By: Randy Tucker
The University of Wyoming is the “highest center of learning” in America. Harvard, Stanford, and MIT might take offense to that statement, but since they reside at low altitude near the coasts, they can’t argue with the physical statement that Laramie, Wyoming, at 7,220 feet in altitude, is indeed the highest school in the country.
UW, as we all call it, has a classic college feel, but the big attraction to many students isn’t the curriculum, but the surrounding environment.
The Snowy Range Mountains are just a few miles west of campus; Lake Hattie, Twin Buttes Reservoir, the Laramie River, and Vedauwoo, an incredible outcropping of rocks on the Summit between Cheyenne and Laramie, all offer adventure you can’t find anywhere else in the world while pursuing a college education.
My roommate, Frank, from Bismarck, North Dakota, would have skipped class entirely and spent his entire time at UW in the surrounding wilderness if his parents would have allowed it.
We spent many long afternoons and nearly every weekend hunting deer, rabbits, sage grouse, ducks, and geese, along with chasing brown trout in the Laramie River and brook trout amidst the beaver ponds of Vedauwoo.
Snow hit Laramie early, hard, and often. Nearby Interstate 80, nicknamed the Snow Chi Minh trail, is still notorious for being closed more often than it’s open from December to March each year.
It was late November. Sage grouse, pheasant, and dove seasons were long gone. Deer, antelope, and elk season were all closed as well.
One afternoon, after a light dusting of 14 inches of heavy snow, Frank and I decided to go coyote hunting. Frank had an older 12-gauge Mossberg pump. I was well armed with my Iver Johnson 12 gauge and a Coast to Coast bolt action .22 with open sights. We had a borrowed 22 magnum rifle, but only had .22 long rifle shells. The .22 mag would chamber the .22 longs, but wouldn’t eject them. It became a single shot, and it took a pocket knife to pry the jammed long rifle shells out of the chamber after every shot.
We loaded into Frank’s 1968 Ford pickup. Think of the ugliest brown color you’ve ever seen on a vehicle, then take it down a few notches, and you had Frank’s “chick magnet,” as we called it. Nope, that was just a play on words – girls were definitely not attracted to the old, two-wheel-drive truck with the dented topper.
A short drive had us on the Laramie River drainage west of town without a coyote in sight. We drove on to the Snowy Range west of the tiny town of Centennial and the nationally famous Old Corral Steakhouse, and still nothing.
We finally found tracks in the snow near a chained gate that read “Longmont Sportsman’s Club.” We didn’t care for the Colorado influence on our forests and hunting areas. We would have been tempted to shoot the sign, a common example of Wyoming reaction to a foreign invader, but it was already full of holes from previous pilgrims.
With no game to chase, we were about to turn for home when we remembered our girlfriends at the time had mentioned they’d like a Christmas tree for the Tri Delta sorority house – if we could find one.
Trees are one thing you can find easily in the snowy range. We had a couple of National Forest Service tree permits, and set off the highway, breaking drifts in a side road towards some likely Christmas tree candidates.
The snow was only about four feet deep just off the road, and a pair of nice trees were waiting for us just 50 yards off the gravel road.
We looked in the back of Frank’s truck for his bow saw. It wasn’t there, no doubt borrowed by one of our many knuckle-dragging fellow travelers.
I was at a loss, but Frank had a solution.
“Shoot the trunk with your 12 gauge,” Frank suggested.
Ok, I thought, why not?
We shoveled the snow away from the base. I put the barrel about six inches from the trunk and fired. It neat curved hole cut a couple of inches off the three-inch diameter trunk. A second shell from the old single shot Iver Johnson and the 15-foot tree toppled over.
We repeated the process with a smaller seven-foot tree for our apartment (it took just one shot), and our tree tags were full.
We tied the trees to the roof of the topper, and we were the heroes of the sorority for a few days. You hunt in season, that’s how it’s done.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at email@example.com.