Bill Sniffin: Wyoming’s Love-Hate Relationship With Interstate 80

Bill Sniffin writes: “I am always complaining about the 12,000 to 16,000 semitrailer trucks on Interstate 80. Even if 99% are courteous and safe, that other 1% means 120-150 monsters making stupid decisions that risk the lives of all of us.”

Bill Sniffin

September 16, 20235 min read

Highway to heaven 10 6 22 scaled
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

What should I call Interstate 80? Is it Wyoming’s Highway to Heaven? Or the Highway to Hell?

A famous photo shows part of the hilly part of the highway known as the Three Sisters between Bridger Valley and Evanston that makes it appear the highway descends into a deep valley, then ascends into the clouds on the other side.

Indeed, this could be a Highway to Heaven.

But then there is that bit of lore that’s dubbed it the Snow Chi Minh Trail. During Wyoming’s wintry season, there are areas of this highway that are very dangerous. Dozens of unlucky people have died in crashes on these stretches during the horrific snow, rain, ice, fog, wind and ground blizzards that happen over nine months of the year. John Waggener’s excellent book explains how this happens.

On a recent trip, I was thinking about these facts about this old road and how it has affected me and my family since we started driving it 53 years ago exactly now.

Last Thursday, we had to pack up and make a quick drive back to Harlan in western Iowa for the funeral of Nancy’s sister, Patricia. And the road was just as long as I remembered it being during all those previous trips.

Since Interstate 80 is just 10 miles south of Harlan, it was easy to hop on this national freeway and drive straight through. From Rawlins, that is a 700-mile jaunt straight east.

Over the past more than half century, we estimate we have made that 840-mile one-way trip from Lander to Harlan 120 times. And it sure causes one to develop a deep dislike for Nebraska, which is totally unfair. These are nice folks and we have never had a problem with any of the Cornhusker locals. But that stretch from Pine Bluffs to Omaha can really wear on you.

Back in the early 1970s, we drove this trip in an old Ford two-door sedan with rear-wheel drive. Now that was tricky during icy conditions.

We built a wooden platform to fit over the back seat so our three young daughters could play back there. No concern about seat belts back then. We also almost always drove at night so the kids could sleep.

I used to imagine huge mountain ranges off in the distance at night as a way to slog through the miles and miles. We usually had three full thermos jugs full of hot coffee. There were very few convenience stores or truck stops back in those days.

On our first trips on this road, there was construction — and on our most recent trip there was construction. Our four Wyoming seasons are Almost Winter, Winter, Still Winter and Construction. Folks, this is construction season.

A 53-Year Love-Hate Relationship

Our love-hate relationship with Interstate 80 has lasted 53 years and it is still going strong.

I had plenty of windshield time to think about this long ribbon of pavement during that recent trip back to western Iowa for a funeral.

We were originally blessed to get the opportunity to move to Lander in 1970 when Wyoming newspaper pioneer Bruce Kennedy invited us out for a job interview. We were working in Nancy’s home town of Harlan at the time.

Lander has been a terrific town for us, but the job as newspaper publisher of the Wyoming State Journal was incredibly difficult. But that is another story.

We also have driven our 40-foot diesel pusher motorhome across that stretch probably 10 times. Cross winds can make that trip miserable when you are driving a 13-foot-high rig.

Since my colleagues at Cowboy State Daily have had so much fun at my expense concerning my ability driving an RV, I am under pressure to be as safe as possible.

For example, a few years ago we left Iowa in terrible westerly winds. We fought that headwind all the way to Cheyenne. My normal 7 mpg dropped to probably 5 mpg. It was a white-knuckle experience.

Another time, we had to drive through the hottest part of the summer and the A/C decided to quit. It was over 100 degrees and muggy inside the coach. Less than ideal. That humidity reminded me why I left the Midwest in the first place.

On this most recent trip, which was by car, we stayed at our usual places in Cheyenne and Ogallala. The Red Lion in Cheyenne and the Quality Inn in Ogallala are both former Holiday Inns and both provide good value and excellent service.

Surely It’s The Busiest Interstate, Right?

I am always complaining about the 12,000 to 16,000 semitrailer trucks on Interstate 80. Even if 99% are courteous and safe, that other 1% means 120-150 monsters making stupid decisions that risk the lives of all of us.

They average 16 tons in cargo (32,000 pounds) and barrel down the road as fast as they can go.

Surely this interstate is the busiest in the USA, right? Nope. That title goes to Interstate 90, which is a mess in the northeastern USA. But Interstate 80 comes in second. The odd thing to me about this stat is that Interstate 90, which runs from Seattle to Boston, is very benign compared to I-80 when it crosses Wyoming from Sheridan to Moorcroft.

Interstate 90 is the longest interstate highway in the USA with our Interstate 80 coming in second, with a 402-mile stretch crossing the Cowboy State.

Yes, Interstate 80 is an amazing road, but it also can be a god-awful long drive.

Share this article



Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.