The day the view died
by Julianne Couch
The view of the War Memorial Stadium, seen by westbound drivers barreling down Interstate 80 just east of Laramie, Wyo., died of obstruction in August 2007. The view was 57 years old.
It had long been lauded by both newcomers and old timers as the thing that could raise goose bumps as travelers whooshed down Telephone Canyon on their way into town. Even better at triggering adrenaline than thundering semi-trucks and the now-outlawed triple trailers, nothing could excite a wheel-gripping motorist slaloming the switchbacks like the unfurling Laramie Valley, with its grassy plains, sparkling river and scattershot town. In the center of that town stood the University of Wyoming, with its tombstone-shaped dormitories ringing the football-shaped War Memorial Stadium.
It was the view of the stadium itself that said, "You've made it to Laramie." In many developing towns in the West, views of parkways, bluffs, hillsides, rivers, mountains and even homey manmade structures, long comfortable and familiar, are being blotted out by the new. Some may call it progress, but it can be hard to say goodbye.
I first saw the view during my initial visit to Wyoming in 1988, when I came to hike in the storied Wind River Mountains. A flatlander, I was on my first trip to Wyoming. As I drove west on Interstate 80 across Nebraska I could sense the earth rising under my wheels and the treeless scenery putting the land in the word “landscape.” Coming up the geologic gangplank from Cheyenne, I elevated toward the crest of the Sherman Mountains and said howdy to Abraham Lincoln -- represented in bronze at the highest point of the highway. A brief moment en pointe at the 8,640-foot pass, then the plunge toward the valley. The walls of Telephone Canyon squeezed high and tight, and seeing what lay beyond was like peering through a keyhole in a granite door. I remember every moment of that first plummet down the summit.
Switchback one: Compulsively checked the rearview mirror for looming truck-grills.
Switchback two: Resisted the urge to stomp on brakes and remembered my mountain-driving lesson to tap, tap, tap on the pedal.
Switchback three: Lost the Nebraska radio station – No more pedal steel from Rodney Crowell and his band.
Switchback four: Wondered what this death trap would be like in winter.
Switchback five: There it was, my first glimpse of the entrance to the real West. The secret door swung open into the Laramie Valley, dominated by the view. It was so beautiful I almost drove off the road.
I discovered the Wind Rivers on that trip but I don’t remember the hikes the way I remember that drive. The view, even more than the Winds, kept calling and eventually I repeated my trip, this time searching for a job and place to live in Laramie. Then I drove that summit often. I saw plenty of truck grills in my rearview, stomped on brakes lest I hit an elk, left the radio off and found out to my horror what Telephone Canyon was like in winter. But every time I saw that view, the thrill was the same as the first.
Alas, now, the view is gone, vanished, the victim of progress. These days when motorists approach Laramie through the tight canyon they see a new view -- the university’s just-built conference center, hotel and shopping complex. Sure, the stadium still stands, but the vista that says you’ve arrived in Laramie is gone.
In a so-far unchanged nook of Laramie, about a mile as the crow flies from the stadium, stands my home. It sits on the crest of a high hill, and the view from my second-story bedroom in summer is of the tops of tall cottonwoods and poplars. In winter, after those trees lose their leaves, I see open sky and the neighborhood across a park. But this fall, when the last stubborn leaves vacated the trees, I noticed something new in the clearing. There was the face of the conference center, with its hotel and stores and restaurants, shimmering in the season’s low sun.
I wonder what the hotel charges for a meeting room? It seems an appropriate location to hold a wake for a view I cherished – one that endured for 57 years.
Julianne Couch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High County News (hcn.org). She writes in Laramie, Wyoming. © High Country News