Bighorn Mountains, bucket list, Buffalo WY, Cowboy Cafe, Dubois WY, Heinkel HE 162, Leigh Ann Hester, M60 Tank, MiG 21, National Museum of Military Vehicles, Sherman Tank, Star Plunge, Stuart tanks, Tensleep Canyon, Tensleep WY, Thermopolis WY, Wind River Canyon
Last week I crossed another item off my bucket list. A bucket list, as I’m sure you recall gentle readers, is a list of things one wants to do and/or see before kicking the bucket. For our foreign readers not acquainted with American idioms, “kicking the bucket” is synonymous with dying. This is a bit of a travelogue as well, with plenty of photos.
We begin our journey at Buffalo, Wyoming, at the eastern foothills of the Bighorn Mountains in central Wyoming. Also figuring prominently in our two day adventure were Thermopolis and Dubois, Wyoming. Thermopolis, because natural mineral hot springs provide extraordinary swimming and soaking pleasures, and Dubois, because it is picturesque and historic—pretty much every place in Wyoming is picturesque and historic—and because it is the home of The National Museum of Military Vehicles, but more about all of that shortly.
We’ve been to Thermopolis and our favorite soaking and swimming hole, Star Plunge, many, many times, but not for nearly 25 years, so it was about time. Why 25 years? We finished our teaching careers in Texas and moved back to Wyoming to retire two years ago. Enlisting my sister, her hubby, and Mrs. Manor in the adventure, we hit the road.
The first leg of the trip is over the Big Horn Mountains, which more or less summits at Powder River Pass at 9666 feet. The two lane, 65 MPH, highway is well maintained, and the route, which is through the Big Horn National Forest, was already turning a multitude of fall colors. We saw a Moose, Antelope (of course), Deer (also of course), Cranes, wild Turkeys, and also drove through a cattle drive heading down Tensleep Canyon. It was a very Wyoming trip.
For folks not used to winding mountain roads, the highway can be a bit daunting, though the guide signs only reduce speed to about 45 MPH in several spots. If you’re interested in geology or history, the trip, particularly in the Big Horns, is a journey though time. There are frequent signs pointing out rock formations, some billions of years old–the rocks, not the signs.
It isn’t until the west downward slope of the Big Horns one reaches Tensleep Canyon, which can be downright scary for flatlanders, as the highway features a couple 25 MPH hairpin turns, and steep drop-offs on the shoulder. The canyon, however, is breathtakingly beautiful any time of year. The area more or less levels out as it nears Tensleep, which is—you guessed it—picturesque and historic. The area from there to Thermopolis is ruggedly beautiful country which supports cattle and sheep ranching, and agriculture with extensive irrigation.
Passing through Thermopolis—there are plenty of accommodations–one descends into Wind River Canyon, which like Tensleep Canyon is one of America’s little known wonders. The railroad runs on the west wall of the canyon, the highway on the east:
Here’s a shot Mrs. Manor took at the lower end of the Canyon:
Following the canyon are more rolling agricultural, oil production and ranching lands, and then: Thermopolis. You can see the nature of the mineral hot springs in this photo. The Star Plunge slide tower is at the right hand side of the photo. As you near Thermopolis, a slight mineral odor becomes obvious, but it’s never overpowering.
We got a motel room in Thermopolis and headed out to Dubois immediately, but a few photos of Star Plunge first:
Outdoors are a large unheated pool, which is naturally warm, and also a big hot pool at 103°.
Indoors are another large, natural pool, and another hot pool, a bit hotter. Also there’s a “vapor cave.” Think a natural mineral steam room. It’s wonderful. Here are several of the outdoor slides:
Star Plunge, of course, has snacks, t-shirts, swimsuits and other goodies. The glory of the place is fully realized in the winter, at night, when it’s really cold. Many a time we’ve found ourselves sheltering in the outdoor pools, warm and happy, as snow fell. It is times like those one can really appreciate not only God’s bounty, but man’s ingenuity, and the leisure all those who came before us worked so hard to create makes possible.
But on to Dubois, two hours across more agricultural and oil production scenery, from Thermopolis. We ate at the historic Cowboy Café, which has good food—great fries—and about 20 varieties of obscenely good, freshly baked, home made pie. Then it was back to the museum, which is six miles east of town. This photo gives only a slight sense of its size:
The museum was founded by Dan Starks who bought a tank in 2012, liked it, and since has bought hundreds of vehicles and aircraft, opening the museum in May of 2020. I heard of it when I returned to Wyoming to retire in May of 2020 and have been looking forward to seeing it. I expected something pretty good, but I had no idea…
The main building is huge, and there is another building housing a canteen, collections of some of the smaller items like bayonets and swords, and many meeting rooms. The first thing one notices, apart from the several tanks and other vehicles bracketing the entrance, is a vast yard of hundreds of vehicles, like this:
Yes, it’s a genuine MiG 21. The steps allow one to see how tiny and cramped the cockpit is. The 21 was the Soviet’s first Mach 2 fighter. Like all Soviet designs, it was crude compared to American hardware, but was cheap, made in large numbers, and reasonably effective. Here are some examples of other vehicles in the yard. Notice how well preserved all are, though most have not had the extensive renovation of the vehicles in the building:
Also outside is an enormous covering for many vehicles. These WWII era Stuart light tanks, which appear to have more extensive renovation, were at one corner:
The entrance to the building is guarded by this M60 tank, the tank that secured our arsenal until the M1. Notice it is pristine, appearing as though it just rolled off the factory floor:
I had to limit the photos of the interior. It’s just too big and there’s too much to see, read and learn. One could easily spend many days in the museum. We, sadly, had only a few hours. I know perhaps more than the average bear about such things, but there were far more vehicles I could not immediately identify than those I could. I began here—the rifle that fired the first shot at The Battle of Bunker Hill (17 June, 1775):
The museum is organized mostly chronologically. Here are some machine guns from the WWI era:
Weapons of the Vietnam era:
The firearm collection is much more extensive than these photos suggest. It’s difficult to adequately describe the size and professional layout of the museum. One travels down one long hall or section only to find another and another. It’s actually relatively easy to get lost. This short row of tanks and armored cars may help provide some perspective:
This is a WWII era Sherman Tank. They were badly outgunned by German tanks, but they were sturdy, reliable and we made them in huge numbers.
Notice the length of this partially depicted hallway of trucks:
Vehicles are not the only features. This is breach of a 16” gun as used on our WWII battleships. Note the size of the projectiles.
There are several unique aircraft indoors as well. I was surprised to find this pristine Heinkel HE 162:
This was the first operational jet fighter. Developed near the end of the war, it could only fly for about 30 minutes, and was fielded only in small numbers. Like the much more successful ME 262, its engine was unreliable and needed to be replaced after only a handful of hours in the air. Though badly underpowered, it managed 562 MPH at 19,500 feet. It was also very dangerous to fly, and most pilots—by then, the most experienced German pilots were mostly dead–were killed in training or transport accidents. Only seven HE 162s survived the war, which makes finding this one in Dubois, WY extraordinary.
Surrounding the M60 guarding the building entrance are marble panels with appropriate sayings, such as this:
I was particularly touched by this one:
OK, OK, so maybe that one really isn’t there, but he did say it.
We reluctantly left the museum. By the way, as a veteran, I paid no admission. Mrs. Manor’s was $20 bucks, and worth every penny. The museum really is a national treasure. I’ve seen far less professional museums with a larger reputation. The staff were sharp and helpful. Guides are available at a word, and there are several videos playing in small theater nooks throughout the exhibits. The gift shop was well stocked with clothing, books and other nice goodies. I was pleased to find there is a library named in part for Leigh Ann Hester, which is particularly appropriate. Take this link to see why. The library wasn’t open, but I’m looking forward to seeing it when we have more time in the future.
The museum and its message made my heart swell with patriotic pride. Of course, my heart often does that, but not so often with the fervor that day induced. One would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the brilliance and sacrifice of so many who have made our lives so easy and full.
All along the path we traveled are a variety of other, smaller museums, including a dinosaur museum in Thermopolis. Sadly, we didn’t have time to visit them all, but plan to do it sometime in the future. We’re also returning to Thermopolis for another visit some cold, snowy night this winter.
If the Museum, and the path we traveled aren’t on your bucket list, they ought to be.