Something Worth Protecting

by John Laughlin

“We have a unique slice of heaven here and the ability to keep it special and awe-inspiring for generations to come.”

I still remember the first time driving into Wyoming as an adult. It was January 28, 1994, the day before my sister Caroline’s 30th birthday. I must have overlooked the significance of that date for her, but what lay ahead of me was all consuming. A new life adventure was just starting, and Wyoming would be my new home. The skies were big, huge in fact, and I thought about how Wyoming could lay claim to Big Sky Country as much as the folks in Montana. This was uncharted territory for me, vastly different from the Iowa cornfields I had left behind.

Wyoming wore on me that first year. Maybe it was the isolation of Cody, maybe it was the wind, but all that changed. I don’t know exactly when, but it happened. I think it started when my lungs stopped burning while hiking up a mountain, or maybe it was that first Brookie pulling my line tight high in the Beartooths. There is one flashbulb memory I can draw on that undoubtedly marks the culmination of my transformation to incipient Wyomingite; the day I found an arrowhead.

That day my dog and I decided to go hiking outside of Cody. I had no idea what public lands were. The concept of public land is foreign to many of us who grew up in the Midwest. We have no public lands. There may be the odd state park, National Monument, or National Park, but absolutely nothing on the scale of western states. I learned there was this vast expanse of land everyone could access, and I was going to take advantage of it. My dog didn’t care, public or private she just wanted to run through the hills exploring every nook and cranny her nose directed her to. I wanted to explore that expansive landscape as well. Then, on that fateful day, I looked down. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I did. There at my feet was a piece of stone shaped by ancient hands to deliver a lethal blow and perpetuate a tribe whose name we will never know. After that I stopped looking at the horizon as frequently, I just looked at the ground waiting to discover more of what the ancient people had left behind. A new world had been laid bare literally at my feet and I wanted to know everything possible about that world.

I returned to Cody that day with my head full of questions and no answers. Needing to find some books that could help explain to me what I was seeing on the landscape I stopped in to see the helpful folks at the Cody Newsstand who ordered me a book on Wyoming archaeology. The author of that book was someone who I was unfamiliar with at that time: Dr. George C. Frison. His words turned me on to a career that has taken me to every Wyoming county, every mountain range; from sheep traps built by the Shoshone to mammoth and bison kill sites that boggle the mind with their intricacies and complexities. Those human modifications to the landscape, some of which were created long before the pyramids were even conceived, taught me to see and appreciate the world differently.

Now, after nearly two and a half decades in Wyoming, I wear a large smile every time I pass through Shirley Basin or when driving by Powder River’s Tumble Inn. I marvel at long expanses of road without seeing another soul except those of the four-legged variety. I see the landscape with all its human modifications and don’t want it to change. We have a unique slice of heaven here and the ability to keep it special and awe-inspiring for generations to come. However, we must be vigilant because once we have altered the landscape it is hard, if not impossible, to go back. In this time when we are actively seeking to endow Wyoming with commerce, lets not forget the words of 15-year-old Hellen Mettler who said it best in 1925, “God bless Wyoming and keep it wild.”

The Wyoming Wildlife Federation works to conserve Wyoming’s wildlife, habitat and outdoor opportunities.