Aspen Grove Ranch Field Trip

Aspen Grove Ranch
Post-Rainbow Gathering Field Trip
July 7-15, 2008

This summer, the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine had the fortune to visit and stay at the Aspen Grove Ranch near the town of Elk Mountain, Wyoming. It is a beautiful place; remote and peaceful.
But first, the story of how we got there. We were on our annual field trip to the Rainbow Gathering which this year was in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Northwest, Wyoming. One group of students stopped in Laramie on their way, and had a friend show them the Elk Mountain Herbs store downtown, where they met some folks who worked there, and told them they were going to the Rainbow Gathering, about 5 hours away.

Days later, Karin, one of the shop proprietors arrived at the main medical area of the Rainbow Gathering (known as CALM). During the course of talking she mentioned that her herb business partner, Caroline Johnson, lives on a big ranch about 1 1/2 hours from Laramie. With that, a number of students encouraged me to ask if we could have our post-Rainbow Gathering field trip there. I was hesitant, as in the past whenever we were going to stay at someone’s abode (as opposed to camping) something goes horribly wrong. But after asking her about it for a while (and noting that it was close to National Forest anyway, and also on the way home) I did ask and then had someone confirm with Caroline who was very welcoming.
Then on July 7, with directions in hand, we all set out to meet in the town (4 buildings or so) of Elk Mountain so Caroline could meet us there and show us how to get back to her ranch. Needless to say things did not go exactly according to plans but eventually we all met up and with her old beater in the lead, we drove the next 20 minutes along dusty ranch roads to her home.

It was night by then so I couldn’t see much till morning. And morning was beautiful, with sunrise showing large tracts of high mountain prairie with the mountains in the backdrop. Gorgeous. It was a little chilly (On one of our mornings there was frost in the garden which was encouraging to me thinking that Ithaca was really not the last place to get frost.) And Aspen Grove Ranch is exactly that, an Aspen grove amidst the Wyoming prairie.

Caroline Johnson and her clan have lived at this ranch (remote seems like a redundant term for Wyoming ranches) since her grandfather purchased it. Now most of them live in town during the long Wyoming winter and Caroline lives there during the passable road days.
If you are interested in seeing the place, there are photos on the website. Type in Aspen grove in the search box.
It was a great field trip in a number of ways. First Caroline is very generous and we felt very welcome while we were there. This is no small matter when you are traveling with 17 students. She also let us have run of her home which meant having a kitchen to cook in as well as a place to retreat from the evening mosquitoes. Also, each day 1 to 3 of us would come down with a stomach flu that we contracted at the Rainbow Gathering. So curling up and sleeping for the day on one of the couches was appreciated.

The ranch has the feeling of an old homestead, from the way the logs were placed in building the house to the old-fashioned electric clothes washer (see photo), a plus after a few weeks of being on the road.  

Sherm and Buster, two of Caroline’s brothers also came by and added to the familial homestead feel. They provided the first hands-on hand-gun and rifle lessons ever offered at this school (most of the students were on the road by then, just as well perhaps). They also added to wealth of stories along with Caroline of what the area was like 50 plus years ago.
There are about 50 acres of Aspen groves amongst the prairie. So there are the wide-ranging views plus the more intimate canopy of the forest. There were a number of medicinal plants growing there amongst the rest of the verdant woodlands and prairie. Perhaps my favorite was the Osha (Ligusticum porteri), which was in flower and common amidst the Aspen (Populus tremuloides). There was also Monument plant (Frasera [Swertia] speciosa), Arnica (Arnica cordifolia), Aconite (Aconitum columbianum, with a beautiful white flowered variant), a couple of species of garlic (Allium spp), Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata), and Lousewort (Pedicularis groenlandica) in a neighbors field. We also went to nearby Medicine Bow National Forest where there was plentiful Uva ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and Red root (Ceanothus velutinus).  In other words, a fine place for wildcrafters and medicine-makers.
Most nights an outdoor fire was lit, and stories shared. My favorite time was the morning, quiet except for the sounds of the wildings and watching the sun rise above the distant mountain range, lighting up the prairie and then the garden and trees. Caroline along with others received a grant to cultivate Osha for the herb trade. This is important as while there are places where it is abundant, if can easily be overharvested, especially near more developed areas. One of the chores we helped with was weeding the Osha garden. It was helpful to see the many stages of Osha’s development, from a seedling into a mature plant. This work will be helpful both for restraining the over-gathering of it, as well as an income source for folks.
It was sad leaving there after few days, it is a great place to share time and enjoy the beauty of that part of Wyoming. If it were closer I would bring my class regularly, but alas it is a haul from here. Thank you Caroline and Karin and Johnson clan for our time there.