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Two Confirmed Dead in Explosive Riverton House Fire

in fire/News

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

Two people died in a house fire and explosion in Riverton on Monday, authorities have announced.

The Wyoming Fire Marshal’s office is investigating the fire as accidental, but its cause has not been announced.

The Riverton Volunteer Fire Department was dispatched along with police and other emergency responders at about 1 p.m. Monday to a home engulfed in flames from which loud explosions could be heard. The noise was later determined to have been caused by exploding oxygen tanks.

Neighbors on scene told Cowboy State Daily that in the fire’s early phases, officers asked them to go into their homes to avoid being hit by shrapnel from the exploding tanks. 

“Upon arrival there was heavy fire load in the house,” RVFD Chief Brian Hutchins said in a Tuesday statement. “It was confirmed there were two occupants unaccounted for. A search was conducted and two deceased occupants were found.”

RVFD had three fire vehicles and 15 firefighters on scene, and firefighters battled the flames from windows and through the fire-breached roof using a crane-raised scaffolding.

The Fremont County Sheriffs Office, Frontier Ambulance, and Fremont County Coroner’s office assisted on the scene. 

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At Least One Dead In Riverton House Fire

in fire/News

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

At least one person was killed Monday in a Riverton house fire that set off explosions involving oxygen tanks.

The identity of the person killed in the afternoon fire was not immediately released.

The large blaze gutted the home in a tightly arranged residential area of Riverton started at about 1 p.m. 

Passersby heard explosions, which Riverton Police Department Chief Eric Murphy attributed to oxygen tanks. 

At least a dozen medical oxygen tanks were heaped in the home’s front yard when a Cowboy State Daily reporter arrived on scene. 

Murphy did not know the cause of the fire as of Monday afternoon. 

Multiple fire trucks and personnel combatted the flames, which surged violently after breaching and melting the house’s metal roof. 

One truck raised a fireman carrying a hose, on a boom scaffold, over the roof, where he sprayed water directly onto the blaze as thick smoke engulfed him. 

“Just watching real heroes work,” said RPD officer Bhagya Netticumara, gesturing toward the firefighter and his peers.  

A crew equipped with oxygen and masks checked for people inside the home before 2 p.m. At 3:45 p.m., personnel wheeled a human form shrouded in black into the vehicle of the Fremont County Coroner. 

A neighbor who was home during the explosions, Gloria Ledbetter, said Judy and Larry Brockman are the residents of the home, but she did not know if they were inside during the fire. 

Ledbetter said she was praying they were not; she noted two of the couple’s vehicles were at the residence, but said they may have additional vehicles. 

Ledbetter said she was also worried for an older resident of the house, a man in a wheelchair who uses oxygen.

One of the Brockmans’ dogs scampered through the streets as the fire burned and Ledbetter said two cats escaped the flames as well.

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Fremont County Gets $37 Million For New Hospital

in News/Health care

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

The largest U.S. Department of Agriculture loan ever made in Wyoming has moved Fremont County $37 million closer to a new hospital.  

The Riverton Medical District, a nonprofit group formed in 2019 by community members, announced Monday that the USDA has awarded a $37 million low-interest loan toward the building of a new hospital north of Riverton. 

The loan, which leaves the project just $10 million short of full funding, is the largest USDA loan ever provided in Wyoming, said Corte McGuffey, an RMD board member.

The new hospital will compete with SageWest Health Care in Riverton, an idea conceived in 2018.  

“In a few months it will be four years since my former freshman P.E. teacher Janis Bradley came up with the crazy idea to do something about our hospital situation,” McGuffey said during a news conference Monday. “She called the meeting with a group of local leaders.”  

Initially, the activists wanted to remedy what they saw as the failings of SageWest, including a high rate of patients being flown out of Riverton for treatment, the 2016 closure of the Riverton obstetrics ward, the lack of ability to respond to burns and other issues.  

The obstetrics ward remains closed. Lander SageWest Health Care retained its obstetrics ward.  

“Back then the goal was not to build a new hospital,” said McGuffey. “It was to save our hospital. But meeting after meeting – in those early days – it became evident that our health care situation would not improve unless a different course was taken. 

“That’s when our cowboy ethic took over,” he continued. “We drew the line, and the mission changed to ‘Let’s build a new hospital.’”  

Riverton City Council Member Kristy Salisbury said in a later phone call that the RMD has identified other possible sources for the remaining $10 million. 

SageWest Health Care countered in an email Monday to Cowboy State Daily that the existing hospital is “committed to ensuring that the residents of Fremont County have access to high-quality, full-service hospital care close to home,” and that SageWest is “proud of our dedicated teams and all that they do to meet the healthcare needs of Fremont County at both our Riverton and Lander campuses.”

Tribal Parcel 

Plans call for the new hospital to be built on 12 acres of land, four of which were donated by the Eastern Shoshone Tribe on its 300-acre parcel north of Riverton known as the Shoshone Business Park.  

The acreage when pledged was worth about $1 million and comprised a significant portion of the equity required to secure the USDA loan.  

Riverton Medical District is purchasing the other 8 acres from the tribe for $2 million.

Competition The ‘American Way’ 

The new hospital could improve services and prices by competing with the existing facility, according to John St. Clair, chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe.  

“It’s going to provide much-needed medical services, for not only Riverton, but the entire community,” he said. “But beyond that, it will provide a level of competition to the  services that currently exist. 

“Competition,” St. Clair continued, “will hopefully result in better prices for our people to pay for those services. We know that competition is the basis for our economy – and more than that, it’s the American way.” 

Many Eastern Shoshone Tribal members live near Riverton on the Wind River Indian Reservation, along with members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe.  

Billings Medical Clinic 

RMD last year signed a letter of intent to affiliate with the Billings Medical Clinic.  

Dr. Scott Ellner, Billings Medical Clinic CEO, told the crowd Monday that his organization emphasizes locally-controlled healthcare, and intends to keep medical decision-making in local hands.  

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Three Charged In Connection With Riverton Murder, One More Suspect To Be Arrested

in News/Crime

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Two Fremont County men have been charged with murder in connection with the 2019 shooting death of two Riverton residents and a third man faces a lesser charge in the incident.

In addition, a fourth person is to be charged in connection with the shooting deaths of Jocelyn Watt and Rudy Perez, according to Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun.

LeBrun told Cowboy State Daily that Bryce Teran and Patrick Sunrhodes Jr. have each been charged with two counts of felony murder, while Korbin Headley has been charged with conspiracy to commit aggravated burglary.

He added the fourth person, also a Fremont County resident, is scheduled to be charged.

LeBrun declined to comment further on the case.

The bodies of Watt, a member of the Northern Arapahoe tribe, and Perez were found in their Riverton home in January 2019. Following her murder, Watt’s family heavily promoted the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement.

Watt’s sister, Jade Wagon, was also murdered last year, in an unconnected case.

The Watt and Perez murders have been investigated by the Riverton Police Department, the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office, the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation and the FBI.

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Daughter Still Searching for Missing Riverton Woman Three Decades Later

in Missing people/News

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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

Kelly Pehringer was 14 when her mom Kathleen disappeared from their Riverton home in 1989.

The last time Kelly saw her, Kathleen was standing at the front door in her bathrobe as Kelly headed off to school. 

Today, more than three decades after Kathleen’s disappearance, Kelly continues to seek answers about what happened that day.

For Kelly, that morning marked a new beginning as she woke up resolved to be a better kid. Her actions in recent months had landed Kelly in a group home and she was very happy to once again be home with her mom. 

She’d been acting like a brat, she realized, and had resolved to do better beginning with not fighting Kathleen about going to school.  

They parted on a pleasant note that morning, and after school, Kelly came home with a couple buddies. Oddly, her mom was gone and hadn’t left a note. 

Odder still was the fact that her mother’s normally overflowing ashtray on the coffee table in the living room had been cleaned and was empty — except for two cigarette butts. One she recognized as her mother’s while the other she identified as belonging to her mom’s new friend Donald Pack, based on the way he always “squinched” the filter down to a tiny nub.

Admittedly, Kelly was not a fan of Pack. In fact, he creeped her out ever since he started coming over to see her mother, ostensibly with the excuse of buying her computer.

He was a friend of Kathleen’s ex-boyfriend and began hanging out after the two broke up.

The afternoon that Kathleen disappeared, Pack stopped by looking for Kelly’s mother. He said he’d been over that morning, too, and she wasn’t home then either. He asked if he could come in and use their telephone. 

Kelly reluctantly let him in and watched while he quickly dialed a number and waited a few seconds before hanging up without leaving a message. 

That struck Kelly odd at the time because their phone was “old and crappy” and some of the digits stuck when you tried to press them.

For this reason, it was nearly impossible to make a quick call. And why had he just hung up without saying anything, she wondered?

He left after using the phone. Kelly then went over to a friend’s, leaving her mom a note.

When she came home later that night for dinner, the note was still there and there was no sign of her mother. When Kathleen still hadn’t returned, Kelly called a friend whose mother came and got her, then they called her grandmother who also had not seen Kathleen.

Then they called the police. 

When questioned, Kelly shared her suspicions about Pack having something to do with her mother’s disappearance. It’s not clear from the police report obtained from the Riverton Police Department whether Pack or anyone else was ever questioned in Kathleen’s disappearance.

All that’s on file is a sparsely written report with basic details shared by Kelly about that morning.

Kathleen had not indicated that she had plans of going anywhere, no clothing was taken and her car was still parked in its normal spot behind the house.

According to RPD Captain Wesley Romero, this is the only document still on file from the 32-year-old case. Any detectives who may have worked the case have long since retired and no active members of the staff have any knowledge of Kathleen’s disappearance.

Kelly doesn’t know if Riverton police ever interviewed Pack. She can’t remember much from that time although she recalls she asked the police to contact her brother Frankie, who was in prison, to inform him that their mother was gone. Later, she learned Frankie was told about his mother’s disappearance by a friend.  

What she does remember vividly, however, is the way her entire life was turned upside down.

With her mother gone, Kelly became a ward of the state and was put into foster care after deciding not to go live with her grandparents — who she did not get along with — or her father, who had remarried and started a new family.

Instead, she cycled in and out of foster homes, one worse than the next as she struggled in the wake of her mom’s disappearance. As a senior, she was placed in a girls group home in Lander, where she was able to graduate from high school. Had it not been for that last placement, she’s certain that she never would have made it through school.

“Those four years were living hell,” Kelly said last week from her home in Sheridan, where she now lives with her father as they two continue working to repair their relationship. 

Now in her late 40s, Kelly is sober after years of alcohol and drug abuse. Though she’s attempting to get her life together, the emotional scars continue to haunt her as she struggles with a myriad of psychological issues.

Over the years, she’s turned to a mediums and empaths for insights into what might have happened to her mom. The closest she came was a medium who told her that Kathleen loved her and was proud of her but wanted Kelly to stop looking for her.

Her mother was smiling at her daughter from the other side, the medium told her, which Kelly believes is her mother’s attempt to keep Kelly from knowing the details of what actually happened to her.

Over the years, the Riverton Police Department handed off the case to the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, where it remains open. A request to see the case file report was denied by the agency, according to Ronnie Jones, DCI Region 2 operations commander, who said the agency does not comment on open cases.

All Kelly has to go on is what she can remember, including a visit from two female detectives who found her in a treatment facility around 2006, asking to take a sample of her DNA.

They’d apparently searched a property outside of Riverton that could be linked to Pack and had searched the grounds with cadaver dogs. The dogs had repeatedly returned to an area where they’d found a plastic bag buried underground that were testing for Pack and Kathleen’s DNA.

In the end, the bag was too old to recover any DNA, Kelly said.

However, it appears that Pack had been on DCI’s radar, according to a Feb. 2, 2018 article in Jackson Hole News & Guide. As DCI agents searched for evidence in a locker at the Jackson Police Department, they recovered underwear belonging to a rape victim dating back to the late 1970s that tested positive for Pack’s DNA. 

His DNA was by then on file from a prior arrest and prison sentence for a rape in 1976 in Sublette County that led to his imprisonment for an unknown period of time before he was released in the mid-1980s, approximately two years before he met Kathleen.

Kelly sat with the two rape victims at Pack’s trial in Jackson in 2018, where he was sentenced to eight to 12 years in prison. Pack reportedly confessed to the rapes and apologized to the victims during his trial, saying he’d committed them for the thrill, according to the Jackson Hole News & Guide, but he denied having anything to do with Kathleen’s disappearance.  

Attending Pack’s trial with the two other victims had been empowering for her, Kelly said.

It was the closest she’s come to feeling like one day her mom’s body will be found and there will be justice. 

Kathleen is one of 51 Wyoming residents listed on the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NAMUS). 

Anyone with information about the case or Kathleen’s whereabouts is asked to contact the Wyoming DCI at (307) 777-7181.

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Riverton Man Sentenced To Jail For Assaulting Indian Affairs Officer At Casino

in News/Crime

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A Riverton man has been sentenced to a little more than a year in prison after being convicted of assaulting a U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs officer earlier this year.

Leo Michael Duran, 26, was sentenced to 18 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised released on his conviction on a charge of assaulting a federal law enforcement officer. The sentenced was imposed this week in U.S. District Court.

Duran pleaded guilty to the charge in May.

According to court information, during the early morning of Jan. 23, security staff at the Wind River Hotel and Casino were in the process of escorting Duran from the premises and a Bureau of Indian Affairs officer arrived to assist.

While the officer was placing handcuffs on him, Duran turned on him and began throwing punches and causing himself and the officer to fall to the ground, according to reports

Duran got up and ran away, heading down the highway toward Riverton.

The officer made it back to his patrol vehicle and pursued Duran, completing the arrest with the assistance of Fremont County Sheriff deputies.

“We are extremely proud of BIA Law Enforcement and recognize the dangers they face while protecting the citizens of the Wind River Reservation,” said Acting United States Attorney Bob Murray. “Duran’s actions show his complete disregard for law enforcement and a lack of good decision making. This type of assault is not something we take lightly, and such cases will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

This crime was investigated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with the assistance from Fremont County Sheriff’s Department.

“FBI Denver thanks our partners at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Law enforcement officers put their lives on the line every day to keep our communities safe. Mr. Duran’s violent response to contact from a federal law enforcement officer jeopardized the officer’s safety and that of the community they serve,” said FBI Denver Special Agent in Charge Michael Schneider. “The FBI stands by our law enforcement partners against violent criminals who pose a threat to the community.”

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Riverton Student Names New Supercomputer

in News/Good news
Wyoming NCAR Supercomputer
Courtesy: ©UCAR; photo by Carlye Calvin

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A Riverton middle school student got the opportunity last week to name one of the world’s fastest supercomputers.

Cael Arbogast submitted the winning name “Derecho” for the new system being installed at the National Center for Atmospheric Research Wyoming Supercomputing Center in Cheyenne.

The term “derecho,” derives from the Spanish word for “direct” or “straight ahead,” and refers to a line of powerful and damaging storms that often pack hurricane-force winds and unleash heavy rains and flooding. It’s the type of destructive weather event that scientists hope to learn more about by using the new supercomputer to conduct advanced simulations of atmospheric conditions and other aspects of the Earth’s system.

“I picked this name because a derecho is an intense, widespread and fast-moving windstorm that travels long and great distances bringing many storms with it,” Arbogast wrote with his submission. “This new supercomputer has to move at fast speed for everybody to use all across the country. I thought this name would be a good fit provided that lots of scientists and others will be using this computer all across the country and for weather all throughout the world.”

“Derecho” was selected out of more than 200 submissions from K-12 students all over Wyoming.

Derecho will become operational in early 2022. Built by Hewlett Packard Enterprise, the supercomputer will have the theoretical ability to perform 19.87 quadrillion calculations per second.

That is about 3.5 times the speed of scientific computing performed by the current NWSC supercomputer, “Cheyenne.”

“We are very excited to have such a meaningful name for this powerful new supercomputer,” said Anke Kamrath, director of NCAR’s Computational & Information Systems Laboratory. “The state of Wyoming has been a wonderful home for the supercomputing center, and we could not be more pleased that ‘Derecho’ comes from a Wyoming student.”

Once it begins operations, Derecho is expected to rank among the top 25 or so fastest supercomputers in the world.

“This name is perfect,” said Ed Synakowski, vice president for research and economic development at the University of Wyoming. “Cael’s suggestion projects intensity, directionality, connectedness and complexity. The name immediately conveys that one is talking about a machine that is exciting and purposeful. The students stepped up beautifully in offering this and other great candidate names for this new system.”

Derecho will be used to advance the Earth system sciences, enabling researchers to better understand a range of phenomena that affect society, from hurricanes and seismic activity to climate change and solar storms.

Although it won’t be used for forecasting, Derecho will help scientists improve the tools needed to better predict severe weather, flooding and other damaging events.

“Our school and community are beyond proud of our student, Cael, for being selected for this prestigious honor,” said Riverton Middle School Principal Aziz Waheed. “To be able to name one of the fastest supercomputers for the National Center for Atmospheric Research is not something many people in the world can say they have done.”

Funding for Derecho, which will cost $35 million to $40 million, comes from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

NCAR also works with Wyoming schools to highlight the importance of scientific research and the opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers.

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Wyoming rodeo stock company named PRCA’s top stock contractor

in Community/Agriculture/arts and culture

A rodeo stock company based near Riverton has been recognized by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association for providing consistently high quality bucking stock.

Powder River Rodeo recently won the PRCA’s Polaris Ranger Remuda Awards.

“It’s our ninth time for being nominated for stock contractor of the year,” said Lori Franzen, who founded the business with her husband Hank 35 years ago. “Which to me is one of the nicest honors you can get because you’re going against about 90 other contractors across the nation and to have the people vote you as one of the top five contractors is a huge honor.”

Powder River Rodeo has grown into a family operation from a two-person company.

“It was just us working from the beginning,” Franzen said. “We’d go out and round up pastures and haul in the cattle and the horses and the livestock to the rodeo (with) me timing and helping secretary and Hank running all ends of it. It’s just come to a culmination of now it is a huge family operation. We’re very proud of the fact that after 35 years, we have what we have.”

Powder River Rodeo is taking nine bucking horses and five bulls to the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in December.

Riverton Rendezvous: 39th Annual Balloon Rally This Weekend

in Travel

The catch phrase for this weekend will be “Up, Up and Away” as balloonists from across the region take advantage of the Wind River Valley’s calm weather for the annual Riverton Rendezvous and Balloon Rally.

Fourteen balloonists from as far away as California, Utah and even Canada are set to take part in the 39th annual rally, started in 1981 as an event to celebrate Riverton’s Diamond Jubilee.

Balloon flights can be tricky in Wyoming because of the state’s windy conditions, but Riverton, inside the Wind River Valley, sees better flying conditions than most areas, said Eric Carr, chairman of the Riverton Rendezvous and Balloon Rally Committee.

“We have exceptional weather for ballooning in the mornings here,” he said. “We can get some wind, but by and large, this region of the state is one of the least windiest parts of the state.”

Events scheduled for the weekend include balloon flights Saturday and Sunday, along with live music, a radio controlled airplane demonstration, a fireworks display and a “balloon glow,” a nighttime event when balloons are inflated so the flames that heat the balloons illuminate their designs.

All of the balloons appearing in Riverton are sponsored by local businesses and many flights on Saturday and Sunday will be with representatives of the businesses, Carr said.

However, flights for the general public are also available. Tickets can be purchased by calling Riverton City Hall at (307) 856-2227.

Riverton even has two of its own balloons, “Cloud Kisser II” and “Cloud Kisser III” that will be present for the event. The two balloons visit various ballooning events to promote the Riverton rally.

A balloon flight can be a unique experience, Carr said.

“You just kind of let go,” he said. “To just get up in the air and it is so quiet you can hear everything. There’s no motor,  no propeller, you’re just up in the air floating around. So it’s a really, really unique sensation.”

Events kick off Friday with a barbecue for the balloonists featuring keynote speaker Cheri White, a Texas pilot who has won a number of awards form various ballooning organizations.

The dinner will be followed by the Rocky Mountain Rebels Car and Bike “Friday Night Cruise,” a parade through downtown Riverton.

Flights begin Saturday morning when the balloons take off from Central Wyoming College at 6 a.m., followed by tethered balloon rides at 7 a.m.

The balloon glow will be held at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, followed by a fireworks show at 10 p.m.

The balloons will take to the air again at 6 a.m. Sunday.

For more information on the rally, visit its website at RivertonRendezvous.com or its page on Facebook.

Visit Riverton for Mountain Man Rendezvous at real rendezvous site

in Travel
1838 Mountain Man Rendezvous
Re-enactors from the 1838 Mountain Man Rendezvous walk through Riverton in the event’s annual parade. The event’s opening ceremonies will be held Wednesday and will run through Saturday. (Photo courtesy of the 1838 Mountain Man Rendezvous)

The beaver fur trade may be long gone, but there’s still a way to get a glimpse of how things looked when the fur trappers and mountain men of the mid-1800s got together.

The 1838 Mountain Man Rendezvous, the only rendezvous reenactment held at the actual site of a rendezvous staged more than a century ago, will run through the weekend in Riverton.

Featuring people dressed as mountain men and activities such as black powder shooting demonstrations, tomahawk and knife competitions and dutch-oven cooking, the event is a recreation of the gatherings held annually when fur trappers would meet to sell their wares to companies, said Rick Lechner, who has been involved in the rendezvous for a number of years.

A re-enactor at the 1838 Mountain Man Rendezvous in Riverton prepares to take part in black powder shooting. The annual gathering, to be held this weekend, features people dressed in period clothing taking part in activities that would have been common for the “mountain men” of the mid-1800s. (Photo courtesy of the 1838 Mountain Man Rendezvous)

“A rendezvous was where the trappers would come out of the mountains and fur companies would come from places like St. Louis and they would do their trading there every summer,” said Lechner, who goes by the name of “Smoking Hawk” while wearing his mountain man clothing. “It was a time for the trappers to blow off some steam, have some fun and sell their furs.”

The 1838 rendezvous was one of the last held in the Rockies as silk replaced beaver pelts in the manufacturing of hats, Lechner said, but it was also one of the largest on record.

“That was the last big rendezvous because the silk industry came in,” he said. “There were over 1,000 horses and mules. They would set up a main area for trade, but then they would go up and down the river for several miles.”

The event’s activities center around what would have been common skills for the period, including starting a fire with flint and steel, trap setting, skinning, dutch oven cooking, black powder shooting and embroidery.

Events begin with opening ceremonies on Wednesday and continue throughout the weekend at the camp near the Popo Agie River.

Dressing in period clothing is encouraged, but not required.

For more information, visit the Rendezvous website or see its page on Facebook.

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