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Bringing Historical Markers Into The Car (Without Scratching The Paint)

Andrew Farkas via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Guernsey Lake Park

It's road trip season. And one thing you might do when you're driving across the country-or the state-is stop when you see a historical marker. Now, an app based in Jackson is bringing that marker into the car.

In Guernsey State Park, sandstone bluffs and juniper trees assembled around a winding reservoir. At the moment, the water was low, so no boaters-- just sandbars and egrets. It was quiet, and gorgeous. Mine was the only car here. I was listening to music, which was politely interrupted by a man telling me about the history of the road. "Winding its way along the south shore of Guernsey Reservoir, Lake Shore Drive provides visitors with spectacular views and access to the reservoir," he intoned.

The voice was part of a tour from the app TravelStorys. Driving through the state park, I hadn't thought once about how the road was built. The tour went on to tell me other things I hadn't considered: about how they kept building the road, even in winter, even when it was so cold workers had to put the dynamite near pots of boiling water to unfreeze it enough to use. After the three minutes were up, my music automatically came back on. And how I looked at my surroundings had completely changed.

"I started TravelStorys GPS because I really felt that people were losing their connection to place," said Story Clark, the founder of TravelStorys. "Really the idea of making these uninterrupted connections, and using the phone as a portal for more information as opposed to as a distraction for more information, through audio, is how this started."

The hands-free app collaborates with local organizations-like Guernsey State Park-to create audio tours around the country. If you download a tour and open the app, GPS triggers narration when you drive past a point of interest. Clark said audio is key. "The more senses that can be engaged, the more rich and memorable the experience is."

The technology might be new but the idea isn't. The Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office, or SHPO, started making historical markers in earnest in the 1940s. Because of new infrastructure and accessibility, you could call the '40s the dawn of road trips. And if 2019 is the afternoon of road trips, SHPO's Mary Hopkins said one thing that's changed is how we connect to our surroundings along the way.

"Now, if you're running a phone app, you can be listening to this as you drive. You probably get more content because you don't have to pull off to every stop to learn about a place. And the content is more-much more-rich than it used to be," Hopkins said. "So there's more detail about locations, more details about people that lived there, and the events that occurred."

SHPO collaborated with TravelStorys to create several tours in Wyoming. Their tour Westward-Ho spans the whole state, east-to-west (or vice versa). It tells stories of pioneers and others who pushed into Wyoming, and in some parts follows the Oregon and Mormon Handcart Trails.

"I do think that the historical piece sets you in reality a little bit more, and maybe takes you out of a moment of selfishness," said Charles Fournier. He taught a class at the University of Wyoming about the iconic American road trip. They read Kerouac and Steinbeck. "I think driving cross-country can be kind of a selfish act."

Fournier said he hasn't heard of the app, but it sounds like it might make being in a new place more welcoming. "I think there's something that makes it more inclusive. I feel like sometimes you feel the need to be an expert in anything that you do, and this allows that sense of expertise. You can really enjoy the space, and that's awesome."

And if you're in a wide open place like Wyoming, a road trip is a good way to see familiar places anew and new places with the eyes of an expert. After all, it's 2019, and there's an app for that.

Erin Jones is Wyoming Public Radio's cultural affairs producer, as well as the host and senior producer of HumaNature. She began her audio career as an intern in the Wyoming Public Radio newsroom, and has reported on issues ranging from wild horse euthanization programs to the future of liberal arts in universities. Her audio work has been featured on WHYY Philadelphia’s The Pulse and the podcast Out There.
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