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Published October 02, 2017
During the Vietnam War, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was cut through the perilous mountain terrain by North Vietnamese to run supplies, ammunition and soldiers to reach South Vietnam. Similarly, a stretch of highway along the Interstate 80 corridor was constructed in rugged mountainous areas, which has not been popular over the years, especially during brutal Wyoming winters.
John Waggener, a University of Wyoming associate archivist at the American Heritage Center, details a 77-mile, I-80 stretch in his new book, “Snow Chi Minh Trail: The History of Interstate 80 between Laramie and Walcott Junction.” The book is published by the Wyoming State Historical Society, a nonprofit, membership-driven educational organization.
Waggener’s book title comes from long-haul truckers who dubbed that 77-mile stretch the “Snow Chi Minh Trail,” a negative reference to the similarly mountainous roadway used by North Vietnamese soldiers.
“Those truckers saw a lot of action and relived some of it as they drove across I-80,” Waggener says. “Not many stretches of highway across America have generated so much interest to fill the pages of a book, but Interstate 80 between Laramie and Rawlins is one of those exceptions.”
That stretch of road in south-central Wyoming is steeped in tragedy, controversy, myth and even conspiracy, Waggener explains in his book.
The newly constructed stretch of I-80 was dedicated Oct. 3, 1970, but residents had warned highway officials of the adverse weather conditions around the Elk Mountain area and advised them not to build a road in that location. Wyomingites who knew their history reminded highway officials that the Union Pacific Railroad looked at that same area 100 years earlier when planning and constructing the nation’s first transcontinental railroad and decided against the shorter, more direct route.
But, just four days after the highway was dedicated, a winter storm wreaked havoc on motorists traveling on the new highway, which Wyomingites referred to as a “monument to human error,” Waggener says.
He says his family made many trips down I-80 and is familiar with the terrain.
“Our road trips were full of sightseeing, explanations and interpretations of the natural, cultural and historical wonders found along the way,” Waggener says.
One of his more vivid memories comes from an introduction to the “Snow Chi Minh Trail” in 1972 when his parents took him to the Oct. 7 Wyoming Cowboys football game. He still has the ticket stub.
“The road conditions that day were favorable, but I will always remember the near whiteout conditions my dad got us safely through on several other occasions,” he adds.
Waggener started working on the book project in 2004 and says, “It is pretty emotional to finally see it published.”
Charlene Busk, Wyoming State Historical Society publications committee chair, says the society is pleased to partner with Waggener because his book records the history of the importance of that stretch of highway, which became a public relations nightmare for the Wyoming highway officials.
“The book is a primary resource with many oral histories of people involved in the construction of I-80 since the mid-1950s and numerous photographs, some of which have never been published,” Busk says.
Waggener is a fifth-generation Wyomingite, born and raised in the Interstate 80 town of Green River. He attended UW, where he earned his undergraduate degree in education and geography, and his graduate degree in geography. He has been a faculty archivist at the American Heritage Center since 2001, where he enjoys preserving historical Wyoming documents and making them available to researchers.
The book is available from booksellers around the state or can be ordered directly from the Wyoming State Historical Society. Call Linda Fabian, the society’s executive secretary, at (307) 322-3014 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.