July 13, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The ceaseless march of time drives a wedge between mankind and nature. Yearning for the pure, quiet, peaceful bliss of the great outdoors, I feel compelled to escape the onslaught of modern technological society—if only for a moment. Time for a road trip.

We depart on a warm Thursday morning in late May. The golden Subaru—filled with camping gear, cameras, and snacks—will be home base for the next several days. Our intended final destination: Medicine Bow, Wyoming.

Truthfully, I’m just along for the ride. We might as well be driving to Shangri-La. We gas up every couple hundred miles. But nothing fuels the expedition more than the ambition to fully disconnect.

We hear rumors that the mountain pass (our route to Medicine Bow) remains closed due to snow accumulation from the winter. Nevertheless, we proceed. Nine hours west of Omaha, we pull into Centennial, Wyoming. Medicine Bow lies on the other side of Snowy Range Pass.

Centennial has a population of roughly 200 people; there’s a history museum, unique lodges, a few restaurants and several bars. (Actually, there are a suspicious number of bars considering the population density.) We blow through the quaint mountain town on Snowy Range Road, Centennial’s main street.

Occasional trophy homes lightly dot the valley as we head up the mountain, intent on setting up camp and getting a hike in before nightfall. Even though our ultimate goal—Medicine Bow— may be inaccessible, we proceed anyway.

Centennial4Lo and behold, the pass is indeed closed. Unfazed, we set up camp halfway up the mountain and go on a long-awaited hike. We quickly notice the uninhabited wilderness of the area. Since passing through Centennial, we see only one other car—and not a single soul.

After a good night’s rest, we treat ourselves to a restaurant breakfast at the bottom of the mountain. Our table is adjacent to that of lifelong Centennial resident Melanie O’Hara. Within 10 minutes of sitting down, we are deep in conversation.

The 70-year-old retired English and history teacher explains that the forest service in Wyoming is severely underfunded—leaving trails unattended, and many rules unenforced.

O’Hara promptly invites us to her cabin for afternoon tea. She draws a map on a scrap of paper and says she’ll return home around noon.

Her commute back from the restaurant takes a little extra time since she doesn’t own a car. O’Hara says she hikes wherever she goes. Everywhere. Her two border collies (Gus and Pip) are her only protection. And this is in bear country. We agree to visit after our own morning hike.

We leave the restaurant, and we’re back to exploring the pristine wilderness.

After our second hike of the trip—and a couple wrong turns in the Subaru—we pull up to O’Hara’s cabin. She lives next to a ranger’s station that dates back to when Theodore Roosevelt tromped about these mountains.

Centennial3Her father named the cabin, “Valhalla,” and Valhalla is painted on a sign hanging from the cabin’s exterior. The cabin’s name, a reference to the vast hall where the Norse gods ruled over mythological Asgard, is a nod to her Scandinavian heritage. O’Hara says the word means “warrior’s paradise” in Norwegian.

She gives us a full tour of the cabin. It’s both a history lesson on Scandinavian cabin architecture, and a crash course on the genealogy of the 70-year-old structure’s occupants. O’Hara says her father built the cabin the same year she was born. Back then it was only the four walls, one room for the whole family.

“My mother wanted to have four children and knew this wouldn’t be enough space. Men don’t mind having it pretty basic, but women need a little more,” O’Hara says. “So she said, ‘Oh, Bucky precious darling prince of mine, could we build a room for the kids?’”

O’Hara’s father begrudgingly obliged. Several times they expanded the cabin. One of her favorite features of the residence is her John Denver Memorial Yodel Balcony. She doesn’t hesitate to demonstrate her yodeling skills. She steps outside, faces up the mountain, and lets out a long cadence of vocalizations—as her voice reverberates off the trees, I realize why yodeling is specifically an alpine tradition.

After tea she kindly asks us if we are interested in hiking further up the mountain to see the old mines, which had been shut down for more than a century. We gladly accept her offer.

O’Hara is a mountain woman to the core. She has been hiking these slopes since she was a kid, often spending all day alone up on the mountain with just her dog. As we hike up her familiar trails, she shares why the mountain is so sacred to her and her philosophy of “live and let live.”

Centennial2“You can come up here and be anything you want. Gay, straight, transexual, bisexual—whatever—because the bushes don’t care,” O’Hara says.

We visit the entrances to three defunct mines. The mine entrances were idealistically named: Centennial, Platinum City, and Utopia. Three hours after beginning our third hike of the trip, we descend the mountain educated on mining traditions, the town of Centennial, and O’Hara’s family history.

At the onset of this unexpected but necessary vacation, we departed Omaha with no specific plans or agenda. Only to escape, briefly. The cost of gas and food were a bargain considering what we received in return. Mother Nature offers priceless experiences free of charge.

Everyone has their own warrior’s paradise, and it seems there’s a little Valhalla for everyone in Centennial, Wyoming. Omaha Magazine.

Centennial1

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