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The Historic Noble Hotel:
Where Rails End and Trails Begin

By Ethan Meers
Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 2002, Vol. 18, No. 1

  Noble Hotel
  Students hanging out in the lobby of The Noble Hotel.
© Brad Christensen
I’ll never forget my first impression of the Noble Hotel. Though I would ultimately come to view this building, where NOLS Rocky Mountain students and staff stay before and after their adventures in the mountains, as a launching pad of sorts, in my first eight hours there I was struck mainly by its curious charm. It was mid-June 1994 and I was a 14-year-old Adventure course student arriving late after missing a flight into Wyoming. I walked into the lobby of the old hotel around midnight of the evening before my course and found myself wondering if I’d been left off at the right place. As I dropped my bag and leaned against the massive front desk, I felt like I’d walked into a Louis L’Amour novel.

Newly arrived students at NOLS Rocky Mountain in Lander, Wyo. often speak of the contrasts that abound in the Noble’s lobby. In some ways the hotel’s entrance seems as ill fitted to NOLS as a run down once-luxury hotel seems in the center of a small western town. Pictures of kayakers and climbers appear absurdly out of place amidst the elegant antique furniture and big game trophies above the hotel’s grand fireplace. Even NOLS Founder Paul Petzoldt, immortalized in a photograph taken of him standing in front of the Grand Teton, seems to gaze curiously out at the Italian tiled floors and ancient glass skylights.

The very items that set the stage for the physical contrasts in the Noble — the mounted buffalo and antelope heads, the antique furniture, the balcony-surrounded lobby — show that this is also a place of contrasts. Built in 1917 as an expensive way station for Western visitors, the Noble has long represented the stark differences between the wilderness around it and the people coming to experience that wilderness. The building marks the contrast between the backcountry and the front country, between your NOLS course and the rest of your life.

From images of stagecoaches and Indian battles to photos of crampons and kayaks, the Noble Hotel has always stood where adventures begin.

The town of Lander is nestled at the edge of high sage country and the eastern foothills of the Wind River Mountains in west-central Wyoming. From the 1833 Rendezvous to the 2002 Climber’s Festival, Lander has been the meeting place of men and mountains, of white and Native American, of water, wind, and rock. Today Lander is a small western town of 7,000 people. Placed at 288 Main Street, the Noble Hotel sits perfectly in the middle of town.

Here students come and go in the backdrop of a building that has seen its fair share of comings and goings. When the Noble was built Lander was a growing town. The original trans-continental railroad, the Union Pacific, traversed Wyoming in 1867 but its route wound across the very southern portions of the state. Later the Northern Pacific would miss Wyoming altogether, heading west through Montana. Not until a full forty years after the construction of the first trans-continental railroad did tracks get laid across central Wyoming, terminating in Lander. Because it was effectively the end of the line, Lander came to be known as the town where the rails end and the trails begin. Any freight that needed to be transported past the town was done via large freight wagons, whose lack of maneuverability provided for the unusually wide main street that still runs through the town. Today the Noble is still the place where trails begin. And despite stories of ghosts lurking on the third floor, new students begin and end their NOLS adventures in the Noble with rapid ease. In my case, eight hours after arrival, coming out of the dining room with the heaviest pack I’d lifted in my life, I might as well have been an early traveler venturing into the mountains.

In the peak of the summer season, the lobby of the Noble is a thing of chaotic beauty. The couches are almost always laden with laughing students; some clean cut and apprehensive awaiting their expeditions, others sunburned and unshaven on their way home. Someone is usually playing a guitar, or at least trying to, while others sit at the table by the phones reading and writing letters. In the mornings, packs and duffels pile against the walls and front desk as students haul their gear to and from the NOLS Rocky Mountain branch.

The white board by the stairs is an ever evolving list of courses and meeting places as new students constantly search for their names and forget their course codes. Next to them an instructor or two scours the message board for their name, while a few more work in the library prepping an early class or photocopying a new reading.

Before the completion of the new headquarters building down the street, the sense of activity pulsing through the lobby was even greater. In the offices facing Main Street, admissions officers took calls from students all over the world as other staff ran the day to day operations of the school.

As my career as a NOLS student went on, I came to see the Noble as the epicenter of the NOLS universe. In my mind the building’s lobby was the portal into the life changing experiences of a NOLS education.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


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