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Tag Archives: Wyoming

Grand Teton Up Close and Personal_900px-60pct-sRGB

Grand Teton, highest peak in the Teton Range

One hundred miles north of Afton, Wyoming, is Grand Teton National Park which shares its northern border with Yellowstone NP. The peak for which the park is named, Grand Teton–at 13,776′ (4,199 m), is the highest peak in the Teton Range and the second highest after Gannett in the State of Wyoming. The first ascent of Grand Teton was made in 1898 and it remains a principal mountaineering destination in North America. Looking at it eye to eye like this, it’s benign until you imagine picking your way from one hand or toehold to another, hoping not to disturb loose rock or to slip on late summer ice, wishing the winds away.

Dramatic peak to valley distance

Grand Teton together with ten others over 11,000′ in height cluster to make a grand vista called the Cathedral Group. Higher mountains elsewhere in the world are much less dramatic because their foothills make a gradual slope upward. Tremendous peak to valley distances were formed as the young Tetons lifted along a tectonic fault with the east face falling to form the Jackson Hole valley.  Such steep elevations rising abruptly 5,000′ to 7,000′ from the valley floor make a dramatic impression. Today’s Jackson Hole is a playground where once it was a cow town and the whole area plays host to film crews seeking landscape, movie stars and wannabees, tourists, and just plain folks.

Grand Teton, up close and personal

While I’m not especially fearful of heights, a mountaineer I am not! Thanks to a lovely little airplane named Fire Horse we were allowed our own assault on Grand Teton. On a hot August day last summer I was flying a little more than 2,000′ below the top of Grand Teton, high enough to safely clear surrounding terrain up close and personal with the mountain, near enough to feel that a little stretch would just about touch! It was a dry summer of high winds and smoky fires. You can see a layer of dense smoke below the cloud deck and above that clear blue. The white patches are glaciers. Nearly a mile below the right side of the airplane I could see Jenny Lake at the base  of the mountain. Several years ago I painted a couple at their engagement on the shore of Jenny Lake with part of the Teton Range behind them. No wonder he chose that spot!

Good news!

I’m smiling! Today I received the flippie from The American Surveyor where FIVE of my photographs were published as part of this month’s cover story, “Arrows Across America.” It was an adventure fulfilled to land at Medicine Bow, Wyoming, and then to explore what was left of the original beacon tower and generator shack. As exciting as it was to land on the rugged dirt strip last August after chasing antelope out of the way, it was a wonderful reward to see five of that day’s photographs in print together with photo credits to Sharyn Richardson – Light Pixie Studio in the leading journal for professionals in land surveying and GPS technology. One of the photos is showcased with a 2-page spread leading the article.

Arrows Across America- Medicine Bow, Wyoming - remnants of aviation

Arrows Across America- Medicine Bow, Wyoming – remnants of aviation’s first radio navigation system

Arrows Across America

Almost one hundred years ago, there were hundreds of these giant arrows stretching from coast to coast. They guided pilots through harsh weather and dark of night to deliver the mail as part of the first radio navigation system. In the wildest parts of the American west many remain, weather stripped of their original bright yellow color and with the beacon towers that topped them harvested for iron during the Second World War. I photographed this one in Wyoming at Medicine Bow and another nearby at Rock Springs; they’re derelict now but more or less whole.

Can you help us find the others?

There are many others too, hidden away in wilderness for the adventurous to find, a lost part of American history and the technological past. So if you know of one near you, please do let us know!

Tail draggers are old-fashioned

You have to fly a tail dragger even when you’re still on the ground. Ours surprises everyone who discovers its full glass cockpit and modern options. One of the things that guides our travel is exploration of the unusual and we’re always game to launch to find it.

Flying for pleasure

Flying a few hundred feet (or a few thousand) above a scene offers a totally different perspective, a living map of sorts and a history textbook too. It changes how we think of things. I’m a licensed pilot and fly for pleasure alongside my husband who is a very senior pilot. He’s instrument rated and I’ve passed the IFR written, hoping to take the FAA check ride soon. We both love our time together in the cockpit. The huge respect we’ve always shown each other has grown in depth and range as we interact in this, a challenging enterprise with no room for folly; we’re safer for the full participation of the other.

And did I mention that it’s oh so much fun!


Giant arrows are for pointing the way!

Once there were hundreds of giant arrows made of cement pointing the way across America, directing traffic for transcontinental airmail routes. In some wild, lonely places where the weeds grew faster than towns, the arrows remain, forlorn without fresh yellow paint, cracked and waiting to be rediscovered by the adventurous or the lucky few.

Giant Arrows across American

This is the beacon tower and generator shack sitting atop one of the giant arrows at Medicine Bow, Wyoming, still standing in September 2013


Giant Arrows included infrastructure for ground maintenance and transient pilots

At right is the same station as it looked in the early 1920s–the two forefront buildings for administration and crew quarters are long gone. In the background you can see the generator house with the prototype black band and the tower.

We’d heard that one of the giant arrows could still be found at Medicine Bow, Wyoming. Last month offered a chance to fly a low course down the wild runway chasing antelope out of the way before flying a proper pattern to land. Later that same afternoon we found the beacon tower at Rock Springs as well.





One of the Giant Arrows is at Medicine Bow, Wyoming

Back-country wilderness strip at Medicine Bow, Wyoming, and our Husky.

In 1920 the world’s first ground-based air navigation system was authorized by the Congress of the United States

Pilots flying their wood and fabric taildraggers needed guidance from station to station. This first continent-spanning airway was an impressive beginning but in inclement weather with reduced visibility or in the dark of night a pilot couldn’t reliably follow railroad tracks and early road maps. These open-cockpit airplanes only had a magnetic compass for navigation plus a turn and bank indicator and altimeter for flight instruments.


A system of lighted beacons atop giant arrows was needed to keep the airmail moving

In a fierce blizzard (1921) a relay of six airplanes and six pilots flew routes coast to coast in opposite directions. One determined pilot named Jack Knight flew three segments of the trip from San Francisco to New York. He succeeded in large measure because of a long series of bonfires along the remotest parts of the route that were tended by postal employees.

As a result of this grand proof of concept, funds were appropriated in 1923 and work began immediately on the first segment of lighted beacons from Cheyenne to Chicago. Why here in the middle of the country? A pilot could start at either coast and reach the long stretch of numbered and color-coded beacons by nightfall to follow them through the dark landscape.

Giant arrows across America

The beacon towers were placed on the mid-point of the concrete arrows to shine their lights forward and back along the route.

By 1926 a 650 mile route from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City was marked every 10 to 15 miles with a yellow painted arrow and a 51 foot steel tower topped by two 100,000-candle 24” rotating beacons pointing back and forth along the airway. A generator shack for continuous power and quarters for crew to keep it running completed the scene. At night pilots could see the flashing lights over forty miles away and flying closer to the beacons a clear panel at the top projected light onto the overlying cloud deck to help determine the ceiling.

The first of the giant arrows and its beacon were built at Rock Springs, Wyoming

By 1929 the giant arrows spanned the continent with 13 intermediate stops. Mail could now travel from New York to San Francisco in just 30 hours. So much achieved in so little time!

Another of the giant arrows can still be seen at Rock Springs

In 1930 a spacious hangar was built at Rock Springs with room for two 18-passenger airplanes and a waiting room. Amelia Earhart visited here and hangared her “Little Red Bus,” the Lockheed Vega she flew across the Atlantic, the one that’s in the Smithsonian. $45,000 bought a lot of hangar in 1930!

One airmail pilot offered route advice; decades later his words give a pretty good idea of the challenges faced by aviation pioneers:

  • CHE + 0 (miles from) Cheyenne Wyo. — Can be identified by the barracks of Fort Russell. The Cheyenne field is three-quarters of a mile due north of the town and due north of the capitol building, whose gilded dome is unmistakable. The field, though rolling, is very large and landings may be made from any direction. A pilot landing here for the first time must “watch his step,” as the rarified atmosphere at this altitude (6,100 feet) makes rough landings the rule rather than the exception. Fly west over or to the north of Fort Russell, which is about 4 miles from town, following the Colorado & Southern tracks to the point where they bend sharply to the north.

CHE + 80.   Elk Mountain Wyo. — To the north of the Medicine Bow Range, a black and white range of mountains, the black parts of which are forests and the white snow-covered rocks. Elk Mountain is 12,500 feet high. Fly to the north of this conspicuous mountain over high, rough country. The Union Pacific tracks will be seen about 15 miles to the north gradually converging with the course.

  • CHE + 134.  Rawlins Wyo. — Follow the general direction of the Union Pacific tracks to Rawlins, which is on the Union Pacific tracks. The country between Walcott and Rawlins is fairly level, but covered with sage brush, which makes landings dangerous. Rawlins is on the north side of the Union Pacific tracks at a point about a mile east of where the tracks cut through a low ridge of hills. Large railroad shops distinguish the town. The emergency field provided here lies about 1¼ miles northeast of town at the base of a large hill.  Landings are made almost invariably to the west. Surface of field is fairly good, as the sage brush has been removed. Easily identified by this, as the surrounding country is covered with sage brush. Landings can be made in any direction into the wind if care is exercised. Several ranch buildings and two small black shacks on the eastern side of the field help distinguish it. Leaving Rawlins follow the Union Pacific tracks to Creston.
The Rock Springs beacon and arrow are hidden behind newer buildings and forgotten

The original beacon house and light tower still stand at Rock Springs, Wyoming, surrounded by newer buildings. Rock Springs was a favorable place to begin the beacon system as somewhat lower terrain gave safer passage through the mountains. It served as the region’s Flight Service Station for 70 years until decommissioning in 1991. The current FBO staff was unaware of its long history.

CHE + 231.  Rock Springs, Wyo. — After passing Black Butte, Pilot Butte will be seen projecting above and forming a part of the Table Mountain Range. This butte is of whitish stone. Head directly toward Pilot Butte and Rock Springs will be passed on the northern side. The field is in the valley at the foot of Pilot Butte about 4 miles from Rock Springs. It is triangular in shape, the hangar being located in the apex. The surface of the field is good. The best approach is from the eastern side.

  • CHE + 246.  Green River, Wyo. — Follow the Union Pacific double-tracked railroad from Rock Springs. There is an emergency field here which is distinguished [on] account of its being the only cleared space of its size, near the town. Green river is crossed immediately after the city of Green River is passed. Here the course leaves the railroad which continues in a northwesterly direction. By flying approximately 230˚ compass course from here, Cheyenne [Salt Lake City] will be reached.
Original station interiors were utilitarian spaces

The original station interior at Rock Springs

Technologies have always changed us and made new opportunities

But technology never stands still–within twenty years the giant arrows were outdated. Most of the steel in the decommissioned towers went to the war effort. In most places the evidence is entirely gone.

There are exceptions. The Aviation Heritage Museum in New Mexico, has successfully restored one of the old sites, similar to those rediscovered in Utah and elsewhere which inspire hopes for their preservation.

Others like Medicine Bow are mouldering away in the sun, backdrop to cattle ranching and wilderness. An incredible place to visit. Whether you’re a pilot or not, AirNav gives particulars for the primitive airstrip (80V) that are fascinating. I learned for instance that there are on average only 20 aircraft operations a year, that the runway we landed on is graded annually and is in fair condition (the other is not maintained and is considered poor), that there is a lot of wildlife in the vicinity of both runways. There are gopher and badger holes, berms, ditches, fence obstructions, soft when wet, rough and uneven the entire length. And of course, there are no services.

Except we learned that the small hotel in town would pick you up if you called. Nice!

NOTE: In March 2014 five of my photos (with credits to Sharyn Richardson – Light Pixie Studio) were published in The American Surveyor magazine (the top journal for professionals in land surveying and GPS technology) to illustrate the cover story, “Arrows Across America,” by Mike Mickelsen, including the two-page lead. Check it out here.

Wild west at the Medicine Bow station

A bull stands guard with his harem at the old beacon station in Medicine Bow