Perhaps the most individual of a list of Wyoming’s fundamental values I struggled to put together a few years ago was the idea that you just cannot drive by a stranded person, especially in winter.

Because our beautiful weather can turn very cruel and because our distances are so vast and, finally, because of our low population, this all adds up to the simple fact — that we must help if we can.

Now the sentences above are pretty long but they sum up to me a fundamental value of living here.

One of the best travel books I have ever read is called Oregon Trail Revisited by Rinker Buck, which includes a lot of history of the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails.

In Buck’s book, he stated repeatedly how you just have to help out when you are on the frontier. You have no choice. And now, here we are in that same place 165 years later, and the same rules apply.

Another outstanding book is called Tribe by Sebastian Junger. It describes a situation that happened to him in Gillette. Junger is the best-selling author of some classic books including The Perfect Storm and War.

His first trip out west at the age of 17 was when he attended a National Outdoor Leadership School course in Lander.

Junger in his latest book describes a situation much like the reason you try to help stranded people in our frontier state. I thought it worth reprinting. It makes me proud of the people here:

“In the fall of 1986, just out of college, I set out to hitchhike across the United States. I’d grown up in a Boston suburb where people’s homes were set behind deep hedges or protected by huge yards and neighbors hardly knew each other.

“The sheer predictability of life in an American suburb left me hoping—somewhat irresponsibly —for a hurricane or a tornado or something that would require us to all band together to survive.

“Those kinds of tests clearly weren’t going to happen, but putting myself in a situation where I had very little control—like hitchhiking across the country—seemed like a decent substitute. That’s how I wound up outside Gillette, Wyoming, one morning in late October 1986, with my pack leaned against the guardrail and an interstate map in my back pocket. Semis rattled over the bridge spacers and hurtled on toward the Rockies. Pickup trucks passed with men in them who turned to stare.

“A tent and sleeping bag, a set of cook pots, and a week’s worth of food was all I had that morning, when I saw a man walking toward me up the on ramp.

“I could see he wore a quilted old canvas union suit and carried a black lunch box. He walked up and stood there studying me. His hair was wild and matted and his union suit was shiny with filth and grease at the thighs. He didn’t look unkindly but I was young and alone and I watched him like a hawk. He asked me where I was headed?

“California,” I said. He nodded. “How much food do you got?” he asked.

“I thought about this. I had plenty of food—along with all the rest of my gear—and he obviously didn’t have much. I’d give food to anyone who said he was hungry, but I didn’t want to get robbed, and that’s what seemed was about to happen.

“Oh, I just got a little cheese,” I lied. I stood there, ready, but he just shook his head.

“You can’t get to California on just a little cheese,” he said. “You need more than that.”

“The man said that he lived in a broken-down car and that every morning he walked three miles to a coal mine outside of town to see if they needed fill in work. Some days they did, some days they didn’t, and this was one of the days that they didn’t. “So I won’t be needing this,” he said, opening his black lunch box. “I saw you from town and just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“The lunch box contained a bologna sandwich, an apple, and a bag of potato chips. I thanked him and put the food in my pack. Then he turned and made his way back down the on ramp toward Gillette.

“I thought about that man for the rest of my trip. I thought about him for the rest of my life.”

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Bill Sniffin is a longtime Wyoming journalist from Lander who has written six books.


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