Southern Wyoming has long been less a destination than a land passed through. All of the famous transcontinental trails -- the Bozeman, the California, the Emigrant, the Mormon, the Overland, and the Pony Express -- lead somewhere else. Even today, if you stand on a hill just outside the state capital of Cheyenne, where two major interstates intersect, you'll see a cluster of mega-gas stations crowded with RVs, autos, and big-rig trucks, fueling up before speeding east or west.
In the middle of the 19th century, nearly a half-million people passed through Wyoming on the Oregon Trail. They paused at Independence Rock only long enough to rest and to carve their names in the stone (it's still there -- west of Casper on Wyo. 220). This cross-state journey, which can now be done in less than a day, took a month in the 1840s. Along this route travelers left wagon tracks, cast-iron stoves, worn-out boots, crippled livestock, and their dead. It was no easy passage: On average, they dug 10 graves for every mile of trail.
By 1868, the railroad had forged across the plains, following the more southerly route of the Overland Stages. The arrival of the railroad brought shantytowns of gambling tents, saloons, and brothels, known as "Hell on Wheels." Left behind as the rails moved on, the makeshift towns collapsed, and a cycle of booms and busts began. New discoveries of coal, oil, gold, or uranium would spur a revival, followed by another bust.
Today that legacy colors the character of towns along I-80, which follows the same path used by the first transcontinental railroad. A new generation of miners dig coal and trona (a mineral used in cleaning agents) and keep the oil and natural gas flowing. Mineral money builds sparkling new schools and government buildings, but there is still a rough-and-ready quality to the downtown districts.
But unlike the old days, the communities now have a better grip on the landscape. Cheyenne is the state capital, home to thousands of government workers. The holdovers from the ranching families that once dominated the area come out in force every year for Frontier Days, a rodeo extravaganza known the world over. West over the pass in Laramie, the University of Wyoming is the state's cultural and intellectual nexus. From Laramie west, I-80 climbs around Elk Mountain and races across the high desert -- an expansive (some might say bleak) view from behind the windshield, and a sometimes-harrowing drive during winter blizzards.
Cross-country travelers often miss the unexpected beauty in this land because they steadfastly stick to the interstate instead of the two-lane roads that lead to chalk buttes and rust-colored mesas. Take an offramp and head north among the stirring buttes of the Red Desert, read the ancient archaeological record at Fossil Butte, hike the mountain cirque of the Snowy Range, or dip in the clear waters of Flaming Gorge. On summer afternoons, the dry air turns humid, the sky blackens, and lightning dances on the red rims. When the sun breaks again, the cliffs burn copper.