Gravel Valentine: A Geologist’s Guide to Wyoming

The geologist hands me a homemade brownie wrapped in a clear baggie, then points across my lap and out the window.

“This glacial environment makes up one of the nicer outwash plains we have. See that line of cobbles? Then a dip, and another line of cobbles? That’s where one of the braided streams went through millions of years ago.”

He directs my gaze out the opposite window of the truck, back toward the west end of the Big Hollow, a 27-square-mile dip carved by winds that zipped off glaciers during the ice age with a “Darth Vader-like power.” He adds, with apparent wonder: “Most people have no comprehension of what the wind can do.”

To me, it looks like a rolling field of blonde prairie grass.

Sporting triumphant gray sideburns and a Kawasaki baseball cap, Wayne Sutherland is a geologist at the Wyoming State Geological Survey in Laramie. He’s agreed to spend a day to “wave arms” about rocks and show me around the Medicine Bow Mountains, 45 minutes west of town. I reached out to him after reading John McPhee’s Rising From the Plains from 1986, part of his Pulitzer-winning series on American geology. In it, McPhee lyrically uncovers billions of years of history (he likens one landscape to a “family of hogs waking up beneath a large blanket”) and drives many of the state’s back roads with a Wyoming geology legend, David Love, who died in 2002. Sutherland is one of Love’s successors.

But why geology? Because a bit of geology can make a road trip.

Nearly 90 percent of visitors to Wyoming go to Yellowstone National Park. Some fly in; others get there as quickly as the interstates can carry them. Many see the rest of the state as merely the “Big Empty,” as Sutherland jokingly puts it. “They’re missing so much. Whenever someone says that ‘nothing’s there,’ I tell them to look at their feet. Every rock has a story.”

I meet Sutherland at his lab on the University of Wyoming campus (“just behind the tail of the giant dinosaur” next to the university’s geological museum). His lab is filled with maps, mineral-laden jars, computer screens showing colorful graphs, and filing cabinets of rock—including handfuls of multibillion-year-old rocks picked up from a three-work field trip he and a new addition to the team, Liz Cola, just completed to finish off a map for parts of the Rattlesnake Mountains.

Sutherland brings up Thomas Jefferson.

“It’s really an education failure that we don’t teach people the basics of land settlement patterns in the western U.S.,” Sutherland says dryly, folding open a Bureau of Land Management map of central Wyoming’s Shirley Basin from 2009. It’s a geometric grid of townships—36 sections of a square mile each. That three-quarters of the country is now divided that way demonstrates the far-reaching vision of Jefferson’s plan, outlined in an ordinance he wrote in 1784.

On the map, I see speckles of blue indicating state lands and white ones, private lands. My target, though, are the gold ones, which fill out most of the map like a gravel valentine. These are federal lands, crossed by gravel roads you’re free to ride along, pull off, and poke around. This is a DIY-back-roads-explorer’s dream. I had no idea.

“Wyoming has some of the best exposed, most viewable geology in the country,” says Sutherland, who once self-published a geology-disaster novel called Yellowstone Farewell. “Wyoming’s like an open book—from any page, all directions are possible.”

We drive along Highway 130 through “Brokeback Mountain” author Annie Proulx’s hometown at Centennial. A young clerk at the Friendly Store apologizes for eating onion rings at the register. “I don’t usually eat them here.”

Beyond the town, the road rises and twists past pines and enters the Medicine Bow Mountains. A handful of visitors picks wildflowers from roadside trails and a marmot watches us from atop a giant boulder. We pull off on a gravel side road to inspect some stromatolite, fossilized algae forms that jut nearly vertically from the ground. “These are about 1.7 billion years old,” Sutherland says. “They grow offshore Australia now.”

At the Libby Flats, we get out to gaze at the snowcapped Snowy Range, which Sutherland hiked with his wife, son, and dog Wookie last weekend.

Nearly everything he says about geology, I’m thinking, could double as a travel creed.

“Most people see the big scale, but spend very little time thinking about the small scale. There may be a fossil at your feet. If you don’t look, you won’t see it,” he begins. “It just requires a different way of seeing things. You have to see the details. Do you see the forest, the tree, or the bark? It’s just like looking at Mona Lisa’s smile.”

You can’t be a geology expert in a day, and I hadn’t planned on it. But my time with Sutherland has slowed me in my tracks.

The next morning I’m up early to head west on the old Lincoln Highway to stop for a cinnamon roll at the timeless Virginian Hotel in the town of Medicine Bow, a gravel-road town far from the namesake mountains where a freight train comes through every 20 minutes. Afterward, I take a secondary road north, then another, then another. I’m on a gravel road now, going north across the wide Shirley Basin, where wildflowers graze the bottom of my rental car as I weave up toward the shadowy top of the Chalk Buttes. I stop to get out.

Kicking at the pebbles and gravel gathered at the side of the road, I soon pocket a wide variety of stones: a translucent white rock polished by winds on its top side, a palm-size stone lined in cappuccino and dark chocolate stripes, a pink one with sparkling freckles. Neat souvenirs. (And ones you’re welcome to take.)

I wander farther off the road, over green sagebrush and tiny holes I reckon house snakes. Here, the landscape starts to suddenly fall sharply, tumbling at least 100 feet via a series of gullies. I kneel and look. To my left, the egg white top of Chalk Mountain looks over a basin with a twisting stream a hundred or more feet below me. I pull out the BLM map and see it’s called Stinking Creek. Behind me I hear a faint bark, pull out my binoculars, and look back way past the road and see a dozen antelope rushing across the distant prairie grass. Back toward the mountain, I see groupings of cloud shadows forming at the base—suddenly, one crosses, then another, like school kids sneaking away from a teacher.

No one is here. And I can see for miles. It’s so great it almost feels like cheating.

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Of this landscape that Sutherland has spent so much time in, he says, “the value of empty is something not enough people experience.”

Despite my time with him, I do not understand the geology I’m looking at in the Shirley Basin. And I don’t know what rocks I have in my pocket either. For now, I’m totally fine with that.


Email a geologist. Sutherland does take emails from people with specific interests in tracking down geology, landscapes, or even rocks. Do some research before reaching out.

Buy maps. The Bureau of Land Management prints maps that cover all of Wyoming. You can buy them from the Wyoming State Geological Survey in Laramie for $9.99 each. It’s OK to pick almost any place you’ll be driving nearby and take the back roads to see what you’ll find. Some gas stations sell local BLM maps, but you’re better off stopping in Laramie.

Read up. Gemstones and Other Unique Minerals and Rocks of Wyoming by W. Dan Hausel and Wayne M. Sutherland is available at the survey. Another superb resource is Roadside Geology of Wyoming, by David Lageson and Darwin Spearing. Both are available at the survey, open weekdays only. You’ll probably need to pick up John McPhee’s Rising From the Plains before arriving.

Know the rules before picking rocks. Wyoming encourages visitors to poke around and take a stack of crystals, agates, quartzite, and other rocks with you as Wyoming souvenirs. In some cases, there may be new restrictions. Ask in Laramie, or call a Bureau of Land Management office.

Prepare for gravel roads. Have a full tank of gas and plenty of water and food before heading onto back roads. Even in summer’s heat, pack a wool shirt or fleece jacket, and a windbreaker for weather changes. It’s a good idea to let someone know where you expect to explore.

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