Zip. Zilch. Nada. Naught. Zero.
Zero is absence. Zero is nothing and so much more — seemingly powerless, yet unbound by the laws that govern every other number. When we think of magical numbers, we don’t think of zero. But that just makes the magic stronger. So it’s only fitting the Wyoming Liberty Bell replica is number zero.
I spent the first quarter-century of my life in Philadelphia — pretty much the opposite of Wyoming. In my hometown, the kind of vast, open nothing that Wyoming is full of is nowhere to be found. Everywhere there is somewhere — a gridded city of a hundred-plus intersecting neighborhoods where our founding fathers and my mother and her mother walked the streets, crunching sycamore leaves beneath their feet after an honest day’s work managing a skyscraper, building a sidewinder missile, writing the Declaration of Independence.
Into the great wide open
I did not always appreciate the wide-open nothingness of Wyoming. At first, I feared it. After college, I moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, living without a car for most of the first year. It was different, certainly. The squirrels were bigger and redder. The air was thinner and crisper. In Catholic school, they taught us that God is always watching us. In Colorado Springs, you need only look up to the omnipresent 14,115-foot Pikes Peak to see the higher power — how ever you imagine them — watching your every move.
Still, it was a city like other cities, with bustling workers and sauntering students. When I bought a car, a gray Saturn SL1, along with it came a yearning to see what lay beyond my new home. The first and biggest thing I could think of was Mount Rushmore. Half of the 7-hour trek runs along Wyoming’s eastern flank. Driving north, as Cheyenne grew smaller in the rearview mirror, it was replaced by a deep, dark empty, the likes of which I had never seen. Funny how it sounds so appealing now and felt so terrifying then. I would have been more comfortable in any strange city anywhere. You might get killed in Baltimore or Mexico City, but not by a moose or by accidentally driving into the ditch, only to be discovered when the snow thaws in the springtime.
A few years later, I moved to Fort Collins, 42 miles south of the Wyoming border. Other than day trips to see ZZ Top or Bon Jovi or Tim McGraw at Cheyenne Frontier Days, I didn’t explore our northern neighbor much further. Then, in 2009, a friend told me Elton John was performing in Laramie, and the 11,000-seat basketball stadium was somehow not sold out. An hour from our home, as the highway slowed down and turned into Laramie’s main street, the roadside motel’s marquee spoke volumes:
The Rocket Man had come to the Equality State* not as a logistically sensible stop on his latest world domination tour but because of the town’s deepest scar and the one thing most Americans know about Laramie — the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard eleven years earlier. As we headed for home, gentle April flurries turned to winter whiteout conditions and traffic ground to a halt. Dawn and I and 9,000 other Coloradans had plenty of time to contemplate the grandeur of the performance and the gravity of the cause.
Everyone has this person in their life: on the surface, they seem like an inhospitable, inaccessible asshole — but when you really get to know them, they prove to be the exact opposite. I’m sure you’re picturing that person. Now, picture that person as a state. They’re Wyoming.
The windiest state in the lower 48, Wyoming has an average windspeed of 21.5 miles per hour, which doesn’t sound that bad until you think about how averages are calculated. Mix in snow, and you have a recipe for pure mayhem. While it’s only the 5th snowiest state (New Hampshire sees more than twice the snowfall), what Wyoming lacks in annual inches, it makes up for in sheer treachery. During the eight months the Wyoming Department of Transportation considers winter (October through May), the state is often impassable. Shelter in place or go back to where you came from. Over the 2019–2020 season, I-80 alone was closed 67 times.
With increasing regularity over the past decade, we’ve been drawn into the nothing to the north. It started with Vedauwoo (/ˈviːdəvuː/). Just off of I-80 between Cheyenne and Laramie, Vedauwoo’s 1.4 billion-year-old Sherman Granite hoodoos and outcrops draw in climbers, campers, long-haul truckers and questors of every ilk. We now consider the outdoors our church, and Vedauwoo is one of the most glorious cathedrals on earth.
And if you look, you’ll find no shortage of holy places in the state. Don’t bother stopping to see the tree growing out of a rock in the middle of the highway. Spend enough time in Wyoming, and you’ll find plenty of trees growing out of plenty of rocks.
Rock in a hard place
My wife loves magical rocks. I love my wife. Therefore, vicariously, I love magical rocks. And as such things go, the more time we spent with Wyoming’s magical rocks, the more of Wyoming’s magical rocks we discovered.
As graphic designers, our petraphilia makes perfect sense. Connecting with rocks is connecting with the first designers — humans who looked at their world and said, “This is great, but hear me out”… (they were already insecure) … “What if we moved these rocks over here and stacked them just so? Wouldn’t that be nicer?”
I Wanna Rock
In 1977, Steven Speilberg made the ultimate divorced dad flick. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Richard Dreyfus inexplicably chases his mashed potato dreams, even more inexplicably leaving Teri Garr (and his kids, don’t worry about the kids, it’s the ’70s) to drive to … Wyoming. There, he peeps on some little aliens and meets a different blonde woman — neither is a tenth as interesting or funny or a good mom or downright sexy as Teri Garr. Anyhoo, that weird rock platform set piece where the aliens land — it’s real. It’s in Wyoming. The Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Crow and Kiowa people all have much more compelling stories about what white people mistranslated as Devil’s Tower. None of them star deadbeat dads.
Yellowstone National Park is, literally and figuratively, more than Wyoming. But it’s also mostly in Wyoming. It’s crowded, and it’s touristy, and it’s all it’s cracked up to be. The best way to see something is to drive around and look for people who have stopped to look at something, then look at what they’re looking at (It’s a grizzly bear).
Both Saratoga Springs and Thermopolis offer healing hot springs and best-kept-secret, small-town vibes. Twenty-nine miles north of Thermopolis, Legend Rock State Park hosts nearly 300 rock art masterpieces depicting humanoid, animal and jazz-handed funky ancient aliens.
When the snow melts on a slightly sloping ridge in the Bighorn Mountains of north-central Wyoming, an 80-foot, 28-spoke stone circle is slowly revealed. The Medicine Wheel at Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark holds spiritual, ceremonial and astrological significance for Native Americans. Dating back possibly as far as 7,000 years, it’s one of the world’s oldest continuously used holy sites.
Arapaho people call it Houu Neci (Holy Water). In Google Maps, you’ll need to dial in Castle Gardens, then drive to the middle of nowhere, then drive another 40 miles on dirt roads.
Chalky white sandstone spires rise up from out of nowhere amidst the gently rolling plains of grazing land under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This compact, 6-square-mile site holds the most inspiring collection of indigenous art and the most disheartening display of vandalism in Wyoming. As you wind through the broad, accessible pathway, you’ll see the latter before the former: poor attempts to replicate native carvings, somebody who loved somebody else, and the class of 1979 setting their last collective bad decision in stone. Find the real art by looking for the 8-foot chain link fences. Then align yourself with the conveniently-cut viewing holes in said fences.
Sometime between 500 and 700 years ago, early Americans used handheld flat stones to rub smooth patches on the sandstone columns. On these vertical clean slates, artists then used bone or metal implements to incise circular shields, often divided into quadrants filled with animal, human and abstract figures.
In 2011, the BLM commissioned Sacred Sites Research to photograph and create detailed tracings of 52 petroglyph panels, some of which have never been recorded. While your naked eye won’t see any hues, Laurie White, photographer and co-author of the group’s report, used the DStretch App to reveal the red, orange, black, yellow and green pigments used to bring these stories to life.
But you won’t find Castle Gardens’ best piece at Castle Gardens. Sometime between 1932 and 1940, an unknown art thief chiseled the Great Turtle shield from its outcrop. White gave me some fascinating insight on the treasure’s provenance: In the early 1930s, archeologist and Denver University professor Dr. Etienne B. Renaud, after studying the Castle Gardens petroglyphs, was featured in the New York Times and Denver Post along with a photograph of the Great Turtle. Renaud spun yarns about the ancient mysterious race of people who left these stone pictures behind.
“This was not long after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, and America was crazy to have its own ancient monuments and artifacts to mine and pillage,” White explains. After the articles ran, the turtle disappeared. What happened next is perfectly Wyoming. “The locals were furious and spread the word vigilante justice was coming to the thieves. Lo and behold, it magically was dropped off at the Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne, in the middle of the night, another righteous stoning averted.”
The Great Turtle has been on display at the museum ever since. Also in the museum’s collection: the Wyoming Liberty Bell. But you won’t find the bell in the museum. You’ll need to call ahead to arrange a visit to the offsite storage garage of shame where it currently resides.
On May 16, 1950, truck driver Walter Albertson of Cheyenne, chosen on the basis of his personality and ability, flew to New York to attend a one-day training session at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. A tank driver in the 4th Armored Division during the war, Albertson is no stranger to picking up new skills. This time, he’ll learn how to operate the phonograph, loudspeakers and Liberty Bell replica mounted on the flatbed Ford he’ll pilot for the next 48 days.
But before Albertson even left for Brooklyn, a Liberty Bell replica had spent some time in Wyoming. On May 4, Washington State’s driver Roy McArthur, part of the first wave of bell drivers, got waylaid in Casper. A few miles out of town, snow made the roads impassable. With no heater in the truck, McArthur wisely chose not to ride the storm out. He returned to Casper, where the Natrona Motor Company installed a heater at no charge. After posing for a few newspaper photos, he and his bell returned to their state. With all the meticulous planning and contingencies considered, the US Treasury had not considered the last month of Wyoming winter.
Despite the inclement weather, which continued into June, Walter Albertson and his bell were met with rousing ovations across the state. Having taken part in the liberation of France after D-Day, he was no stranger to driving down streets lined with adoring citizens. But unlike his time abroad, his mission here is a piece of cake — sell Wyoming’s quota of $1,463,000 in Savings Bonds.
At a modest ceremony in Cheyenne on July 5, state Senator George Burke, acting as Governor in A. G. Crane’s absence, accepted the Wyoming Liberty Bell on behalf of its citizens. It remained on Capitol grounds for most of the next 70 years, mounted atop a 5-foot concrete pedestal at the southwest corner of the complex.
Zero needs a hero
In 2015, the state launched the ambitious 4-year, $307.8-million-dollar Wyoming Capitol Square Project, intended to “restore the Capitol’s historic features, returning the building back to its original majestic grandeur.” A state-of-the-art utility plant was slated to cost $19 million. The budget for furniture, fixtures and equipment (defined as anything that would fall out of the building if you turned it upside down) was $8 million. Taxpayers spent at least $336,000 on artwork.
The budget to restore and redisplay the Wyoming Liberty Bell: $0.
In 2019, it quietly disappeared. So what happened? Did Wyoming sell its Liberty Bell to Kanye West? No. Who would spread such nonsense? Can QAnon point to clues in the films Brokeback Mountain and Home Alone 2 to find evidence of a deep-state conspiracy to silence the Cowboy State’s Liberty Bell? Definitely.
But what really happened is both more boring than I’d like and more common than you’d think. It’s the same thing that happened at Monticello and is happening now in Kentucky: the cool, kitschy 1950 advertising promo did not fit into the historically accurate vision of a Capitol returning to its most majestic grandeur.
Like many of its counterparts, the bell had fallen into disrepair. The yoke was splitting, and the bell was propped up on blocks to keep it from collapsing under its own weight. Jennifer Alexander of the Wyoming State Museum confirmed what I and other bellhounds already presumed: the Wyoming Capitol Square Project had no place for their state’s Liberty Bell. There are currently no plans or allocated funds to return the bell to public display. In 2019, restoration costs were estimated at $14,000.
Feels like we’ve been here before
On August 31, 2023, I visited the Kansas Liberty Bell replica, which has been unceremoniously stashed in an underground parking garage for the last two decades. Thanks to Kansan bellhounds squawking at their elected officials and enterprising members of the Capitol Preservation Committee, including (my friend) Senator Elaine Bowers, the bell is finally slated to return to public display in June of 2025 as part of a Capitol complex renovation. Like in Wyoming, the Kansas bell was removed during Capitol restoration and never returned. Like in Wyoming and many states, the replica is an unaccessioned artifact, so no official government body is responsible for it.
So what fate will befall the Wyoming Liberty Bell? Will it languish in obscurity for decades? Will the impasse be unbroken? The US Treasury gave the bell to the people of Wyoming in 1950. No state entity has taken ownership of it. While the Wyoming State Museum has been its caretaker for decades, Jennifer Alexander admits the museum is not in charge of deciding the bell’s fate. So who is? I say it’s up to the people of Wyoming. Any private citizen or civic group needs only to make a compelling case for their stewardship of the bell and raise the requisite restoration funds. Can Kanye West (sorry, Ye) add a Liberty Bell to his compound? Sure. So can any other rancher or Scout troop or VFW. They just have to raise $14,000 and ask for their bell.
It’s your move, Wyoming.
*Wyoming dubs itself the Equality State because it was the first to grant voting rights to women.
** Castle Gardens photography by Laurie White, Greg White.
Wyoming Liberty Bell replica
Location: The Wyoming Museum’s off-site warehouse
To schedule a viewing, contact:
Wyoming State Museum
2301 Central Avenue
Cheyenne, WY 82002
Serial Number: 0
Can I ring it? No
Hours: By appointment only