Monday, August 21st, 2006

It was raining when we left Laramie, the first decent rain they’d had here in weeks. We headed north through the town of Medicine Bow, toward Casper, and the rain followed.

But we outran it and sunny skies welcomed us to east-central Wyoming. In Casper we met D—–, a colleague, and began a long, hard quest to locate and purchase three inner tubes for a “planned” float trip down the North Platte.

I say “planned” because the idea was not original or in any way dangerous but the execution suffered from an acute case of collective stupidity. We assumed finding inner tubes would be no problem. But WalMart had nothing. Target had nothing. The local sporting goods store had nothing besides some expensive dirigible that motorboats pull behind them. Somewhere else we found a kind of floating couch — on the box, in soft focus, lounged a big-haired, scantily clad model, dressed all in white, a kind of floating goddess figure — that resembled something a Bond girl might be introduced reposing on.

None of this would do. Finally D—– had the bright common-sense idea to go to a tire outlet, where they were only too happy to accommodate us for $17 a tube. They even inflated them for us. Perhaps too much, it turned out.

On to the river. The North Platte runs through the town of Casper, Wyoming’s second city, bisecting a former Superfund site that has been transformed into a golf course and park. A bike/hike path follows the river, cutting through the kind of anonymous brown vegetation that when uprooted supplies the West with tumbleweeds. In a couple places the river speeds up enough to offer mild whitewater; on the eve of our big trip, however, we thought to avoid the kind of ironic calamity that makes for the best news reports, and portaged past the more rapid sections.

(D—– had no such qualms and cruised face-first through all the hot spots, getting nothing worse than a face full of water.)

The Platte is actually a very smooth, green river, deep and broad, and cold even in August. Kayakers were everywhere; some punk kids even did a little waterboarding against the stream in the roughest places. We had less control: inner tubes, as I discovered (this was my first float: I prefer canoes), resist most efforts at navigation. I’m not sure if our tubes’ state — inflated to capacity, tight as drums — made this worse or better.

This story is starting to bog down in the details, so to speak, so I’ll cut to the drama. After about two miles — and after we’d passed through the most difficult spots — D—– and I moved momentarily to the riverbank to wait for a lagging Lisa, who was caught in an eddy upstream. As I caught his arm and swung into the bank, my overinflated tube hit a protruding stick at, apparently, exactly the wrong angle. And suddenly I was swimming in the Platte.

Given my recent watercraft follies, I should have expected this. So should anyone present at our disastrous farewell canoe trip on the Potomac. But even overlooking that miserable afternoon, going back years to when we lived in Wyoming, one particularly bad event should have given me a lifetime of pause when it comes to moving waters.

Back then (I think it was 1999) I had the unfortunate honor to be the first of my river guide friend’s passengers to be ejected midstream into a Class 2 rapid on the Upper Colorado. Now, Class 2 doesn’t sound so bad. But see how you feel about it from the middle of the river, bouncing off rocks and unable to get your head above water. At any rate it was that experience that taught me I can indeed swim, swiftly and surely and to rival any Olympian, when the situation demands.

The situation on the North Platte did not demand it, despite the shock of the explosion. So perhaps because my life was not in danger, my emergency faculties failed to ignite, and my self-respect suffered the consequences. Oh well.

D—– and Lisa finished the float (a disgruntled fast food employee earned some negative karma by throwing a milkshake at her from a bridge, narrowly missing), and I walked the remaining distance, occasionally cross country, disrupting the repose of several jack rabbits and hobos.

It was soon after, immediately following the ceremonial post-float drinks, that the weather we’d left in Laramie caught up with us.

If you’ve never seen a Western dust storm, I have disappointing news: We didn’t take any photos. We were too busy avoiding blindness. A great yellow cloud descended on Casper and its environs (Casprawl), whipped into a frenzy by a howling wind, thicker than fog and painful as needles on the skin. A layer of grime resisted our windshield wipers; then the rain hit and the sand turned to mud. Visibility turned to nil.

We decided then to climb Casper Mountain.

Not climb it, really, but drive up it — no treat regardless. It was at this time, unbeknownst to us, that lightning struck the far side of the mountain and ignited what became, the next day, one of the worst fires in years to hit the area. By the time the conflagration was mostly contained this week, it had claimed seven cabins and some 11,800 acres of forest, and displaced hundreds of residents and campers.

We saw nothing of it. Next day the sun was shining, and after a cowboy breakfast we headed home to Laramie — but not without one more detour.

The Laramie Daily Boomerang, the estimable rag for which I once worked, has no Monday edition. So this morning I grabbed the only other Wyoming daily available in Laramie, the statewide Casper Star-Tribune.

I was pleased to note that the fire on Casper Mountain that began during our stay last week has been 85 percent contained, and all roads and domiciles are now accessible.

Then I turned to the bottom of the page and got a good, (un)healthy reminder of Wyoming prejudice.

Here’s the lead of a story titled “Unlikely Environmentalists,” lashed together “From staff and wire reports”:

“Gary Amerine doesn’t look like an environmentalist.

“He doesn’t wear Birkenstocks, tie-dye shirts or a peace sign tied around his neck with a length of hemp rope. …”

So that’s what environmentalists look like, is it? As this story appears anonymously it’s hard not to ascribe its childish views to the entire staff of the Star-Tribune; fortunately for them, I know better. I even know a couple of them: but I do not know their management since Lee Enterprises swooped down from Montana and took over operations. Perhaps if I’d been reading the Star-Trib lo these many years I wouldn’t be taken aback by this sort of thing.

Gibbon, mocking prejudice, once said: “I like to detect those who detest in a barbarian what they admire in a Greek.” This little instance captures an unfortunate and widespread mindset in this our least-populated state. It surpasses prejudice, betraying an infantile view such that a child, raised and limited in ignorant conditions, might reflexively expectorate.

And if you detect that I’m calling childish the views of much of this state — painting with the broadest of brushes — you are right. I have enough experience with Wyoming, our nation’s foremost and willingest mineral colony, to make such judgments, and make them with a degree of authority.

Yet there’s hope, always, that this kind of thing is on the way out, the exception now and not the norm. For one thing they have a popular Democratic governor here who is about to be re-elected. In the same newspaper an editorial ran that four times — including once in the headline — used the word “lie” to refer to a GOP ad campaign against Dave Freudenthal.

And that’s a bold, right (left?) thinking act. They need some more of that medicine aound these parts.