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Sam Lightner

Sam Lightner: Climbing Is Booming And Lander Is The Center Of Its Growth

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By Sam Lightner Jr., Cowboy State Daily

It started with the first peoples of Wyoming. Hundreds, and perhaps even thousands of years ago, descendants of the first tribes to set foot in Wyoming climbed to the high summits.

Perhaps to acquire a name, see into the future, or even possibly just because it was fun, our predecessors climbed Wyoming’s mountains. We know this from their legends, but also because relics of this past have been found on peaks like the Grand Teton and Young Mountain. Mountaineering and Wyoming have been linked for as long as people have been here.

In 1965, famed mountaineer Paul Petzoldt chose to make Lander the base for his National Outdoor Leadership School. He could have created the company in Jackson, Boulder, Tahoe, or Seattle, but he didn’t. Petzoldt picked central Wyoming, and his choice has left Lander with a large scale employer and outdoor-oriented population who want to be close to the mountains.

Lander is a wonderful community, and this no-doubt influenced Petzoldt’s choice, but central Wyoming has the right geology and geography to seal the deal.

From a mountaineer’s perspective, Lander has everything you need to take part in the sport. Obviously the granite walls of the Wind River Range and Granite Range (Sweetwater Rocks) are a draw, but the Tensleep Sandstone in our canyons offers cracks and clean faces for traditional climbing. Then there is the Bighorn Dolomite, with bulging caves riddled with solution pockets. This stone is unique to Wyoming, but it’s world-famous to climbers. Easy access to Sinks Canyon, which stays warm enough to climb through the winter, is a huge draw to Lander. And if that’s not enough, it’s an easy drive to the ice climbs of Dubois and Cody.

Sinks has been a recreational playground for Landerites for 100-plus years, but we also have access to the crags of the Little Popo Agie Canyon (Wolf Point) and Limestone Mountain (Wild Iris). The quality of the climbing and the beauty of those places make mountain towns in Colorado and Utah green with envy.

And you can see this every weekend by checking the license plates in the parking lots of the climbing areas. The Greenies aren’t staying home to climb on their less than stellar stone. They are coming here, as are folks who claim “The Greatest Snow on Earth” (Utah), because our rock climbing areas and outdoor-lifestyle are simply better. 

The community of Lander is actually recognized around the world as one of the greatest places to live as a climber.  Mountaineers from Europe, Africa, Asia, and of course North America, make our town “home,” and far more come to visit. This, in turn, is giving us a recreation based economy that insulates our community from Wyoming’s sad pattern of boom and bust.

Most non-climbers don’t realize this, but a visit by the average American climber is very good for your bottom line. A study done a few years ago found the typical climber has at  least 4 years of post-high school education and an income of over $90,000. We may see tents and Primus stoves in City Park in the summer, but there are also a lot of $100,000-plus Sprinter vans whose owners buy beer at the Lander Bar, dinner at Mulino, and stock up on camping supplies at Wild Iris and Mr. D’s. That is good for all of us.

The single biggest week for climbing in Lander takes place in mid-July. That is when the Central Wyoming Climbers Alliance, a local non-profit that works for the local climbing community,  hosts the International Climbers Festival (ICF). Now in its 27th consecutive year (yes, we secretly had one during COVID!), the ICF is the longest running climber’s festival in the world. It brings in thousands of climbers who want to learn from the pros, get inspired by newly released films,  and simply commune among their peers.

“The Climber’s Festival is an amazing event,” says Josie McKee, a pro-climber who is the executive director of the CWCA. “It draws together local climbers, internationally recognized pro’s, visitors from all over the world, and the people of Lander and central Wyoming. The fact that we have been successfully doing this for 27 years, longer than anyone else in the world, shows Lander is the right place for it.”

Lander is becoming one of the recreation capitals of the country, and it owes much of this to the sport of climbing. Lander’s mountain biking community, which has its origins with the influx of climbers, is growing by leaps and bounds. Growing companies like Maven and Butora have chosen to make Lander their home, and others are said to be considering a move.

Lander has a lot of wonderful attributes… relatively warm winters, plenty of water, clean air, and happy residents (who are at least tolerant of each other) are just a few. Our outdoor recreation, be that hunting, hiking, biking, or climbing, is another, and the last of those is continuing to grow in popularity.

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Sam Lightner: Project Boredom Buster: Here’s a Shameless Plug!

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By Sam Lightner Jr. 

OK, you can’t take the bad out of driving Interstate 80 across Wyoming.  I understand that. 

It seems like nine out of 10 times we do that trek the wind is blowing like a tempest and it’s snowing horizontally. There are semi-trucks in the left lane, barely in control as they ignore the ever-present ice. And when you’re not dodging them you are punching the steering wheel in frustration at some slow semi passing another slightly slower semi, again in the left lane. 

Yo! Just keep your Peterbilt out of the left lane (unless carrying my Amazon Prime order, then hurry up). 

We can’t get rid of the frustrations, but we could make them more interesting. That was the inspiration for Project Boredom Buster.

Boredom Buster would be an audio book sharing Wyoming’s most interesting historic stories as you drove the interstate. Tales of the debauchery at “Hell on Wheels” towns, the Wild Bunch accidentally blowing up a rail car, then doing it again, wild parties thrown by mountain men in the form of a Rendezvous, and what inspired the name of Killpecker Sand Dunes could make that drive into an Equality State fiesta. 

I contacted TravelStorysGPS in Jackson, and they had the app for it. The narratives just play from your phone when you get near a given site. I just needed to write some of the content.  

So, I did. I recorded it too, with a fancy-shmancy new microphone delivered by Amazon Prime. On time. 

So, I found myself back in paragraph one … I’d have to drive I-80 in January to be sure the program was working correctly. 

In these COVID-times, we around the Lightner household don’t get too many outings, so a trip would have been nice,  but driving from Nebraska to Utah was not the vacation I was looking for. But beggars can’t be vacationers, I guess. 

I consulted Dasher, my 19 pound fuzzy son, and he was game for a big “bye-bye.” We loaded the truck, kissed the wife, and aimed the windshield toward Pine Bluffs. 

One only has to get close to I-80 to have the weather set in. About 10 miles north of Rawlins the crosswinds started grabbing the truck. Dasher had to get out and mark some stuff, so we pulled over near the famed Rawlins Red Paint mines. Yep. 50-plus mph. Dasher got back in the truck, shivering in both cold and fear of the gale.

We hit the big road, formerly the Lincoln Highway, and the app kicked in. There I was, yapping about Sinclair (formerly Parco), Fort Steele (formerly Fremont’s camp site), and Walcott, which should not be confused with Wolcott. All played well. 

Then of course it was Elk Mountain. We weren’t in Lander any more…. they had snow, and waves of it were matching our speed. Trucks in all four lanes, that being left, right, the left barrow pit and the right barrow pit. Par for January.  

You ever notice how stuck trucks seem to never have an associated truck driver? It’s odd. Maybe there’s a sci-fi book in that. 

Anyway, we passed through Laramie, and then up to Vedauwoo, my voice commenting on such things as the bronze bust of Lincoln and the Ames Brothers monument. Dasher said he need to mark again. 

“Here, buddy? We’re going east at 80 mph and I have the truck in neutral!” 

There was that look: when you gotta go, you gotta go. 

We pulled over near the Lone Pine and I angled the truck so the door was protected, then opened it. Dasher stepped onto my lap and looked outside. 

“Nope, I can hold it.”

Ninety minutes later we were doing an illegal U-turn in Nebraska. I figure I can say this here cuz everyone knows the Nebraska Highway Patrol can’t read. Dasher took advantage of a dusty corn field, and we sped back west. Talk of Fort Laramie, Frontier Days, the former town of Sherman, and Curt Gowdy flowed correctly. The truck did not. Way too much headwind kept us moving slow. 

By the time we reached Elk Mountain the road had a nice shine. Not that white ice you get when its snowed a lot, but that almost clear, glazed donut-stuff that forms when old snowflakes have been tumbled across it all day. It’s a Wyoming thing… Krispy Kreme invented the Glazed Donut, WYDOT the Glazed Pavement. 

Dash and I spent the night in Rawlins, elevation 6,834, population 9,260, wind chill -46. We had a great Larb Gai from Anong’s, and spent the night dreaming of Big Nose Parrott and his taxidermist-doctor. 

The next morning the headwind had abated to some degree… probably no more than an 8 on the Beaufort Scale. We then followed the Cherokee Trail, saw Wamsutter turn from Washakie and the site of that silly Wild Bunch blowing up another rail car. How many times can you make that mistake? 

All audio was working as we passed the site of the Chinese Race Riots and that naughty Killpecker business, then Wesley Powell’s launching point in Green River, the worlds largest trona reserves, followed by tanking up with the Little America penguin.  Just Jim Bridger’s haunt, mountain man partying, and a brief bit on that little thing we call the Mormon Civil War, and we were in Utah. It had worked.

Dash saluted the Beehive State, as he likes to do, and we turned for Lander. I can say now that I am quite proud of this project. Our state has an interesting history, and a good bit of it can be learned while driving I-80, even in winter.

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Sam Lightner Jr.: Finally, A Route Up Wyoming’s Gigantic Monolith

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By Sam Lightner Jr. 

It was my sophomore year in college, 1986, when the hook was set. 

On veteran mountaineer Paul Piana’s advice, I’d gone on a quest to find a copy of the Bonney and Bonney book “Guide to Wyoming’s Mountains and Wilderness.” First printed in 1960, this cowboy climbers’ Bible was hard to find, so my buddy Bill Walker gave me his copy. 

“You need it more than I,” he said. I raced home, ignored the necessary studying for a history exam (not that much to remember then as not too much history had passed yet), and opened the book to page 498. Randomly hit it, first try. 

There on 498 was a striking photo of The Monolith, an 1,800-foot buttress of Big Sandy Peak, deep in the Wind River Range. It was an oddly shaped block of Precambrian granite with only one route to the summit, and that one route was not the one I would have chosen for the beautiful wall. 

With a pen I scribbled in where I would someday go on the mountain, then spent the night paging through the tome of possible Wyoming adventures. I think I got a “C” on that 1986 history exam.

Flash forward 30 years, through dozens of countries and up hundreds of rock walls. Some small and some big, but none like The Monolith. 

My friends Shep Vail, Mike Lilygren, and I had made it a yearly priority to climb something, anything, together. With wives, kids, businesses and mortgages, this usually meant something that took no more than a day, but that huge wall, which would certainly take multiple days to ascend, had never been forgotten. In 2015 we made a plan to go into the Winds and try the line I had scribbled into Bonney and Bonney decades before. 

With a combined age well over the century mark, our Spartan days of sleeping wet and eating cold were behind us. We decided this trip would be treated like an international expedition, just one to a rock that was 30 miles from our bedrooms. 

We hired Miss Jessie Allen, aka Miss Wyoming 2014, to haul in gourmet meals, individual tents with multiple sleeping pads and a half dozen gallons of bourbon, then convinced other friends to join us. One, Elyse Guarino, was willing to do so as our chef. From the shores of Papoose Lake in the Wind River Range, our trip in the mountains was going to be plush and soft . . . except for the climbing.  

We made the 1,500-foot vertical walk from the lake to the base of the wall, which faces north and begins at 10,500 feet, the next morning and then began the climbing. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” was the adage on that trip, as we had not brought all the necessary big wall equipment needed for an ascent of the scale and altitude of The Monolith. 

Too much bourbon, not enough rope. OK, not enough rope, otherwise fine. Dismayed after a week of work, we tucked tail and went home, bound and determined to come back stronger and with more rope the following year.

That year rolled around and Jessie again rolled our stuff off the mules and into Monolith Base Camp. This time we got very high, up to about 12,000 feet of elevation, but a band of bad rock had sent us back to the base. 

We were actually in good fortune with that . . . had we topped out on the mountain that day in 2016, we would have had to spend the night there, and thus endured (or not endured) one of the most serious electrical storms any of us had ever seen in the mountains. The summit of The Monolith got pounded like Baghdad on a bad night. 

No matter, we were coming back, but the following year we changed tactics. The bottom 1,400 feet of climbing was some of the best we had ever done, so the new goal was to make sure that future generations had a route open that was of exceptional quality. 

Only being 300 feet from the top, less than two full rope lengths, the best way to do that was from above. We came into the mountains from the west, without horses, and went up the west slope of Big Sandy Peak. By the end of the trip we had found a route up the big wall that was exceptional in every way. 

But there was still a problem; we had not completed the climb in the correct style. In modern rock climbing and mountain climbing, the goal is not to just get to the top, but to get to the top without using the rope for anything more than a safety net. 

You are supposed to use the rock for upward movement, not the rope, but there was one section of rock so difficult we could not do it without resting on the rope. If the first attempt had been about “you’re gonna need a bigger boat,” this attempt was “you’re gonna need bigger muscles.” 

The fact is one of us might have been able to free climb the crux, but we needed insurance. We needed something that could assure the clean ascent on the next attempt. 

We needed youth. 

Assuming we could not find a fountain that would provide it, we found someone who still had it; Alex Bridgewater. 

Alex was then a 25-year old professional trainer on the cutting edge of difficult climbing in Wyoming. He was also a really nice guy with a witty sense of humor, and at 115 pounds soaking wet, he didn’t eat much. That combination made him perfect for this route. 

The following season, 2018, we asked him to join us. Over a two-day period, our team managed to free climb all the hardest portions of the route. We were met on the summit by our chef in the first couple of efforts, Elyse Guarino, and all agreed to name the route “Discovery.” 

The name came, in part, from the space ship in the movie “2001; A Space Odyssey” that is sent to research the Monolith, and in part from all we learned about the mountain and ourselves while climbing. 

Discovery has since gotten rave reviews by the climbers who have gone into the Winds to find it. We are proud to have been able to find such a thing and open it up to others.

And I am happy to have finally put the dream to rest that started on page 498 in 1986. 

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Sam Lightner: Just A Normal Sunday With Lightning, High Winds, Baby Elk, And A Wounded Dog

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By Sam Lightner Jr., Columnist Cowboy State Daily

LANDER — Wyoming is the greatest, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Take last Sunday . . .

I was going climbing in the burn-area of the Little Popo Agie Canyon. Most Muggles (non-climber folks) think of rock climbing around Lander to be at either Sinks Canyon or the Wild Iris on Limestone Mountain, but we have actually been climbing in places like the Little Popo Agie and Sweetwater Rocks areas for over 30 years (60 for the latter).

This day was to be spent actually cleaning slabs of guillotine-like rock from a wall that had been damaged during the fire of 2003. Fires cook the outer surface into giant flakes of dolomite and render it unclimbable, and my plan was to clear an area so it would be safe to climb again in the future.

I was accompanied by Dasher, a spunky, 19-pound, mix of everything small and canine, and Sadee, a cross of Chocolate Lab and Healer at a manageable 35 pounds. Both pooches were a bit nervous as the Wyoming-wind was blowing pretty hard, but we all made our way up the slope to the dolomite in about half an hour.

As I began to rappel down the face, the wind caught wind of me and picked up to something Laramie and Casper people might refer to as “breezy.” I’m not real good with the Beaufort Scale, and sailing-stuff like that doesn’t mean much to rock climbers, but with the way I was swinging about  on my 9 mm rope I’d guess it was a steady 35 mph with gusts that could have been twice that. It was hard enough that I couldn’t do what I’d planned with the false sense of security that makes climbing fun. I discussed it with dogs, and we agreed it was time to call the plan off.  We high-tailed it for the truck.

Crossing the deadfall, Sadee in front and Dasher in the rear, our little team almost stepped on an elk “freshie.” No, not poop, but a calf. The cute little ball of brown with white speckles, his fur still matted from birthing fluids, was curled up in some juniper less than proper social distance away.

Sadee lunged forward as the critter wobbled up onto spindly legs. I grabbed the dogs tail but she got away, then stood next to the elk realizing it was 3 times her height. I dove for her over a log and the elk tried to take a step away.

Sadee howled, Dasher yipped, and the elk yelled “Mommy” in Wapiti. Mom must have just stepped out to go shopping or something. Anyway, the elk ran (more like “spindled”) from the obvious danger, and Sadee followed, still not knowing what she was supposed to do with this smelly deer on stilts. I finally got control of her as the elk wobbled over some logs, all the while yelling for mom.

Problem two averted, except we looked up to see a thunderstorm over the Oregon Buttes, and it was headed our way at whatever the crazy speed the wind could carry it. We picked up the pace as the rumbling got closer.

Twenty minutes later we were greeted by two pronghorn who were using the truck as a wind break. Yeah, it was blowing so hard the antelope were looking for cover. I yelled at them to go find a dip in the sage, which notified Sadee they were in the area.

Now we all know it’s illegal and wrong for dogs to chase wildlife, but the Wyoming Game and Fish should have a “Pronghorn Clause” for that law. Dogs have no more chance of catching a pronghorn, or even bothering one, than Sheriff Buford T. Justice did of catching The Bandit. Antelope could make a greyhound look like a glacier.  These two speed-goats jogged south, laughing at what lousy predators canines are, and Sadee seemed to realize how silly she looked in their dusty wake.

The would be hunter-dog was back in the truck moments later, but Dasher was reluctant. Normally wanting to be the boss of the shell, he was demanding to be in the cab of the pickup. As thunder roared overhead, I chased him around and under the truck, trying to explain in my most calming scream that we could get zapped by Thor at any moment. I eventually caught him, got him in the shell with Sadee, and the days problems were solved. Right?

Wrong.

On the way out of Pass Creek I came onto three fellow climbers headed into the Little Po. Despite obvious 307 cultural differences, they being in a Dodge pickup and me in the GMC, we had a polite chat about the conditions. They had work to do the next day and were hell bent on climbing, thunder god or not. I continued towards Highway 28.

For some reason, Dasher was staring at me through the window of the cab. It was out of character, so I pulled over to see what was up. I lifted the back hatch and the Dash-man stood on his hind legs, exposing a 2-inch puncture and gash in his lower chest. Now I understood what he was trying to tell me. It wasn’t pouring blood, but it wasn’t good, either. I grabbed him, put him in my lap, and made for the Lander Valley Animal Hospital at a pace that WyDot would not have approved of.

For those keeping count, my dogs had now assisted me in breaking three unpopular Wyoming laws that morning; two on how poorly domesticated dogs are at harassing wildlife and one, on  what is considered to be a reasonable speed on a prairie highway, when you have a tailwind. But I digress.

We zipped through the yellow lights of Main and managed to beat Doctor Lisa to the vet hospital. I haven’t done the math, but coming from Wild Iris that fast might violate a few laws of physics as well as those of the Highway Patrol. Doc Lisa greeted us with an assuring smile and asked if I would assist in the light surgery that was coming. Dasher heard this and decided the back of the truck didn’t sound so bad, but a few cc’s of Versed with a Lydocaine chaser and he was happy to have his wound irrigated and stitched up. Doc Lisa gave us some meds and we were back home by 3:30.

That’s after 5 pm to those on the east coast, so we poured some distilled Kentucky relaxant and sat down to watch the unhappiness of 2020-America flow across the tv screen.

With fires and looting in Minneapolis, L.A., Chicago, and D.C., all interspersed with a thousand more dead from disease, I was reminded how good even a hard day can be in Wyoming.

(Note: The author retains the right to claim none of this really happened if he so-needs.)

Lightner: Against All Odds: A 4,000-mile RV Trip To Bring Mother-in-law Home

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By Sam Lightner Jr., Cowboy State Daily

Within the given parameters, the task was daunting. How during a pandemic, that is killing hundreds of thousands of people, to transport a package across the country in as little time as possible —  with assurance you will not expose it the disease?

The package, in this case, was my spry 79-year old mother-in-law who’d fought her way to the top of the male dominated industry of trademark law. She’d been “sheltered in place” for two months in Atlanta and was sick of it. And who could blame her. It’s Atlanta.

Every Spring she boards up her place in Georgia to move to Lander and be near her beautiful daughter, Liz, and smart-ass son-in-law. However, this is the Covid spring, so those a-for mentioned parameters were disrupting her plans.

Considering the package, Federal Express, even with next-day-air, was out. They’d shipped a live rhino to a zoo once, but despite some similarities, mother in laws don’t travel like rhinos.

They get cranky when you try and put them in an envelope. Also, the rhino-shipment had cost over half a million dollars and involved a lot of personal contact between the rhinoceros and his handlers. So, no Fed-Ex.

Putting her in a hazmat suit and sticking her on a plane was also not an option. This Package comes with two schnauzers, Drool and Drool-more, and they wouldn’t ride well with the luggage.

The Package didn’t feel up to the traverse of North America on her own, and we couldn’t just drive out and drive back in the family car. Half the hotels between Atlanta and Lander were closed, and there was no way to know that the rooms were as Covid-free as we’d like them to be. What’s more, one needs food on a big drive like that, and we had taken all the precautions to make sure our food was sans-Covid for that two months.

Liz and I had been as diligent about social-distancing as Matt Damon in The Martian, thus we knew we could be a part of the plan to get The Package out west. 

With her brother’s advice, we decided to rent an RV, sanitize it, and make the drive, sleeping, eating, and pottying in the camper for the estimated six days of out and back. A few phone calls, a couple shots of bourbon, and we committed. Liz, I and our smallest dog Dasher, loaded the minivan the following morning and Operation Elder Extraction was under way.

We rented the RV, a “Chateau” as it was called, from John Russell in Cheyenne. The vehicle was in excellent shape and was germ-free as Mr. Russell had sanitized it himself.

We continued to sterilize the surfaces as he explained, properly distanced and masked, how to work all the systems. Within an hour we were passing Pine Bluffs in a 50-mph cross wind. There is nothing like sailing a Schooner across the plains along the route of the Oregon Trail.

We gassed up, wiping down all surfaces at the station with Sani-wipes, in Kearney, Nebraska, then found a place to camp to its east.  I don’t know if you have been to central Nebraska, but it reminded me of a scene in the classic film “The Unforgiven.”

“I heard you were dead, Bill,” says English Bob. “Yeah, I heard that one too Bob . . . turns out I was in Nebraska.”

So, we moved on. The next day had a little less wind, a few more trees, and ended with a stopover in St. Louis with Liz’s step mom. We had dinner on her patio while she sat inside, thus staying distanced.

The following day we crossed onto the east coast, that being the other side of the Mississippi, and suddenly there was traffic. I’m not sure how people in the eastern third of our country can socially distance. They are packed in like hibernating wasps.

As we caught our first glimpse of the Atlanta skyline, ACDC’s “Highway to Hell” came on the radio. I had to agree. Angus Young repeated his three chords as I thought how wise General William T. Sherman approach to the Peach State had been in his famous March to the Sea.

Or maybe I was just grumpy about driving across the country and still only being half way home. We pulled in to the driveway of The Package, from here on known as Mommy Dillon, to tears of joy. She appeared to be as ready to get out of there as General Sherman and I.

The next morning, we packed the RV and turned north for the Mason Dixon Line. And then, as we passed Chattanooga and the Chickamauga Battle Site, it happened; Liz coughed.

I glanced at her as she stifled another cough, and she turned to me with saucer-size, tear filled eyes. We’ve been together for a while, so I could read her mind: “I gave my mom Covid19!”

“No,” I said. “We haven’t been within 15 feet of anyone without a mask on in two months, and our hands have been washed so many times they are permanently scented like lilac. You are in the allergy capital of North America and that’s why you coughed.”

As Mommy Dillon watched the majestic Lookout Mountain out the huge side window of the Chateau, Liz ran for her suitcase. Clothes flew as she rifled for something.

Moments later she was back in the passenger seat, digital thermometer in mouth. It came back 98.2. Then 98.1, 98.4, 97.9, and 97.6, and all that before we hit Kentucky. A bad night’s sleep was had for Liz and I near Hannibal, Missouri. Mommy Dillon was comfortably tucked in with the Drool-brothers.

The following day we managed to reach the Cabela’s campground in Sidney, Nebraska. It’s a step up from Kearney, probably cuz you can smell Wyoming.

The 37 temperature recordings taken that day maintained the low trend, and the coughing eased as we got further west. We crossed back into Heaven about 9 a.m. on the 6th day, exchanged the RV for the family minivan by 11, and at 3 p.m. Liz, I, Dasher, Mommy Dillon, and the two Schnauzers pulled into Lander.

But it wasn’t over yet.

The Covid-cough had to be confirmed as Bluegrass-infused phlegm. Fremont County Healthcare was now able to test anyone who had as much as a sunburn. One deep poke in the nose, followed by a long weekend of staring at the phone while waiting for results, and we were in the clear.

 Liz had not infected her mother, and Operation Elder Extraction was a complete success.

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