Not long ago, we left Casper and drove an hour into another century, landing at another stop in time.
So many of the mountains and prairies that surround us brim with history. They beckon to us to look back and reflect on all that came before.
But there is at least one place nearby where history actively reaches for our hands, our eyes and our hearts, begging to show us the way we came to be.
That place is Independence Rock, situated along the Sweetwater River in central Wyoming. It’s not one of those tucked-away landmarks that you really have to want to get to. It’s right there along the roadside, easily visible on trips into and out of Casper.
But to really experience it, it’s best to park the car, take a breath and think about those who crossed these prairies in search of adventure or a better life. And that’s what my husband and I found ourselves trying to do a few weeks ago.
It is not an easy task even to simply consider the sheer volume of pioneers who saw Independence Rock during their journeys west. It’s estimated that over three decades, almost half a million of them passed in its shadow. Thousands of names from long ago are painted or carved on the rock, and many of them are as accessible to present-day travelers as they were to those in pioneer times. According to wyohistory.org, a pioneer priest named Pierre-Jean De Smet called the rock “the great register of the desert.” It is a truly incredible souvenir — one that at close range seems to dissolve the many decades that separate this time and that one.
On a personal level, I also have to admit that the task of understanding this momentous rock does not become any easier for a present-day traveler once that person is informed of the rattlesnakes who have made the rock their home. We wore sturdy shoes and stayed on high alert that day (well, I did), and we did not see any rattlesnakes. However, there was a suspicious rustling in the tall grass as we circumnavigated the rock, and I would advise anyone who makes the trek to dress and prepare for the hazards they might encounter. But if you haven’t done it, I really do encourage you to make the trip.
It was quiet on the day we visited — only a handful of other visitors had made their way there on that warm weekend, and the crickets and the wind were the main sources of sound. It was the perfect atmosphere to ponder the history of this spot — and remember too that it’s far from the only one of its kind in Wyoming.
Our state was at the heart of many of the trails that moved settlers west, which means there are many artifacts of the pioneers’ journey here. Now that the significance of our geographical history has gripped me, our next stops will include the Parting of the Ways (there is a place called the True Parting of the Ways and another called False Parting of the Ways, and I want to see both) and South Pass, where you can still see the wagon ruts left as settlers crossed the Rocky Mountains. Register Cliff, near Guernsey, also served as a marker along the trail and collected many signatures as travelers passed by.
What kind of mettle must it have taken to stock a wagon and travel more than 2,000 miles to a place you had never seen? I can’t really imagine, but I want to think about it more, and continue to learn about this astounding piece of history.
Sounds like it’s time for a road trip — not the kind that requires oxen and fording rivers, thank goodness, but the kind that instills in us what a unique state we live in. As with any Wyoming adventure, bring water and comfortable shoes and prepare to be amazed.