Cape Gazette

SEA TO SHINING SEA: Hanging out at Wyoming State Penitentiary

By Dennis Forney | Jun 25, 2013
Photo by: Dennis Forney This water tower stands over the 50-acre Wyoming State Penitentiary.

RAWLINS, WYOMING — DAYS 40, 41 AND 42 - June 24.  Recapping across America.  On Day 40 we made no progress. After the solstice night in Lander, we started out late the next day.  With an unusual morning rain storm in this dry part of Wyoming, and a continually thickening sky, and people yelling something about severe out their car windows, we pulled into a farmer's lane to check the weather report.  Tornado watch until 6 p.m. We retraced our steps and rode back into Lander to spend the day and let the weather pass. "Discretion is the better part of valor," said Albert. 10 miles - five out and back - and no progress.

On Day 41, we cranked into high gear, leaving town with the day's first light.  We made Jeffrey City, a virtual ghost town following a uranium bust in the late '70s, by noon.  59 miles.  Good tail winds.  At the Split Rock Bar, they told us the winds would hold through evening. Rather than pitch our tent in an overgrown Lions Club Park, we decided to press on to Muddy Gap - 22 miles to the east - riding the wind.  At Muddy Gap the road turned southward into the strong Wyoming wind.  We napped on a picnic table and waited for the wind to let go. No sense in bucking that force.  It finally eased, two hours later, at about 7 p.m. With plenty of daylight left, we decided to press on another 11 miles to Lamont. (Jeffrey City had 4,000 residents in 1980.  About 100 now.)

With the day fading and the big moon about to rise, we finally pitched our tent on a clear piece of dust near the crossroads of Lamont, in a sage-brush pasture with dried cow dung scattered around us. Made that big moon especially romantic. But we were happy with the day's 92 miles and pledged to arise at 5 a.m. to hit the road early to beat Day 42's promised headwinds.  We did, and we outran them.  33 miles later - this morning - we rolled into Rawlins and checked into a Day's Inn for a shower and a work day.

We also toured the Wyoming State Penitentiary that housed thousands of criminals between 1901 and 1981. A big, cold concrete cage complete with gallows and gas chamber.  Lots of negative energy, that's for sure, but very interesting.

We looked at pictures of an attractive young woman sent to prison after poisoning and killing a prominent Wyoming rancher and citizen who also happened to be her father.  She laced one of several berry pies with a bottle of strychnine and confessed that she had succumbed to a sudden and irresistible urge to kill someone. According to her own confession, when her mother told her to cut some pie to pack in her father's lunch, she cut a slice from the poisoned pie. Her father died.  The jury found her guilty, but, with great compassion, sentenced her to only four years in prison.

"There's a woman who was abused," Becky said.  "She might not have said it but I bet that's what it was all about.  She wanted the abuse to end.  Of course she never said anything about that.  Too ashamed.  Women didn't talk about those things back then."

And prison justice?  The guide said a woman who lived in Rawlins baked cookies and sent them to her son, or grandson, who was in the prison and always made enough for the others.  One inmate escaped, and went to the home of the only person he knew in Rawlins, the cookie lady.  For some criminally-insane reason, the escapee beat the woman and left her for dead.  She eventually died from her injuries.

The man was caught and town authorities, fearing he would be lynched by the townspeople if kept in the town jail, turned him back to the prison for safekeeping.  "Within just a few hours every inmate knew what had happened and who was back among them," said our guide.  "They quickly overpowered the guards, tied a noose around the man's neck and threw him over one of the high railings in a cellblock. That was the end of that sad story."

The prison was a grim place but is being preserved as a reminder of how one state prison used to operate.

So, our total has now reached 1,729 miles across this amazing country.  Still averaging about 10.  Still ascending thousands of feet each day.  Tomorrow, Day 43, we'll head east and south into Colorado.

Here are some photos from yesterday and today. Thanks again for being with us, and pray for people's good behavior so they don't end up in five-foot-by-seven-foot cages like we saw in the Wyoming State Penitentiary.

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The cellblocks with tiny cages for inmates held hundreds of prisoners.  In 80 years, 14 men were executed here - nine by hanging, five in the gas chamber.
The penitentiary was built in 1901.
Several miles west of Lander we passed this ranch with the only building I've seen built with native rock this color.
Across the street from the ranch, and everywhere else in the area, we saw plenty of the red rock.
If you look closely you will see small derricks working on the ranch.  Dusty at the Split Rock Bar said they are probably natural gas operations, though they looked like oil-pumping rigs.  This area of Wyoming has been producing oil and gas since the early 1900s.  There are still lots of Sinclair stations out here with their brontosaurus symbol. Rawlins is an oil and gas town and there's a distinct odor of petroleum in the air here, not unlike the smell motorists get sometimes when passing the refinery at Delaware City.
The green and terra cotta colors on this rock formation made me stop and let them flow into my eyes.  Such beautiful and complementary colors.
Seeing familiar names in unusual places - as at the entrance to this small Wyoming ranch - always grabs my attention.
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