I much prefer Laramie this time of year. All the flowers bloom at once as the season is so short; the zinnias I planted out front have been at it for almost a month.
I can leave all the windows open at home, day and night. Train brakes and whistles, like a chorus of upset piccolos, wail a little louder through open windows (we’re five blocks from the train tracks), but I don’t mind. The first thing I do when I get to the office each day is to open all the windows. I also leave the front door wide open for the better part of the morning. The wind is less of a constant nuisance, as well as a reason to keep my hair short, and more of a pleasant breeze. Cool evenings and early mornings feel quaint, unlike the harbinger dawns of the summer south: “Ugh, it’s this hot already? Let’s just go back to bed.”
It’s also tourism season in Wyoming. Parking lots are full of cars with license plates from places like Colorado, Utah, Oregon, and California. People wander around downtown Laramie, staring wide-eyed at passing trains and licking ice cream cones which, in all honesty, would probably be beers if that were legal.
My parents, my younger sister, and two of my younger brothers came to visit me in Laramie a couple weeks ago. I did a lot of cleaning to prepare: mopping, scrubbing, vacuuming, chasing devious tumbleweeds of Abe fur across the kitchen floor and under the table. Matt washed all the dishes, per usual.
It had only been a few weeks since I’d last seen my family as I went home at the end of June, but it felt like longer. I was excited to show them this little world in which I now operate. Unfortunately, their time in Laradise began with two full days of almost constant rain. Though the locals call summer the “monsoon season,” rain like that is highly unusual. We’re used to the typical afternoon thunderstorm or weekday blizzard, but rain is a different animal.
First, I’m not the only person to write about “the perfume of sagebrush after rain,” (Edward Abbey was in Arches National Park) but it’s absolutely lovely. Sagebrush is a bleached mint color and covers the prairies of Wyoming.
If you rub a bit of its leaves between thumb and forefinger, the aroma is like sage, as the plant’s name suggests, but more peppery. This is the same scent that wafts up into roadways while you coast across the state after a rainstorm, a glorious earthy smell.
Second, there’s not much you can do outside while it’s raining (kayak, raft, get wet?), and there’s not much to do in Laramie when you’re not outside.
So we hit up a lot of museums. Two ten-ish-year-old boys in matching T-shirts and white gloves led a tour of the Ivinson mansion, like a much smaller, local version of the Biltmore outside Asheville, NC. (If the Vanderbilts had a house in Wyoming they needed to heat during winter, they would’ve had a smaller house too!)
It seems like the dark ages of Laramie were from the ’60s through the ’80s, or what the two boys referred to as the “vandalism period.” During this time many historical buildings in Laramie became derelict, were graffiti’d and ransacked and looted. Handmade stained glass windows were shattered; irreplaceable light fixtures were removed and sold. The Wyoming Territorial Prison, a federal institution that once housed Butch Cassidy, became a university-sponsored home for cattle and livestock. When a group of Laramie citizens rallied to purchase the property in 1989, I’m certain there was much cleaning of manure and things. No manure there now, I assure you!
Visiting the territorial prison sparked a family discussion over dinner about how the prison system in America largely fails at its primary objective, which is to rehabilitate criminals into functional, productive citizens. If this is a topic in which you have any interest, I highly encourage you to watch PBS Frontline’s “Prison State” episode about incarceration in the US (and its sister episode, “Solitary Nation,” about solitary confinement in the US). You can click here to watch it for free online.
Tuesday morning before the rain started, Matt took my family up to the Happy Jack area of Medicine Bow National Forest about 10 minutes’ drive east of Laramie while I was at work. They went for a leisurely hike up to a small sport climbing area known as Brown’s Landing or Beehive Buttress, which sits at the edge of an aspen grove.
Aspen are like birch trees with their stark white trunks and small, heart-shaped leaves that yellow come fall. My favorite aspect of aspen (see what I did there?) has to be how the underside of their leaves is a slightly lighter shade of green than the top of the leaf, which means that every time the wind blows (if you haven’t read much of my blog, the wind blows here often), the leaves appear to shimmer as they pivot back and forth on their stems, flashing in the sun. Appropriately, the Latin name for aspen is Populas tremula. In this Forest Service video, you can watch some footage of beautiful aspen, and at the 3-minute mark, the narrator discusses the exact phenomenon I mention here.
Anyway, after they came back from their morning hike to meet me for lunch in Laramie, it rained for two days. C’est la vie *shrug*.
Thursday morning we made the most of the good forecast and drove up to the western section of Medicine Bow National Forest to hike Medicine Bow Peak, a two-mile trail to the summit that sits at about 12,000 feet above sea level. The first mile of the trail is mostly flat and circles around Lewis Lake before heading to the base of the mountain. The second mile is almost entirely switchbacks up about 1,000 feet or so. The last bit of the trail peters out into loose rock piled upon loose rock, which necessitates all-fours-scrambling.
Sam and my parents looked after Abe while Matt and I took Libby and Ben to the top. The wind was fierce at the summit and we had to walk through a snowfield (between areas of loose rock) to get there. Some of the snow was stained pink from, I think, the minerals in the granite around us. The view was magnificent – lots of crystal clear alpine lakes and lush green areas, fed by snow-melt. The tree-line was clear below us.
We’d taken a walkie-talkie to the summit with us, and my dad had its twin. Ben, corresponding with Dad, tried to stand at the edge of the summit and wave for Dad to see him. They were a long way away. We took some pictures, talked about how awesome we were, and made our way back down over the slushy pink snow and cracked granite chunks, following cairns and wooden posts to mark the trail.
We stopped for lunch in Centennial, a small town west of Laramie with fewer than three hundred residents, though we wondered how often they update their sign. The weather was nice enough for us to sit outside and eat at the picnic tables behind the Beartree Cafe. A black and white, medium-sized mutt named Memphis, according to her tag, trotted into the restaurant’s backyard to beg from customers susceptible to her cuteness. At one point we heard a distant whistle and the dog ran away, only to return several minutes later. My mom remarked that it was a good way to keep the place clean. I remarked that Memphis probably enjoyed her secret social life.
We mostly ate out for dinner, but on a couple of occasions we had dinner at our house.
The first night we had bison sausage (poor vegetarian Libby), green chili polenta, tomatoes with oregano and olive oil, and sauteed zucchini with mint, basil, and walnuts. There was lots of leftover polenta for our second at-home dinner, which included sauteed homegrown kale with onions, Mom’s yummy Indian chickpeas and stewed tomatoes, more tomatoes, and watermelon for dessert. Ah, I almost neglected to tell you about the ginger beergaritas I made for my parents – the recipe can be found here.
I made sure we stopped by some of my favorite Laramie curiosities, including Night Heron Books & Cafe, the co-op grocery store, our local chocolatier’s shop, Murdoch’s (a ranch supply store), our farmer’s markets, Coal Creek Tap (a self-described nanobrewery), and Atmosphere Mountainworks (where a local man sells his handmade jackets, pants, backpacks, and bags). I think everyone found at least one Laramie memento.
On Friday we went hiking up at Vedauwoo, where Matt and I occasionally go climbing when we feel like punishing ourselves in uncomfortably abrasive cracks and tape gloves.
We avoided all of that mess, but enjoyed seeing climbers struggle up granite mounds from afar. The Turtle Rock trail we took goes from dry and rocky to lush and swampy (snow-melt again) and back, which is a pretty incredible thing to witness if you’re from the generally lush South. We were a little more careful about sun protection on this hike; I think Ben actually put sunscreen on all of his face this time, instead of just the part below his eyebrows.
On Saturday morning it came time for them to head back across the country. Everyone was sad to say goodbye to humidity-free air as well as Abe, primarily. Abe was extremely happy to have 8+ hands petting and hugging him all at once while Dad loaded all the luggage plus acquired Laramie goods into the back two rows of the minivan with Tetris-like skill.
With much waving, the minivan eventually got to the end of the street and turned the corner, leaving Abe and me in the driveway alone. I spent the rest of the warm, sunny day mostly doing nothing, a.k.a. cleaning out the refrigerator, reading, and painting my nails. Abe spent it also doing nothing, a.k.a. napping. However, this is what he does most days.
It was wonderful to share my little slice of Wyoming with my family. Next year – REAL SUMMITS! Just kidding. But maybe Jackson and/or Colorado too? Libby – don’t get a summer job anywhere but Wyoming!
Love to all.