The West runs through me

July 6th, 2011 · by Tom Stuart · News & Reflections

Reflections and observations on my trip out West

We are driving back from a week spent in Wyoming at a family reunion.  Having lived in Montana the first 14 years of my life it brought back many memories.  Life in the Mountain West is very different from my citified life in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.

One of the things I love are the snow capped mountains and big vistas with the road laying before you like a ribbon unfurling into eternity.  Grazing livestock, pick-ups driven by men with cowboy hats and cattle guards at all the freeway exits tell you this is ranching country.  The frequent use of terms to describe places like canyon, creek and gulch are unique to mountain country.  Because of a winter with record snow falls and a spring and early summer with record rains the countryside is adorned with colorful wildflowers and verdant vegetation.

We spent a couple of days in Buffalo, Wyoming at the foot of the scenic Big Horn Mountains, which is one of those historic wild west settlements.  The Occidental Hotel in town boasts having hosted the likes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill Cody.  Not too far south of Buffalo is some rugged country called the Hole in the Wall where outlaw gangs like those of Butch and Sundance used to hide out.  Situated on which was once the Bozeman trail taking people into the gold fields of Western Montana, Buffalo lore also includes the tragic tales of broken treaties and Indian wars. 

We made our way south to central Wyoming and spent three days in the town of Casper where my Stuart family reunion took place.  Casper is located in a valley on the North Platte River, at the foot of the northern end of the Laramie Mountains.  It was a strategic place in the mid 1800s where the Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail and California Trail all converged to cross the Platte.  Over 400,000 pioneers, adventurers and missionaries passed through what is now Casper making their way west in wagon trains.  Some sought gold, some land, some religious freedom, but all sought a new beginning.  The journey west including the crossing of the Platte was perilous and graves markers all along the trail were not uncommon.  This westward expansion is the largest unforced migration in human history.

My ancestors made their way west from Virginia in the late 1800s settling on the Little Missouri River in Marmath, North Dakota, just several miles from the Montana border.  They carved a life out as ranchers and sheep herders. When I was a little tyke, for some strange reason my grandfather made a decision not to sell the homestead to his two sons. So my father launched out on his own taking a job as a ranch hand in the Big Timber, Montana area.  During my childhood years we relocated four times to different parts of Montana including living in the north near Glacier Park and in Billings in the south.  My father was an outdoorsman so camping, fly fishing and big game hunting became a norm in the rhythm of our lives.  I loved it and the West just got into my bloodstream.  I was a cowboy at heart.The entire trip has given me a new and deep appreciation for my Western heritage. Of course the highlight was my time with all my cousins, their spouses, children and grandchildren.  It was like coming home even though I had never met the second and third generation Stuarts before. They came from as far away as Ohio, Arizona and California. And the most moving for me of all was reconnecting with my only living aunt whom I had not seen in nearly fifty-five years.

There is nothing like Western hospitality and my cousins exuded it.  JB and Linda Stuart hosted us for three days at their place west of Casper and fed us around the clock.  The charcoal grills were always going and kept our mouths moving when we weren’t talking, with inch thick steaks, chicken, burgers, dogs, brats and a roasted pig. 

A big shout out to all who attended and to all the family pioneers who made their way out West over a century ago to give us all such a rich heritage!

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