I’m a sucker for a diorama. Always have been. Maybe it was those sugar eggs we got at Easter with the little scenes inside, or an over-eager grade school homework project that did it, I don’t know. Maybe I just like how life looks, all laid out for view in a tidy defined box. Whatever it is, it’s stuck with me. So when I pulled into the Southeast Welcome Center on I-25 outside Cheyenne, Wyoming and perused the brochures to see what might be found in Casper, where I was headed for the night, it is no surprise that the flyer for the Fort Caspar History Museum caught my eye. And it didn’t disappoint.
The museum is on the site of Fort Caspar, and the remaining buildings – officer’s quarters, the mess, the store and stables – have been restored and stocked and they sit away from the main museum site, so when you stand there, wind blowing up from the Platte, sun bearing down on an early fall day, squash ripening in the fort garden, you can *almost* sense what came before you, quiet, isolated. Blue coats, sabers, and captain’s hats adorn the bunks, checker and card games are laid out on communal tables next to tin mugs, ready for rowdy players and beer. A telegraph machine waits for news on a table in its own cabin. Off to the side, a Mormon Ferry buggy stands proud. Diorama, real-size.
Inside the museum, the history of Wyoming has been lovingly recreated in one diorama after another. A display of stone tools through different eras of history outlines changes in the land and the people, new kinds of stone, new types of tools, arrival of Europeans. Around it, in wood and clay, miniature native Americans hunt mammoth, hunt buffalo, build teepees, fend off Europeans, and then attack them. Men and horses fall in gory fashion, red-painted blood oozing from their detailed clay bodies. It’s miniature America in all her glory.
Wyoming is full of little treasures like this: pieces of history that have been picked up, cleaned off, embellished and put on display. I skipped three other museums in Casper in favor of getting back on the road to Bozeman, and didn’t even touch on others that are sprinkled along drivable routes across the state. Maybe it’s the benefit of oil dollars, though neither Fort Caspar nor the Welcome Center itself (which had a historical display, including a dinosaur skeleton and a number of dioramas) glossed over the boom and bust effect of the industry, that fund all these little gems.
And what would be the point in hiding this ugly truth? You can see it in the life-sized diorama of scenery that is Wyoming itself as the land goes by. Towns like Story, Buffalo, and Bar Nunn pulling you off into the distance of gas-scarred hillsides. Mule deer and cattle graze side by side on rolling grass-spotted hills and mesas, hiding between rock skyscrapers, divided by snow fences, waiting for winter.
You feel the state in your bones as you drive it: riverbeds of cottonwoods changing colors and hardly another tree in sight except on the distant jagged mountains. Red rock, granite, trains winding through. The Crazy Woman river running across it, running through you as you drive by. Wyoming. Wild. Windy. Wonderful Wyoming.