Wyoming Border to Border and on to North Platte

Barney and I had visited Yellowstone, Jackson Hole, and the Tetons on a previous road trip, so I didn’t head north when I left Layton, Utah, for North Platte, Nebraska. Instead, the first part of my longest solo driving day took me border to border across southern Wyoming. At times, the wide horizon and rust-colored hills made it feel as if I were driving along in front of a massive IMAX travel feature. I stayed so busy enjoying the windshield panorama that I didn’t pull over for many photos.

First stop was Rock Springs. Because I grew up in a small town of about 23,000 in northern Ohio, it was difficult to grasp that Rock Springs, the fifth most populated city in all of Wyoming, has a population of only 23,306 according to the last census. Back in the day, this “city” served as a rest stop for a number of notorious outlaws. Robert Leroy Parker worked as a butcher here in his younger, more innocent days—thus, the nickname Butch Cassidy.

Mugshot of a former Rock Springs butcher about 1894

I drove on through the high-altitude Red Desert, which includes the Great Divide Basin—the largest area of “contiguous endorheic watersheds” in North America. If you, like me, don’t remember this terminology from your college geology course, here’s a plain English translation based on a couple Google searches—Water in this basin comes mainly from snow melt and rains. It drains down into the basin, which has no outflow to rivers or other major bodies of water, so it collects in mainly seasonal swamps and ponds that support a broad range of wildlife, including herds of pronghorn sheep and wild horses as well as migratory birds like trumpeter swans and white pelicans, none of which showed off that day for me.

Red Desert/Great Divide Basin

Portions of the historic Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails once ran just north of where I was driving, all leading west to the South Pass across the Continental Divide. My route east basically followed what had once been an Overland Stage Line route and later the route of the Union Pacific portion of the transcontinental railroad that was completed in 1869. Most towns along the way began as railroad stops.

Travel across Wyoming has improved since this photo was taken near Laramie.

Barney and I had checked both Laramie and Cheyenne off our bucket list several years before, and I needed to be in Omaha the next afternoon to catch up with my nephew’s family and meet Roger and Meredith’s plane, so I pushed on into Nebraska, headed for my overnight stop at North Platte.

The thing I found most interesting about North Platte was what had been called the Service Men’s Canteen, which opened in the city’s Union Pacific Railroad Station beginning in December 1941, just days after Pearl Harbor. Its history has been preserved by the Lincoln County Historical Museum.

Apparently, there had been a small canteen on this site during World War I, and at the holidays in 1941, a young woman named Rae Wilson wrote to the local newspaper editor suggesting the canteen tradition be revived for the many soldiers once again coming through North Platte on trains chugging west to staging locations like Camp Stoneman near San Francisco for troops destined for the Pacific Theater. Her letter sparked a volunteer effort that eventually involved 12,000 volunteers who served up coffee, sandwiches, desserts and Midwestern hospitality to at least six million service men and women over a period of more than four years.

Troop trains stopped in North Platte because it was a designated “tender point” for steam trains. Railroad crews relubricated wheels, topped off water levels in the tanks, and performed other maintenance while soldiers enjoyed a respite from their long journey.

Fayetteville, NC 1944

My father, Lawrence E. Beaumont, had been drafted and stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, since June 1942, just weeks after he and my mother were married. In late November 1944, he was assigned to the newly formed 543rd Field Artillery battalion, was ordered to the Pacific and boarded a train heading west on December 14. How difficult that must have been, just two weeks before Christmas—the first Christmas he would have spent with his wife and baby daughter (me), born the previous January.

Their train cars had seats but no sleepers for the cross-country trip. Though his diary for that year does not mention stopping in North Platte, I like to think perhaps he and his buddies enjoyed a nice break and a good meal there, thanks to those dedicated volunteers.

Following tours of duty in Hawaii and then the Philippines, my father finally returned to San Francisco aboard the Marine Perch on Christmas Eve 1945. After spending Christmas Day with a California family who were strangers except in terms of their kindness and warm hospitality, he finally boarded an eastbound train headed home. Perhaps, once again, he enjoyed a brief respite in North Platte before traveling on to Camp Atterbury in south central Indiana where his separation from military duty occurred on January 6, 1946.

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