Who knew tweens could be just as hard to handle as toddlers? One of Sean’s first words was “twuck.” He loved them so much he was hard to put down if he didn’t have his favorite fire truck within eyesight. Meanwhile his older sister, Christina, refused to sleep without her precious dinosaur blankie. As chaotic as life was back then—and I’m not only referring to naptime—things were surprisingly simple.
Sean isn’t fascinated by fire trucks anymore, and Christina’s blankie is collecting dust on a shelf in the back of her closet. As much as my wife, Susan, and I wished we could put them in a time machine and be their favorite people in the world again, we couldn’t.
But what we could do was take them to a place where we could all go back in time: Bighorn Basin. This historic hollow—once an ancient sea—carved out by the Bighorn River and surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges, had been on our radar for years ever since a colleague came back from a camping trip singing its praises and showing off photos that could easily grace the pages of any travel magazine. We finally had a three-day weekend, so we plugged northwestern Wyoming into our GPS.
We pulled into Greybull, WY, on a cool June morning. “Bring on the planes!” I said signaling our arrival. Sean, who had been sleeping for much of the drive, perked up slightly. “Planes?” he asked, “Why would there be planes around here? We’re practically in the middle of nowhere.” He was right. Greybull, population 1,000-and-some, was a small town. But until recently, a local aviation company had a big contract repairing Air Force aircraft and managing firefighting operations. That contract is no more, but the planes are still there.
Perhaps the number one attraction in the area, Greybull’s Museum of Flight and Aerial Firefighting, is located next to the South Big Horn County Airport. Proximity was a major perk here. In fact, the museum had signs steering us toward planes we could actually touch. At one point, Sean briefly disappeared—I found him five minutes later in the cargo hold of one of the planes. “I wanted to see if there were still bombs in its belly,” he explained. But the cargo hold was empty—perfect for a family photo, which we snapped before climbing back down.
These weren’t your average puddle jumpers or even jumbo jets. They were restored WWII bombers most people only ever see in war movies or history books. What made them even more intriguing was the role they played post-retirement: firefighting. Some of these planes which saw combat in Japan during WWII were also used in the infamous Yellowstone wildfire of ’88. “Remember how I was obsessed with fire trucks when I was a kid?” Sean asked while watching a Smoke Jumpers video in the museum. “Why didn’t you tell me I could have been playing with firefighting planes instead? I would have been the coolest kid on the block!” Susan apologized jokingly and I added, “First world problems” with an eye roll—giving him a taste of his own tween medicine.
Ironically, our next stop in landlocked Greybull involved a beach and a boardwalk. Around 170 million years ago, miles and miles of sea and muddy shoreline covered this expanse of open red rock prairie in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains. Today, travelers make the scenic drive, past herds of pronghorn and ethereal rock formations, to Red Gulch Dinosaur Tracksite. Here, it’s possible to walk on, and even venture beyond, an elevated boardwalk to see what remains of the (now extinct) animal life that once called Bighorn Basin home.
“Hey Christina,” Susan asked, “You slept with dinosaurs for years. Can you tell me which dinosaur made this?” She was pointing to a faint eight-inch-wide footprint in the dry riverbed. A smile spread across Christina’s face as she remembered her fleece blanket. “Let me see,” she offered. Her long-buried interest in dinosaurs was now piqued and she peered closer for further examination. “Looks like it had three toes so I suppose it could have been a T. rex.”
Based on the interpretive signs at the tracksite, T. rex was a possibility. Scientists still don’t know which dinosaurs made the tracks at Red Gulch, but they do know most of them come from meat-eating therapods like T. rex. The signs also said we could search for invertebrate fossils, and even take them home as souvenirs. We spent a solid 20 minutes scanning the sandy dirt for such treasures, but we didn’t leave with anything other than some neat photos. Part of me felt being able to explore such a richly historical area was almost too good to be true, especially since the tracksite was free to visit!
Named for the shell fossils lodged in the walls of the canyon, Shell Falls is one of Wyoming’s most breathtaking waterfalls. After visiting Red Gulch, we drove east for about 20 miles along the Bighorn Scenic Byway bringing us into Shell Canyon—a popular place to relax and appreciate nature in Bighorn National Forest. This was where my colleague had camped and Susan was looking forward to seeing the same scenery he had described. “My photos are great, but they don’t do the place justice,” he had said. He spoke the truth. The ethereal pinkish-gray canyon walls were carved out by Shell Creek—the lifeblood for many plants and wildlife including moose, mule deer and rainbow trout, which we were able to spot in the pools below the falls.
While we were hiking around the thundering falls—June is a great time to see them thanks to the melting snow—and exploring the walkways to see which offered the best vantage points, I realized how effortless the day in Greybull had been. Sure, we had expended plenty of energy and learned a lot, but it has all been so easy. It just happened—without having to plan too much. It was almost as though the kids were still toddlers and we could entertain them with shadow puppets and Cheerios. Nothing high tech or too fancy.
I knew we had some pretty challenging years ahead of us—our friends have teenagers and we knew what they were going through—but for now, I decided not to worry about it. We had outgrown fire trucks, dinosaur blankets and many more objects we once considered precious, but this day had reminded me of the most important thing. We hadn’t outgrown each other.
Plan your family’s getaway to Greybull.