Lisa and I are in Casper, Wyoming. It’s not the place that I was born, but it’s the place where I grew up. It’s a nice little city of between 40,000 and 55,000 people depending on the combined price of oil, natural gas and uranium.
I was once asked as a teenager, “What do people do here for fun?” And, to my great discredit, I answered truthfully and correctly: “They get drunk or they get out of town.”
To be fair to me, it is a great place to get drunk, I am told. You can “go sneakin’ to the Beacon” Club, which is not nearly as ghost-town chic as it used to be. Or you can go to the World Famous Wonder Bar. Just forget about bringing your horse inside and ordering something from the saddle at the bar; that’s already been done. And, of course, you can always go through the drive-thru liquor store, get a bit to share with friends (or not), head out of town, and get ginned up before shooting guns at road signs or whatever. It’s your business, and Wyoming is very much an “It’s your business” kinda place.
And, when the weather is nice, there are a large number of things to do outside of town. A half-hour southwest of town, there’s Alcova Reservoir, where we go to hike around on the rocks or go sailing or dive into the deep water from the rocks or stir up the rattlesnakes or go drinking or whatever. Nearer to town, you can put your inner-tube or raft in the North Platte River and slowly float your way back to Casper and inebriation. A bit farther down the road is Independence Rock, where “Immigrant Pioneers” wrote their names in the 19th century on the way to Oregon. Fifteen years ago it was possible to clamber all o’er it, but “they” don’t allow that any more. Across the road you can pretend you’re a different kind of pioneer, and push a handcart along the Oregon/Mormon Trails.
Just outside of town to the south is our mountain, Casper Mountain. In the summer, it’s a great place for hiking — the Rotary Park hike around Garden Creek Falls is very nice — and short mountain bike rides. In the winter there are some excellent nordic ski trails and a somewhat rocky downhill ski area, which the Locals seem to like for that midweek and busy weekend ski fix. And Casper makes a great base of operations for summer day trips to trailheads on BLM land or in the Medicine Bow National Forest. It’s also popular pastime to get into the 4×4 and just drive for hours on the dirt roads that cross the range and mountains.
If you’re lucky enough to be here in the first or second week of July, you should definitely stay in town a day or two and have a “rip-roarin’ good time” at the Central Wyoming Fair and Rodeo. You can watch barrel racing, bull riding, calf roping, and bronco busting from the grandstands with real cowboys. And you can enjoy the midway rides and food. (Casper also has the state’s best hospital. So don’t worry if you eat too many funnel cakes. You will get excellent care before, during and after your bypass surgery.) Casper’s fair and rodeo may not draw the same crowds and riders as Frontier Days in Cheyenne or the Wyoming State Fair in Douglas; but it’s probably better, because you’re in Casper and it’s in Casper and those other fairs and rodeos aren’t.
But what if you visit during one of the shoulder seasons? Say, November? Perhaps around Thanksgiving time? It’s not snowy enough to ski. It’s not warm enough to hike. There’s no fair or rodeo. Many of the backroads are impassable. You can’t go to Alcova or float the river. Basically you can’t do much without eventually involving Lunchbox, The Cadaver Sniffing Dog.
(By the way, when a Wyomingite tells you something isn’t a good idea, you should listen. We know lots of stories about people who have died or almost died doing the thing you’re contemplating. You just might be the lucky one who lives, and we’ll help you if we find you. But there are only 400,000 people in Wyoming’s 100,000 square miles, and 1/4 live in the two largest cities; so you do the math on the chances that someone other than Lunchbox will happen across your frost-bitten/sun-stroked/dehydrated/malnourished/rattlesnake-bit/drug-runner-shot/logging-truck-smashed/roughneck-mugged/drunken-cowboy-assaulted self. It’s your business, but I’m just saying. . . .)
So what can you do more-or-less year-round in Casper?
Casper started as a fort town. Wait, let’s back up. Casper started as a convenient place for covered wagon trains and Mormons with pushcarts to cross the North Platte River and head overland to South Pass and
freedom Oregon. So you can get your Old West history on at Fort Caspar, which has reconstructed buildings and exhibits, and at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center. The latter is new and quite good.
While you’re getting your “Old West” on, you should definitely stop into Lou Taubert Ranch Outfitter, the best western store anywhere. You want boots? Try on one of 10,000 pairs. You want buckles? Yup, they have those too. Need tack? Wanna rope indoors to try out your new lariat? Need chaps? Yup. Yup. And yup. You can even decorate your home in the Western style and find John Wayne lunchboxes for the little buckaroos.
The rest of downtown is fun and quirky, too. It’s compact and walkable. The shopkeepers are friendly and helpful. There aren’t chain stores downtown, but if you aren’t into interesting things, you can head out to big box stores on the eastern side of town for the same stuff you can find in whatever medium-sized town is near the town where you live. Casper does have one of the three — count em, three! — malls in Wyoming; you won’t go wanting.
Casper has three small museums that are worth a visit. Two of them — The Tate Mineralogical Museum and the Werner Wildlife Museum — are part of Casper College, the Harvard on the Hill. And downtown is the Nicolaysen Art Museum, which has several special exhibitions every year as well as a permanent collection specializing in Western regional art.
And that’s pretty much what there is to do in this modern-day Deadwood. Of course, I’ve left things out. During these energy boom times, Casper seems to have an improving restaurant and bar scene — especially near downtown and on the east-side, where you can eat at chain restaurants after shopping at chain stores. In the summer you can watch a Casper Ghosts baseball game. (We did this last year, though it was postponed due to wind.) And you might consider a short drive outside of town to the east or the northwest to see some of the oil services companies and refineries. (But you probably saw those on your way to or from Yellowstone anyway, right?) And you can drive by Natrona County High School, where Dick Cheney and I went to high school. But now we’re kinda scraping the bottom of the barrel, aren’t we? So let’s just stop there.