ah yes, carnal pursuits; a life force of winter, an addictive nourishment that simply cannot be forgone. A man of many mountain winters once told me: “These winters can get really bad and you got to have someone to snuggle up with. I have had many friends of the female persuasion over the years and we have helped each other get through the long and cold winter. What you don’t want to do is be bedding up in the middle of a Rocky Mountain winter,” he reasoned, “with some skinny women. Forget fashion magazine ‘looks,’ a good mountain women has got to have some meat on her. Up here, the old timers call a really bad winter blizzard ‘an all-night, all-day, stay-inside- and-hold-your-women storm.’ Yes sir, she got to have some meat on her when the weather really turns cold.”
“Mountain people are tough people,” he continued, “they have to be to survive. They are hunters, they are trappers. Out here it is kill or be killed. It is not always pretty, but it is pure, a throwback to an old way of life. Many easterners come out here and think they will find everything gentle and kind, like it would be in a nice painting of the snow on the mountains they hang in their log cabin. Listen, it’s not like that. John Denver didn’t settle this harsh land, tough, and sometime not all that nice of people, did.”
There is only one way I know of to answer the question, “What is it really like?” You have to live through it. I am planning on a dead-in-the-heart-of-winter return visit to Encampment. I want to experience this enchanted land up close, before “the lawyers and bankers all get ahold of it.” I will keep you filled in.