A crowd gathered Oct. 3, 1970, to celebrate the official opening of the then brand-new section of Interstate 80 between Walcott Junction and Laramie.
Four days later, the road had to be closed because of a winter storm.
“And the locals said, ‘We told you so,’” historian John Waggener told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday morning.
‘Snow Chi Minh Trail’
The stretch between Rawlins and Laramie has been notorious for difficult travel conditions since the days of 19th century pioneers using what was then the Overland Trail, Waggener said during a short speech earlier. He made his remarks to a crowd of federal and state transportation officials and others gathered to celebrate the official opening of a huge truck parking lot just off the Quealy Dome exit roughly 20 miles west of Laramie.
It's hoped that the new lot – which can accommodate about 90 big rigs – will give drivers a much-needed safe place to go when vicious winter storms hit along the “Snow Chi Minh Trail.”
That’s the name that travelers gave the stretch of I-80 shortly after it opened, said Waggener. He’s an archivist and historian at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center who wrote the book, “Snow Chi Minh Trail: The History of Interstate 80 Between Laramie and Walcott Junction.”
The unofficial name for that stretch of highway was derived from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a transport route that played a pivotal strategic role during the Vietnam War, which was ongoing at the time, Waggener said.
Vital Transportation Artery
Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt was on hand at Quealy Dome to lead the official ribbon-cutting for the new parking lot. Roughly 80% of the money for a $27 million project that includes the parking lot came from federal grants, he told Cowboy State Daily.
The project also includes another truck parking lot off the Fort Steele exit, as well as special “hill climbing” lanes for semis along steep stretches of I-80.
Nasty winter storms along the Walcott Junction-to-Laramie section can cause headaches for Wyomingites, but they also have national repercussions because I-80 is a vital transportation artery, Bhatt said. On a typical day, thousands of semis pass through the Quealy Dome area.
‘Can’t See Past The Hood Of My Truck’
Trucker David Nichols has driven the “Snow Chi Minh Trail” section and other dicey highways in Wyoming and the region for years.
“This spot right here (Quealy Dome) is like a dividing line. Things can be fine on this side, but you go a few miles that way and it’s a completely different road,” he told Cowboy State Daily while pointing west.
A trucker’s worst enemy between Rawlins and Laramie is wind-blown snow, he said.
“There have been times when I can’t see past the hood of my truck,” he said. “If you’re lucky, and the wind is blowing into the passenger side, you can just roll down the driver’s side window and look out to get a little better view. The rumble strips really help too. They let you know where the side of the road is, because sometimes you can’t even tell where the road is.”
Nichols said he was glad to see the parking lot open. It will give drivers who are exhausted and sometimes even “terrified” after trying to push through terrible conditions a safe place to rest and let storms blow over, he said.
He works for Akal Energy, the company that owns the truck stop and restaurant at Quealy Dome, as well as several other fuel stops along the highway.
The facilities at Quealy Dome will likely be expanded as a result of the truckers’ resting lot opening, he said.
“There’s going to be so many more people here. And what do we all like to do? We all like to eat,” he said.
‘Before Mr. Winter Comes To Visit’
Wyoming Highway Patrol Administrator Col. Tim Cameron said the new parking lot should make things safer not only for commercial drivers, but the general public and his troopers as well.
It’s hoped the parking lot will relieve some of the congestion that builds up whenever a storm is bad enough to cause rolling highway closures along the stretch between Rawlins and Cheyenne, he told Cowboy State Daily.
The parking lot will give truckers a place to get off the highway, inside of parking their rigs bumper-to-bumper along I-80 shoulders and on-ramps.
“Along a high-speed freeway like this, any time there’s parking along the shoulders, it complicates things,” he said. “I’m really enthusiastic to see this lot open. Especially now, in time for it to be before Mr. Winter comes to visit.”
Mark Heinz can be reached at email@example.com.