New book describes why I-80 became ‘Snow Chi Minh Trail’

© 2017-Kemmerer Gazette

Back in 1978, I wrote an angry column about a stretch of Interstate 80, where I described a nightmarish drive in winter conditions.

My memories are still vivid as I recall how scary winter driving could be along that route.

These memories came back while I was perusing a new book about Interstate 80. The book’s title is “Snow Chi Minh Trail: the history of Interstate 80 between Laramie and Walcott Junction.”

Author John Waggener is a native of Green River who works as an archivist at the American Heritage Center at University of Wyoming in Laramie.

Waggener’s wonderful book is chock-full of facts and important notations about a stretch of road that can be a mess for innocent travelers trying to cross the country.

My column 39 years ago described a trip back to Wyoming from a Thanksgiving holiday in Iowa. We had left Laramie but had to turn back because of a blizzard. Then the road was reopened, and we found ourselves in that same blizzard all over again. “The wind was 60 mph and the ground blizzard was blinding,” I wrote.

Back in those days, I had a Citizen Band (CB) radio and we heard from truckers about a big crash up ahead with semi-trailer trucks involved and cars off the road.  “We were 26 miles out of Laramie and headed into a mess while driving in a total, blinding blizzard.”

I concluded that column by writing: “Your vehicle must be well-equipped and a CB radio is a must. In the winter, that road is a mess.”

Lady Bird Johnson, the former First Lady, has always been blamed for the highway being built in that place instead of the route of old Highway 30. It was because of her beautiful highway initiative. Waggener says that accusation is not true, but is actually a myth.

Instead, there were some very stubborn federal officials, headed by a rock head named Frank Turner, who were obsessed with the new road cutting off 19 “unnecessary miles,” compared to the route used by U. S. 30 through Rock River and Medicine Bow.

Waggener even recalls a heated exchange between Turner and former U. S. Senator Gale McGee. Turner prevailed.

Wyoming residents fought valiantly in the 1960s to keep the new road out of the mountains. But federal representatives would not listen and threatened not to build it, unless it could be built on their route through the mountains.

Waggener says there are other places in Wyoming along Interstate 80 that offer problems, such as the Summit between Laramie and Cheyenne, but nothing compares to that daunting 77-mile trip from Laramie to Walcott Junction.

We old-timers recall a famous CBS TV newsman named Charles Kuralt, whose specialty was traveling the country and reporting on out-of-the-way places.

He famously declared that the stretch from Laramie–Walcott Junction was “the worst stretch of interstate highway in America.”

Waggener says another myth was the mystery surrounding why the Wyoming Department of Transportation re-built a stretch of highway 30 between Bosler and near Rock River as a four-lane road.

He points out the road needed re-building and speculation was that WYDOT favored the U.S. 30 route for the new interstate highway and was making a statement by creating a four-lane stretch on Highway 30 back in the late 1960s. 

Waggener also discloses that the Union Pacific Railroad chose not to build along this route because of the wind and the snow. 

He reveals studies taht explained why there are such vicious winds near the Elk Mountain area. Due to the gap next to the mountain being the lowest elevation of the Rocky Mountains, wind blows at abnormally high velocities as the air rushes through there, causing havoc in the roads and stirring up the large amounts of snow that pile up.

On a personal note, I have driven Interstate 80 for almost 50 years and I still avoid the Snow Chi Minh Trail stretch during extreme winter weather. 

One reason is the horrible snow and wind. A second reason is the huge increase in truck traffic, which makes driving along that stretch sort of a game of Russian roulette.

Perhaps a third reason is that I like visiting the Virginian Hotel in Medicine Bow, which is one of the coolest places in the state.

About the only positive that Waggener pulls out of this discussion over the near half century of the Snow Chi Minh Trail’s existence is that the invention of the best snow fences in the world have resulted from this spectacular testing area.

The book is available from the Wyoming State Historical Society and fine stores around the state.

Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books.  His coffee table book series has sold 30,000 copies. You can find them at www.wyomingwonders.com.

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