Bill Sniffin: Wyoming Is Far From Being A ‘Big Empty’

Bill Sniffin writes: “From my vantage point crisscrossing the state, Wyoming doesn't look empty. It looks like a kaleidoscope of colors as river-formed canyons, big mountains and unique buttes abound all around us.”

Bill Sniffin

October 07, 20234 min read

Wyoming open road 10 8 23
(Getty Images)

If you think Wyoming is not a place of variety, just attend an event involving tourist professionals who like to boast about the sites and sights in their parts of the state.

Folks from all over the state are gathering this month in Yellowstone for the annual summit to talk about tourist attractions. It can get darn right competitive! We all love Wyoming, but most love their own regions better than others. It is fun to engage in such banter.

Those of us from the Wind River Basin never cease bragging about our Wind River Mountain Range, the Shoshone and Arapaho Indian Reservation, South Pass, Oregon Trail and Sinks Canyon.

Folks from SW Wyoming brag about the Red Desert, Flaming Gorge, the Green River, Wild Horses and Fossil Butte.

We Brag About Our Favorite Places

From Casper to Cheyenne, we hear about the North Platte River, Medicine Bow Mountains, Vedauwoo and Fort Laramie.

Northeast Wyoming folks from Sheridan to Sundance talk about the Big Horn Mountains, The Medicine Wheel, Devils Tower, Wyoming’s Black Hills, the breaks north of Lusk and Thunder Basin National Grassland.

And my friends from Jackson and Cody can be insufferable because of the Tetons and Yellowstone and all things miraculous to do with those spectacular places.

These thoughts were rolling through my head as the vast panorama of Wyoming stretched out around me as I traveled across the state this summer. We have been to all corners of Wyoming. What a spring, summer and fall it has been for seeing our Cowboy State.

It always makes a unique impression to look around and see so much space. Wyoming has such vastness. Critics might call it empty space. We locals prefer to call it open spaces.

Many tourism surveys indicate that our vast amounts of open land is one of the biggest attractions to people coming here from more populated places. There are even cases of tourism buses pulling off the road between Casper and Shoshoni to take photos of "nothing."

So much space with seemingly nothing in it is immensely impressive to the foreign visitor who lives in such crowded conditions. There have been cases of those people suffering "reverse claustrophobia." This is where they get ill from the strange feeling of being in a place so open.

Gretel Says It Best

There was a national best-selling book some years ago titled “The Solace of Open Spaces” by Gretel Ehrlich that described our vastness. Nobody has ever done it better. Some of her comments pulled from the 12 stories in the book include:

  • The geographic vastness and the social isolation here make emotional evolution seem impossible.   
  • In all this open space, values crystallize quickly. People are strong on scruples but tenderhearted about quirky behavior.
  • If anything is endemic to Wyoming, it is wind. This big room of space is swept out daily, leaving a boneyard of fossils, agates and carcasses in every stage of decay. Though it was water that initially shaped the state, wind is the meticulous gardener, raising dust and pruning the sage.
  • The emptiness of the West was for others a geography of possibility.
  • The solitude in which Westerners live makes them quiet. They telegraph thoughts and feelings by the way they tilt their heads and listen; pulling their Stetsons into a steep dive over their eyes, or pigeon-toeing one boot over the other, they lean against a fence with a fat wedge of Copenhagen beneath their lower lips and take in the whole scene. These detached looks of quiet amusement are sometimes cynical, but they can also come from a dry-eyed humility as lucid as the air is clear.
  • Sagebrush covers 50,000 square miles of Wyoming ... despite the desolate look, there's a coziness to living in this state. There are so few people ... that ranchers who buy and sell cattle know each other statewide.
  • To live and work in this kind of open country, with its hundred-mile views, is to lose the distinction between background and foreground. Ehrlich writes: “When I asked an older ranch hand to describe Wyoming's openness, he said, ‘It's all a bunch of nothing — wind and rattlesnakes — and so much of it, you can't tell where you're going or where you've been and it doesn't make much difference.’"

Ms. Ehrlich's comments were beautifully written and I'd strongly recommend people buy her book.

Wyoming Is Not Empty

From my vantage point during these trips, Wyoming didn't look empty. It looked like a kaleidoscope of colors, as river-formed valleys, mountains and hills jutted and swirled along. Patches of snow would indicate how fast or how recently the wind had been blowing across the high plains.

Wyoming isn't empty. It's full. It is just a matter of knowing what you are looking at and looking for.

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.