Where Do Penguins Really Come From?

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October 27, Near Cheyenne, Wyoming

I’m always trying to get rid of things, especially coffee mugs. Before we moved, we had enough to serve coffee to a small state. One day when we’d gotten behind on the dishes and had nary a fork, plate, bowl, or spoon that was clean and ready to use, I pointed out to Bill our rack of coffee hooks, still full of cups ready to go. Since we generally use two each every day (one for coffee in the morning, one for tea in the evening)…well, we had a lot of cups.

One cup I wanted to send on its way but he always insisted on keeping was a footed white mug with a black line drawing of a penguin and the words “Little America” in fading letters. Little America, he explained, was the U.S. base in Antarctica and so the cup (which he’d bought at a yard sale) had come an awfully long way. And so we kept it and when I packed the kitchen for our move it came along.

We were just a bit surprised as we drove across Wyoming toward Utah when we started seeing signs announcing Little America. It was only 75 miles away and had marble showers, announced the first of a series of signs. Others followed, with pictures of an attractive blonde at ease in a much more comfortable looking hotel room than you’d expect on the Interstate. Another promised soft ice cream cones for 75 cents. We needed a stop anyhow, there isn’t much to stop at in Wyoming, so we pulled up. Inside was a high-ceilinged, airy room with lavish rest rooms, a soft-serve ice cream station and other fast foods and piles and piles of tourist items. Eventually I learned there was a second area that was more of a “real” truck stop and that the real truckers went to. Truckers–who spend most of their time sleeping in their vehicles and paying for showers  individually (unless they get them as a bonus for buying gas) and have no need to worry about what anyone thinks of their appearance and mostly only talk to other truckers and the familiar wait staff at truck stops–are pretty easy to spot in a crowd. There were no truckers in the touristy building we were in.

But it was fine for us, and we took a long break from the road. I wrote a blog post on my tablet. Bill wandered the knick knacks. We debated whether this was the true origin of his penguin mug, and I pointed to the similar-looking penguins adorning the motel to bolster my belief that it was. Why penguins in the middle of Wyoming? Wikipedia eventually provided an answer: It was built 1952 to be an oasis in the otherwise empty expanse of Wyoming (it still is, pretty much) just as the camp in Antarctica was a little area of warmth and hospitality in an otherwise unwelcoming landscape. The man who created it, incidentally, died last year with a net worth of $3 billion.

After wandering around for quite a while, and sharing a grilled cheese sandwich and an order of onion rings, with Bill still not completely convinced about Little America, the truck stop vs. Little America of the South Pole, we decided it was past time to get back on the road and on to the next state. We were on our way out the door when Bill stopped abruptly.

“There they are!” And he pointed to a shelf near the floor where rows and rows of mugs just like his stood, silently settling the argument. But, he said, he liked this better–having stumbled upon where his mug came from this way, rather than from some tourist shop on the other end of the world.

And so he bought another to make a matched set with the first.

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Why Oh Why Can’t We Ever Leave Wyoming?

October 26, Rawlins, Wyoming

All the way across the country, Bill has been complaining about the trailer. It’s like one of those families where each parent has a different favorite child: Bill loves the van and keeps referring to it as where we live. I keep saying that while I may sleep in the van, any actual living I do is in the trailer. Bill finds the table and seats in the trailer uncomfortably low and keeps telling me he only agreed to it because it was the first camping vehicle I liked in the slightest. I gripe about how the van doors are so heavy and stiff I can barely open and close them, plus the button to unlatch the door on the passenger side is so stiff it hurts my thumb every time I press it.

But one thing’s for sure: The combination of the van and trailer seriously lacks in aerodynamics. We catch every bit of wind that comes our way. Trucks passing by still feel like they’re pushing us off the road, though we don’t fishtail like we used to thanks to the load levelers we got in Indiana. Wind is not our friend.

We were deeply relieved to get out of the long, flat, plains of Nebraska where the wind powered in and shook our little traveling arrangement mercilessly, exhausting Bill who constantly struggled to keep us straight, cutting our MPG to absurd lows, and generally making everything unpleasant. So I was a bit concerned when my friend Michael mentioned to me that Wyoming–the next state on our agenda–was the windiest place he had ever seen.

The logical way from Denver to Seattle would be Interstate 70 West over the Rockies, but this was not our way. Our first day on the road, after ripping the awning off the side of the trailer, we had started up the gentlest possible hill on the New York State Thruway. The van engine started to audibly strain. And we started slowing d-o-w-n.

How the heck were we going to go over mountain ranges with this van towing this trailer? I fretted about this often. Bill said little, but it turns out he was doing research using maps and online RV groups. And hatching a plot. We wouldn’t go over the mountains, we would spend extra time on the road to go around them. And so we took 25 north to Cheyenne to reconnect with our old friend Interstate 80, which stretched all the way back through Pennsylvania and New Jersey almost to New York City, and which had brought us all the way through Iowa and Nebraska.

Our first entry into Wyoming was at night, and the wind was quiet. We stayed at a campground in Laramie. In daylight the next morning, we saw the mural about surviving Wyoming winds. Uh-oh, I thought.

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We’d spent an extra day in Denver so Bill could have his knee looked at (probably just a sprain, they said, but didn’t give him an MRI). It was a lost day we could ill afford if Bill was to make his gig in Snohomish on November first. But he had a solution: Rather than going completely around the mountains, we could cross the Cascades at relatively low, relatively unthreatening Snoqualmie Pass. We studied what we could about the this pass. Michael discovered that the last town on the East side of the pass was at 1,500 feet. The pass itself was at about 3,000 feet so that seemed like a reasonably gentle climb. It would save us a day and get us to the gig. Bill decided we would take that route.

At a truck stop where we were having a ridiculously heavy breakfast, I overheard one of the truckers holding forth about Snoqualmie Pass. I whispered to Bill that he should ask that trucker about it, and he struck up a conversation and did. They discussed the pass (not too bad, the trucker said), but then he looked out the window at our rig and remarked: “I’d be more scared here than there.”

It turned out a high wind warning had been issued for the section of road we were about to travel over high points in Wyoming. No light loads were supposed to be on the road. Another trucker carrying an empty cattle car had looked in his side mirror to see his trailer’s wheels lifting up off the asphalt and had decided to come in the truck stop and wait it out. Driving over the mountain stopped sounding like a good idea.

Another trucker helpfully suggested an alternate route, by smaller, slower roads, around the mountain instead of over. So that’s the route we took, getting not too far down the road, and then–in view of wind warnings and rain on I-80–put up at a campground in Rawlins in the late afternoon. Once again we were stuck not far enough from where we’d started. Oh well. Tomorrow we’d get farther. Like at least to the next state.

Image: baka_san via Creative Commons

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