The Online Encyclopedia of Wyoming History

The Hazards of Winter Travel

The Hazards of Winter Travel

Weather can kill: Anyone living in tornado or hurricane country knows this. Blizzards, too, can kill, as ranchers know well from Wyoming’s spring snowstorms. But when city people drive reliable cars on the highway in the wintertime, perhaps we are somewhat less attuned to the dangers of cold and snow.

My mother didn’t trust cars. She always warned me to take plenty of food and water when traveling in the cold. I drove between Casper and Laramie all through the winter of 1973-1974 to take lessons from the cello professor at the University of Wyoming. For the next three years, I attended the university and traveled home frequently. I loved the huge sweep of land and sky, and the brilliant whites and blues surrounding me. Still, there were exceptions.

Once, riding back to Laramie with a friend on the Shirley Basin road—Wyoming Highway 487—the ground blizzard became so thick that we couldn’t see the center line, the shoulder nor the reflectors on the right side of the road. But Jay’s Volkswagen bug was heated, and we crept forward, gradually emerging into the sunshine. Thus, even that stressful experience didn’t really teach me what winter travelers in the West faced before cars. This lasted about 25 years, until I read Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!

The novel opens in a small, south-central Nebraska town in January 1883. The wind is blowing and snow is falling. “Although it was only four o’clock, the winter day was fading. The road led southwest, toward the streak of pale, watery light that glimmered in the leaden sky.” The protagonist, with a friend, starts driving her family’s horses and wagon home and soon, writes Cather, “The little town had vanished as if it had never been, had fallen behind the swell of the prairie, and the stern frozen country received them into its bosom.”

This passage cured me of my romantic view of winter travel. But that was just the beginning: It wasn’t until I began researching Wyoming history that I understood that winter could dictate whether someone lived or died. In Tom Davis’s article about the Rawlins-Fort Washakie Road, I learned that in the blizzard of 1883, three men and a young woman froze to death while traveling on stagecoaches, which were open sleds. Since then, I think much less romantically about what it is to travel in wintertime.