All the familiar streets are there. The raw background looks like any city map with blocks, parks and local attractions. Layered on top will be the landmarks that make Laramie what it is: bars and beauty salons, ghost sightings and cottonwood trees, beetle kills and missile silos.
They tell a different story about Laramie, one unique to each author.
“That’s our ultimate goal, to make a place startling,” said Kathryn Flagg, creator of a map that labels abandoned Cold War-era missile silos with stands of trees killed by bark beetles. Both, Flagg said, are warnings of destruction — one of nuclear war and the other of ecological disaster. Both also symbolize regeneration. Beetle kill leaves forests with a chance for renewal, a chance to change. Locals tell stories of kids partying at the abandoned silos.
“It’s exciting knowing that these places, these sites, have had lives of their own after the projects were shut down,” Flagg said.
Part of a Masters in Fine Arts nonfiction workshop at the University of Wyoming, each map designer will explore what it means to live in Laramie, both on map and in essay, said English professor Alyson Hagy. The project, called “Laramie: A Gem City Atlas,” was inspired by San Francisco artist and author Rebecca Solnit. Eventually it will include not only students in the fine arts class, but also art students, Wyoming Geographic Information Science Center students and hopefully the state-wide community, all with maps displayed in UW’s Art Museum in May and June.
Solnit came to the university as the Eminent Writer in Residence in January. She spoke with the students about her book, “Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas,” and helped them form ideas for their own projects. Solnit brought two professional mapmakers from California who created a basic street design.
“Every community is filled with thousands of stories and perspectives and, despite all the technology telling us the where there is terrain, these atlases give us fresh ways to look at things we are familiar with,” Hagy said.
Jacklynn Pham based her map on a stereotype: Laramie is a cattle-rustling, beer-drinking, brawl-fighting cow town, heavy on saloons, light on people. Laramie has more bars per capita than any other town in the U.S., friends told her when she moved here from Nebraska.
Then she settled in and started to see the other side of town. The pretty side.
By her last count, Laramie has 21 bars and 37 beauty parlors — anyplace that offers manicure, pedicure, wax, cut, style or dye.
Since she’s also studying graphic design, she’ll create the art for her map. She imagines an Old West theme, maybe with some blowing hair.
Most of the other students will pair with an artist to design their maps, some at UW, some off campus.
Interested in how people of different cultures arrive in a town like Laramie, LuLing Osofsky will map the university town’s Asian influences.
When Osofsky moved to Laramie in August, the Chinese-American looked for Asian familiarities to comfort her. Then she noticed the odd contrasts where East meets West.
“You can graze horses in Prexi’s Pasture, but students are also playing cricket there,” she said.
Laramie houses many of the predictable Asian influences like a Chinese buffet and yoga studio, but it also offers classes in Asian languages, politics and literature. There are both Thai and Indian restaurants.
She’s even mapping houses with Tibetan prayer flags, Himalayan orchids in the university’s greenhouse and a small Japanese garden in the Ivinson Memorial Hospital.
In the student union bookstore, full of UW gear marked with the bucking bronco, clothes come from Pakistan, Thailand or Vietnam.
“I imagine in all these factories in Asia there are people sewing on this Wyoming icon,” she said.
Instead of outside influences, Crowheart native, Tasha LeClair, will look into Laramie’s past, mapping its most famous ghost stories. She’ll contrast those with something more stable, less ethereal: cottonwood trees.
“I love the idea of roots going down into the ground and feeding off of unseen things. I think that has its own element of mystery that ghost stories already have,” she said.
She started gathering the stories while volunteering for Cowboy State Paranormal Investigation. LeClair isn’t sure she believes in ghosts, but the stories behind them are fascinating.
She collected 10 stories, including the one about a Roman amphitheater rising out of the plains during snowstorms west of the Territorial Prison. And the one about Luther, a ghost in a cavalry uniform that haunts a house built of wood from Fort Sanders, an old, abandoned military outpost. Sightings describe him in detail — blue eyes, a neatly trimmed beard, wearing a hat.
“Some cottonwoods can live for a century, and they, like ghosts, serve as a connection to the past,” LeClair wrote in her Ghosts & Cottonwoods project proposal.
“However, though cotton fills the sky like a flock of spirits each year, the seeds within represent Laramie’s future — a place progressively filled with more trees than ghosts.”