Wyoming is a starkly beautiful place. At this time of year, it’s covered in snow, which is a vital source of water for the state which is, effectively, a desert. Being the least populous of all states, there are the odd jokes about there being more animal stock than people, etc. Fortunately Wyoming does much to fight this image:
It’s pretty cold, hovering around 7F / -13C, but it’s relatively pleasant. There’s no penetrating wind like there had been in Illinois, so it’s a refreshing chill. I’m driving through this desolate place (which, again, I have to point out that despite the few people and the vast distances, I’m still rarely a minute or two away from passing another car). I’m heading to a place that will test the very limits of my belief. Because it will ask me straight up if I:
Well. Let’s run down a few of the basics: I can see it, but I can’t hear it. I can’t smell it. I could possibly have touched it, but I didn’t touch it, so we’ll have to discard that. Similarly, and for fear of tongue-stick, I didn’t taste it. Under this weight of no evidence, I have to say that I’m leaning towards Not. Having made my decision, I congratulated myself on two years of studying philosophy and turned back to the car. Unfortunately, ruining all my epistemological fun, I saw this sign:
Apparently, Thomas Boylan, faced with the challenge of reassembling his collection of bones, which were unlikely to be from the same animal or species, came to the logical conclusion of “Nuts to this, let’s just slap ‘em together with some mortar.” It was all worthwhile as the cabin turned into a tourist attraction. Though I’m not sure how many people sat in their offices dreaming about taking a vacation to “that cabin thing, the dinosaur one, y’know, 50 miles from anything”.
I’m continuing onto Rawlins to catch a tour around one of the town’s main attractions:
It’s the Wyoming Frontier Prison. Frontier in the sense of geography, not in the sense of locking up people for new offences that push the frontier of crime. There’s no wifi though, so it might be a good place to punish all them cybercriminals. In winter, the tours of the prison are few and far between, and the gas chambers are closed off if it’s too cold (which it was). Instead, I and a family with an adorably enthusiastic wee boy got a wonderful tour around the place, starting with some wholesome hanging:
The design of the system was such that an executioner didn’t himself have to execute someone, presumably so they could feign surprise to the prisoner’s relatives. The Rube Goldbergian device was activated when the prisoner stepped on the plate, which caused water to empty from a bucket, which caused the bucket to be too light to counterbalance the weight, which knocked the wood from beneath the plate, which dropped and so dropped the prisoner. The worst part of this, one assumes, is that the trickle of water would make the prisoner really have to pee.
The prison had featured on some ghost-related TV show at some point and the wee boy was very excited to know the number and variety of ghostly experiences our tour guide had experienced. If she had been haunted, then it hadn’t dampened her mood at all as she cheerfully regaled us with tales of the prison and its inhabitants.
As one might expect from a prison that opened in 1901 in a state which, during winter, enjoys a temperature from highs of “freezing” to lows of “witch’s tit”, it was not an entirely pleasant experience for those locked up here. When it opened, it had no electricity or running water and what heat was in the prison came from feeble radiators. Frostbite or worse was common amongst the populace.
Between the prison’s closure and it becoming a tourist attraction, it was the filming location of Prison a superb sounding romp with a young Viggo Mortensen playing “Forsythe Electrocution”. Oh yes. Unfortunately, they took quite of lot of liberties with the building itself, damaging it, redesigning parts of it and leaving copious amounts of fake blood splatter all over the walls. (At least, “fake-blood splatter” is what our guide told the kid). The filmmakers weren’t the only influence on the aesthetics of the place. Prisoners were allowed to paint one section of the cell block during a renovation. They came up with this:
But let’s face it, who wouldn’t be cheerful, what with the en suite facilities available:
Of course, some prisoners wanted a more spiritual life, devoid of the extravagances of the standard cells. They also, for some reason, wanted much more secure doors. That is, the solitary confinement cells:
Bizarrely, the solitary confinement cells might have offered a more civilised stay, as they had better heating and hot running water decades before the original cell block.
The doors weren’t just an issue for privacy-conscious guests: one prisoner in the main cell block managed to break out of his cell by cutting through the lock of his cell with toothpaste and wool. Presumably the prison hadn’t switched to Sensodyne yet. The final main addition to the prison was Cell Block C, a maximum security wing, which went through several iterations of how to give prisoners light without giving them a lightbulb to smash and injure people with.
It wasn’t all fun and games, however. The prison reserved one room dubbed the Old Hole (now demolished) for extra-solitary confinement. It lacked certain amenities, for instance, any amenities.
As demonstrated by our lovely tour guide, a prisoner placed in this lightless room would not have enough space to lie down or, really, do much of anything. Prisoners unlucky enough to be put in there were naked, with no blanket or cover and given only a bucket. The amount of times you got to empty the bucket during the week depended on how well behaved you were. The last prisoner placed in it was subsequently sectioned in an asylum. Problem solved?
By the end of the tour, my feet are aching from the cold and as we head to the warmth of outside, we see a prisoner making a break for it.
That’s my time in Wyoming pretty much done. The Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks call across the winter landscape, they say things like “we’re beautiful”, “we’re majestic” and “if you try to come here in your dinky car you will freeze to death”, so I’m heading to Colorado next. I spend the night in Laramie, a town whose sad history does make me briefly think that the Old Hole punishment might be too humane.