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The Open Road

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Published on March 21, 2020

The month of February and the first of March was unimaginable as far as Interstate 80 (I-80) was concerned.  As of Feb. 29, it had been closed 54 of 152 days. 

            March 1 had a horrific pile-up that claimed three lives. Icy roads and wind-driven snow were big factors, and drivers going too fast for road conditions.

            What is it about the infamous stretch of interstate along our southern border? It was dubbed the “Snow Chi Minh Trail” in the early 70s by truckers who had been in Vietnam and were familiar with the Ho Chi Minh Trail cut through mountains in North Vietnam.  

            A book has even been written about it. John Waggener wrote the Snow Chi Minh Trail: The History of Interstate 80 Between Laramie and Walcott Junction, published in 2018.  

            I’ve been interested in I-80 since I was stranded in Arizona in February.  I would see the Facebook posts of the snow drifts and closures and decide I could stay a few days more.  I’ve come across many truths and myths about this chunk of the interstate system. 

In 1919, a young Dwight Eisenhower was part of the transcontinental motor truck convoy, a trip to determine the state of the roads nationwide.  In 1913, the Lincoln Highway had been dedicated one of the earliest transcontinental highways.  

            The 3,400-mile route had diverse road conditions, and Eisenhower never forgot his journey through the rough patches of Wyoming. 

When he became president in 1953, he pushed for efficient routes through the country that could expedite travel and also provide escape routes for cities in the event of a nuclear attack. 

            In 1956, Congress passed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, approving $25 billion for the completion of 41,000 miles of highways within a decade.  The interstate was the largest public works project approved in the nation’s history. It took almost 40 years, with the completion of Interstate 90 between Seattle, Wash. and Boston, Mass. in 1991.

            Back to the early history of I-80. In the late 1950s, the interstate was planned to run through a 77-mile section of Wyoming between Laramie and Walcott Junction. Locals who knew the weather and the winter objected, but to no avail. 

            Officials determined to place the highway closer to Elk Mountain on a shorter, direct route rather than following the path of U.S. Highway 30, the Lincoln Highway.  

            It is rumored Lady Bird Johnson had a say in this as she wanted the more scenic route through the mountains. The section from Laramie to Walcott Junction opened Oct. 3, 1970.  It’s been a troubled piece of road ever since.

            Here are excerpts from three articles I found on the subject. 

            An Associated Press article, dated Aug. 23, 2000, stated, “The death toll from a massive chain reaction accident on I-80 rose to four Friday as authorities spent the day clearing charred wreckage from the road. Investigators believe heavy fog, wet roads and speeding drivers were factors. The collisions occurred in a stretch through the Laramie Mountains notorious for treacherous conditions, though usually not in summer. At 8,000 feet the section is the highest on I-80.”

            A March 28, 2006 article in the Star-Tribune said, “Six people died and dozens were injured in the wreck that compacted 22 cars and trucks into just a few hundred yards of interstate. Four members of a Conifer, Colo. family perished in the wreck, which was reported at 4 p.m. Sunday about nine miles east of Elk Mountain between Rawlins and Laramie. Munn said he was driving his truck about 30 mph when the highway suddenly disappeared behind a dense wall of wind-whipped snow. ‘I’ve seen snow before, but never that came in like it did yesterday – trucks just disappeared into a wall of snow and hit each other.’”

            Associated Press-Denver, on Dec. 32007, reported, “Three members of a prominent Denver family on their way to visit relatives for Christmas dies in a car wreck on an icy stretch of I80 in Wyoming on Saturday. Their car was hit by a tractor/trailer six miles west of Rawlins. The highway patrol said there was blowing snow and icy conditions as Parr and his family headed westbound on I-80 in their Subaru station wagon.”

            Our country needs trucks and truck drivers.  They deliver our goods. But trucking has changed.  In the days of the citizen band radio (CB), truckers talked to each other and warned of hazards on the road ahead.  

            Many companies now don’t have CB radios in their trucks or make the truckers buy them. Many trucks have CBs in them, but the drivers don’t know how to use them.

            Trucking companies are after their drivers to arrive with their loads as quickly as possible. And perhaps the greatest problem of all, many truck drivers are inexperienced with icy roads and winter conditions. It’s a bad situation.

            I live far from I-80 and don’t need to drive it very often.  I’ll hear about the next big crash and hope my sister, an over-the-road-trucker, is nowhere near it.  I’ll offer up a prayer for those affected.  

            On a happier note, it’s March now and the first day of spring is March 19. I believe the weatherman is calling for cold weather, but at least we’re on the tail end of winter. I spot a touch of green under the brown thatch that is my lawn. Hang in there everyone and wash your hands. 

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