I-80 Oasis

Today I met with some people who were staying at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City. Conversation turned to the founder of the hotel, an individual by the name of Earl Holding. He was unknown to me as a child, but he was my benefactor nonetheless.

With one or two exceptions, each year my family would make a pilgrimage from Littleton, Colorado to Cache Valley, Utah. Our ancestors settled in Cache Valley, both of my parents grew up there, and many of our relatives still live there.Our typical route to Cache Valley took us north into Wyoming, where we would get onto I-80 at Cheyenne or Laramie, head west, after several hours turn off toward Kemmerer (home of the first J.C. Penney’s store), drive along Bear Lake, enter the seemingly interminable Logan Canyon, stop at Rick’s Spring to load up the thermos with water that my parents treasured, and then eventually emerge from Logan Canyon into Cache Valley. For the return trip we would retrace our steps. For a kid, the I-80 stretch was a near-death experience.

The stretch of I-80 that runs through southern Wyoming is a land of desolation. On this drive one sees mile after mile of plains, fence posts, cattle or antelope from time to time, and oil wells here and there. It is mind-numbing. This stretch of road is perfect for passengers who want to get some reading done, but apparently I did not want to get some reading done, so I would find myself staring into the expansive void.

I would latch onto any source of sensory stimulation. We invariably over-stocked the car with food, which enabled overeating during the journey. We’d stop for gas at Gay Johnson’s service stations, and while I had little interest in the divinity candy they advertised, I took some interest in the jackalope paraphernalia they peddled. In a snow storm I could observe the snow and ice that accumulated at the edge of the windshield, how the windshield wipers and the flow of air across the windshield would shape the accumulation, how the accumulation would eventually disintegrate in submission to all of the forces acting on it. Most of the signs at the side of the road were of little help. The Burma Shave signs offered amusement. During the westward trek there was another type of sign, however, a sign that offered hope.

As we would leave Cheyenne or Laramie to head west, we’d see a sign with a cartoon penguin telling us the distance to Little America and what things we might buy there – – ice cream cones, for example. As we left Laramie, that sign might tell us that Little America was only 240 miles away. The hope of reaching Little America gave me some power to endure. Every 25 miles or so we’d see another encouraging sign. Little America was a kid paradise. It was a hotel, a restaurant, a gift shop, and a gas station with seemingly dozens and dozens of pumps. At Little America we could wonder at the spectacle of the gas pumps, stretch our legs, handle all of the strange western-themed merchandise in the gift shop, possibly purchase firecrackers that were illegal in Colorado and Utah, and get one of those ice cream cones that the penguins had been telling us about for hundreds of miles. To top it all off, while we are enjoying these things at Little America we knew that the 240-mile stretch of desolation was behind us. For kids, Little America was a place we just had to stop, whether we needed to fill the car with gas or not.

Earl Holding founded Little America years before he built the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City. The name Little America apparently relates to the name explorer Richard Bird gave to bases he established in Antarctica (See Encarta), and hence the appearance of penguins on those signs at the side of the road. Those bases were a refuge for Antarctic explorers, but for me Little America was my oasis toward the end of a seemingly endless stretch of I-80 in southern Wyoming.

(These reflections from a March 22 experience were writing on April 19, 2006)

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