I have lived my entire life between the western edge of the Great Plains and the Rockies. And I have always been a small town boy even though I have always recognised that the big cities are where all the important stuff in America happens. And both of these things, I think, have influenced my life in many and subtle ways.
The Great Plains are an interesting place that have had a large place in American history. The Great Plains was the place that most of the Americans who moved west in the 19th century ended up. Many started out for California or Oregon but ended up in places like Wyoming or the Dakotas or Montana. Mostly they came in response to the various free-land giveaways of the federal government. Many were homesteaders who dreamed of lush farm lands in the west. Many of the early ones got there via the Oregon Trail.
Unfortunately these lands turned out to be not so lush and green but mostly dry and arid. The old cliche that the rain will follow the plow turned out to be not even close to true. In actuality, the Great Plains are an arid place of little rain, hot sun, cold winters and lots of strong winds. Not really suited for farming at all.
One of the really interesting things about the Great Plains is that they exist because of the Rocky Mountains.
The wind and the weather in the US move mostly from west to east. The winds leave the Pacific coast laden with moisture. They lose some of this when they hit the Coastal Range just west of the Pacific Ocean. And then they continue, still full of a lot of moisture, until they hit the Rocky Mountains which are a huge and very tall barrier.
Most of the moist western winds lose their rain and snow as they rise up to the top of the Rockies where they cool down and their moisture condenses. After the wind and weather leave the Rocky Mountains very little of their moisture remains. This is the reason that the eastern edge of the Rockies is where the Great Plains begins. The Great Plains are in what is called the rain shadow of the Rockies.
And keep in mind that the Rockies are not narrow. They are a wide band of mountains that is sometimes 100 miles or more wide. As the moisture laden winds pass over them they are thoroughly stripped of almost all of their moisture. The rain shadow lands of the great plains are very dry indeed. They were a total shock to those used to the moist and lush lands of the American Midwest and the eastern states.
Below is a map of the Great Plains from the CENTER FOR GREAT PLAINS STUDIES at the University of Nebraska. All of that green blob is the Great Plains. The left edge traces right down the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. And that eastern edge of the Rockies and the western edge of the Great Plains is where I spent most of my life. This is where the towns I lived in most of my life are located. I always lived right between the Rockies to the West and the Great Plains to the East in Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.
I didn’t purposely do this. I never thought I was settling down along this border. But strangely enough this is where I always was when I decided to settle down and live for awhile.
I was born in Boulder, Colorado which is the quintessential spot on the border lands at western edge of the Great Plains right beneath the Rocky Mountains. The wall of the Rockies absolutely towers over Boulder.
I have always wanted to live in Boulder but my parents left when I was a small baby. I never really lived there as an adult. However I have spent a lot of time in the Boulder area. I was once a landscape photographer for a lot of years and Boulder is a great base for shooting images of the Rockies and also a great place to sell pictures of the Rocky Mountains.
Shortly after I was born, my family moved to Upper Peninsula Michigan where I lived for the first seven years of my life. This was an a total outlier from the rest of my life. Michigan has nothing to do with either the Great Plains or the Rockies.
The only other time I lived outside the Great Plains was the three years I lived in Wisconsin where I had my first teaching job.
In the book “The Literature of the Great Plains” by Linda Ray Platt, a Nebraska boy who moved from the Great Plains to North Carolina said he hated the east coast because he felt suffocated by all the trees. He said, “It was the trees. Trees everywhere. I felt I was smothering in them!”
This was exactly my feeling when I moved from Wyoming where I grew up to Wisconsin in 1967. I hated Wisconsin for the entire three years I was there mainly because I could never see more than 100 feet in any direction. I was always hemmed in by trees. Like the guy who moved to North Carolina, I also felt that I was smothering in the trees. I could never find the far vistas my eyes were always looking for. I very strongly felt that I was from the Big Sky country and the small sky country was not where I belonged.
After living in Michigan for seven years in the 1940s, my father got a job teaching at the fledgling Casper College in Casper, Wyoming. This is the place where I spent my grade school and high school and early college years. It appears that living in Wyoming for thirteen years set my sense of place in the world: and that place was on the far Western edge of the Great Plains overlooked by the Rocky Mountains.
My sense of place, the place where I feel comfortable has always been the far western edge Great Plains in sight of the Rocky Mountains. It is not the Midwest, or the Eastern Great Plains or even the central Great Plains or the East or the Rockies or the far West. It is only on the far western Great Plains, in sight of the great mountains that I really feel at home. No where else do I really feel comfortable.
So, I moved with my family to Casper, Wyoming in 1947 and I lived in Casper for the next thirteen years.
It doesn’t seem like it, but Casper is on the far Western edge of the Great Plains. East of Casper it is flat and dry and windy all the way to the Minnesota and Iowa where the real farmlands and the green trees begin. If you look at the Great Plains map above, Casper is at the western edge of that big westward bump in the Great Plains, in the middle of Wyoming.
We lived on the very southwestern edge of the town of Casper. When we first moved there we were the last street before the sagebrush began. And it was only 6 or 7 miles beyond our house at the edge of Casper to where Casper Mountain began. Casper Mountain was our small piece of the Rocky Mountains.
Casper Mountain is actually the northern end of the Laramie Range which is part of the Rockies. The Rockies in this part of the world, run out of southern Montana and into Northwestern Wyoming. From there they run south to the Tetons and the Wind River range and also southeast to Buffalo, Wyoming, to Casper, Wyoming, to Laramie, Wyoming and then on down into Colorado.
Us Casper-ites thought it was just Casper Mountain but it really was a piece of the Rockies. It was full of deer and beautiful trout streams and even had a moderate sized ski area. The elevation of Casper Mountain is 8130 feet. It really is not a small mountain.
I remember many family fishing expeditions to Deer Creek in the Eastern part of Casper Mountain where it is more Laramie Range than Casper Mountain. Deer Creek was a crystal clear steam three or four feet deep in places and in those days it was full of trout.
One of the streams that ran out of Casper Mountain and into Casper turned into something called Garden Creek near my house on the edge of town. I spent a large part of my childhood here, building forts and fishing for suckers in what was then called kid jungle. Kid jungle has probably been gone for at least 60 years now.
I fished for suckers in Garden Creek because the trout were long gone in these lower altitudes by the time I got there. But there were days maybe 30 years before my time when this was a trout stream that ran all the way down to the Platte River. And even in my day there were big trout in the Platte. One afternoon when I was in about the 7th grade I was messing around down by the Platte, trying to fish with just a throw line since that’s all I had. And I caught a Rainbow over two feet long. This was a big day in my young life. It was the biggest trout I even caught.
The Rockies run northwest from Casper all the way up to Montana. If you drive that direction along I-25 there are spectacular peaks and ranges of the Rockies to the west and the Great Plains on the other side of the road, heading in the direction of Iowa. About 100 miles north of Casper are the Bighorn mountains where I went to Boy Scout camp and fished with my father. Some of my first adventures in the high Rockies were in the Big Horns. It was a place my family often drove to in the hot summers.
Outlaw canyon, of Butch Cassidy fame, is out on the Great Plains about 50 miles north of Casper. I often fished there with my high school and college friends. It was a long climb from the rim down some pretty sheer cliffs to the bottom of the canyon where the South Fork of the Powder River is. There is a trail down to the bottom somewhere, but we never found it. Our route involved climbing down several large pines which had died and tilted over onto the vertical canyon wall. We thought nothing of clambering down these 100 foot tall leaning-over trees to get to the river. It was just another day in Wyoming for us.
But getting to the Powder River was always worth it. It was then full of Brown Trout and Native Cutthroat Trout. I made many trips there in my high school and Casper College days. I’ve never forgotten those trips. Those too, like the picture of downtown Casper above are burned into my memory.
The Tetons are in the far northwest corner of Wyoming, a couple of hundred miles northwest of Casper. Technically the Great Plains don’t stretch all the way to the Tetons. Technically the Great Plains end at the Big Horn range. And it’s true that the 100 miles or so between the Big Horns and the Tetons are much wetter than most of the Great Plains. However, the Tetons and the Wind Rivers are the western most part of the Rockies in Wyoming and they are certainly part of the Rockies that cause the rain shadow that covers the Great Plains. For me, they are part of the Rockies along the western edge of the Great Plains.
My mother fell in love with the Tetons as a college student on a 1930s summer vacation. So my childhood family spent many of our own summer vacations in the Tetons. And I, in turn, also fell in love with the Tetons. They have become an important part of my life and I have been back to the Tetons almost every summer of my life. They are one of my favourite places on that narrow border between the Great Plains and the Rockies.
Here are a few more pictures of the Tetons.
When I left Casper after high school and Casper College, I spent two years in Germany in the Army and then headed for Laramie, Wyoming and the University of Wyoming.
I spent five years in Laramie, again on the western edge of the Great Plains right in front of the Rocky Mountains. Laramie is located on the Great Plains, twenty miles from the Snowy Range to the West. The Snowy Range is part of the Medicine Bow mountains. The Medicine Bow Range runs from southeastern Wyoming near Laramie, down into Colorado and into the Never Summer Range near Rocky Mountain National Park.
The Snowy Range is a spectacular part of the Rockies. It’s much more spectacular than the Laramie Range or Casper Mountain. There are lots of high, jagged snowy peaks and pristine mountain streams and lakes full of easy-to-catch trout in the Snowy Range. Laramie was the place I learned what little I know about rock climbing and mountaineering.
And the Snowy Range was also the place where I learned about back country skiing. I remember one trip in the dead of winter when I and a couple of my buddies skied 20 miles in 30 below temperatures to Medicine Bow Peak where we planed to climb a face called the Diamond. It turned out to be too cold for such technical mountaineering so we climbed the easy route and then slept the night in the outhouse at the base of the peak. At that time of the year it was frozen solid so no bad smells drifted up from the pit. But it wasn’t the cheeriest place I’ve even spent the night.
When I left Laramie I moved to Stevens Point, Wisconsin for three years where I did my bit in the trees and left as soon as I could get out.
My next major stop was Albuquerque New Mexico where I stayed for the next 25 years. Again I was living right on the western edge of the Great Plains against the Rocky Mountains. Technically Albuquerque is not on the Great Plains since it is on the west side of the Sandia mountains rather than the east side where the actual Great Plains end. But both sides of the Sandia Mountains, which are just to the east of Albuquerque, are more or less the same. So I count Albuquerque as at the edge of Great Plains and under the Rockies, just like all the rest of my home towns.
The Sandia Mountains are the tail end of the Sangre de Cristo Range which begins in Colorado and runs thru northern New Mexico near Taos and Santa Fe and ends just south of Albuquerque. The Sangre de Cristo range is a major part of the Rocky Mountains.
Again, I spent lots of time the Sandias hiking and rock climbing and skiing the whole time I lived there. My sons grew up here and they ended up loving the far western edge of the Great Plains and the Rockies as much as I do. All of them are still skiers, and climbers and river runners.
After twenty-five years in Albuquerque my wife and I moved to Howard, Colorado, at the very base of the high Rockies in Colorado, and again right on the western edge of the Great Plains. Actually we lived at the very base of the same Sangre de Cristo mountains we lived at the base of in Albuquerque. We were just 300 miles further north now. The Sangres literally towered over our home in Howard and the massive Collegiate range was 15 miles to the west of us.
And then twelve years ago we retired from the photography business and moved back to the Albuquerque area where we now live, high in the foothills of the Sandias.
It seems that the only place I really feel at home is on the very edge of the Great Plains within sight of the Rocky Mountains. These are the places where I have chosen to live. Everyplace I have lived has always had a view of both the Great Plains and the Rockies. I have always been able to see both from my living room window.
And, as I mentioned at the top of this post, I have always lived in small towns even though I have always seen myself as not being a small town or rural person at all. Nevertheless all of my home towns have been small towns.
Even Albuquerque is not an exception. Over 500,000 people live in Albuquerque but it is not a city. It is just a big small town with a lot of people that has none of the big city amenities like theatre or music or great restaurants or urban attitudes. Albuquerque is just a great big Casper, Wyoming in many ways.
And even when I say I live in Albuquerque, I have never really lived in urban Albuquerque. I always lived in the rural suburbs of Albuquerque. For 25 years I lived in Corrales which is a small suburb of Albuquerque along the Rio Grande River. And now I live in Placitas which is another rural suburb high in the foothills of the northern Sandias.
I’m sure that all of this says something about who I am. I guess I can’t spell that out any better than I already have in this post. I seem to be a son of the that narrow space just between the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. And I’m sure I always will be.
Here are a few more images from the edges of the plains and in the Rockies where I have lived all my life.
This post turned out to be more about the very western edge of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains than the Great Plains themselves, but I have always been attracted to the literature of the Great Plains. So here are a few Great Plains books that I have in my library that I have enjoyed.
Ian Frazier, “The Great Plains”
Carolyn Frazer, “Prairie Fires”
Larry McMurtry, “Lonesome Dove” and other books about the great plains
Linda Ray Platt, “The literature of the Great Plains”
“The Northern Great Plains: The Missouri Breaks” by Russ Manning
My Antonia by Willa Cather
The books of Annie Proulx, particularly her Wyoming stories