Discovering Wyoming’s Untamed Beauty: Chad Hanson’s Awe-Inspiring Journey

“Once I started to think about feelings like reverence and awe, I started to piece things together.” -Chad Hanson

In the vast, untamed landscapes of Wyoming, where the echoes of hooves on public lands seem to whisper tales of forgotten beauty, lies a captivating story that will leave you breathless. Join us on a journey that uncovers the unexpected twist in Chad Hanson's mission to nurture gratitude and appreciation for the environment. As the son of a Minnesota Christmas tree farmer, Chad's love for nature was ignited by his childhood amidst towering evergreens. But it was a chance encounter with wild horses in Wyoming that unlocked a world of awe and reverence, leading him on a quest to bring these transformative experiences to a disenchanted generation. Brace yourself for a tale of discovery, healing, and the power of nature's untamed spirit. 

In this episode, you will be able to:

  •  Delve into the empowering experience of crossroads with nature's untamed equine beauties and their influence in steering personal growth. 
  •  Discern the increasing rift between new-age generations and the wonders of the natural world, and why its mending is essential. 
  •  Comprehend enlightening experiences that, monumentally, serve as lifelines preventing devastating life choices. 
  •  Develop a fertile ground of gratitude and respect for every aspect of our environment. 
  •  Explore the contrasting landscapes and wildlife of Wyoming, instilling a deep reverence for its abundant life forms. 

My special guest is Chad Hanson

Introducing Chad Hanson, a compelling blend of adventurer, philosopher, and storyteller. Drawing on his years teaching sociology and religion at Casper College, Chad stirs a profound reverence for the natural world through his teachings and writings. An avid outdoorsman, he discovered the awe-inspiring beauty of Wyoming's wild horses, sparking a passion that led to his latest book, In a Land of Awe”. This Minnesota native weaves his childhood experiences, his vast knowledge, and his enchantment with nature into his teachings, aiming to inspire his students to connect with and appreciate the world around them.

The key moments in this episode are:
00:00:00 - Introduction,
00:01:10 - Chad's Background,
00:06:15 - Discovering the Wild Horses,
00:10:32 - Reverence and Awe,
00:12:36 - Books on Student Identity and Education,
00:18:14 - "Introduction to Wild Horses and Wyoming's Natural World",
00:19:48 - "Suicide Rates in Wyoming and the Power of Awe-Inspiring Activities",
00:21:46 - "Appreciating Wyoming's Landscapes and Wildlife",
00:23:56 - "Wild Horse Etiquette and Personal Experiences",
00:27:39 - "The Impact of Wild Horses and Conclusion"

  • Visit Wyoming Humanities website to learn more about the organization and their programs. 
  •  Purchase Chad Hanson's latest book, In a Land of Awe, which explores his journey and discovery of the wild horses of Wyoming. 
  •  Explore the Wyoming Humanities website for information on upcoming events and programs. 
  •  Check out Chad Hanson's website to learn more about his work as an author and teacher. 
  •  Consider visiting Casper, Wyoming to experience the beauty of the landscape and potentially see the wild horses for yourself. 
  •  Learn more about the American community college system by reading Chad Hanson's book, The Community College and the Good Society. 
  •  Consider taking a class on environmental sociology at Casper College to gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between society and the natural world.


Hello. My name is Emy Digrappa. Each week we bring you stories asking our guests the question why. We learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with the generous support of the Wyoming Humanities, this is what's your why.         


We are talking to Chad Hanson. Chad is an author and teacher. He divides his time between Casper, Wyoming, and the red feather lakes region of Colorado. He teaches in the areas of sociology and religion at Casper college.         


His latest book in a land of awe is his journey and discovery of the wild horses of Wyoming. His book is described as part poetry, part history, part philosophy, and part adventure. And I want to say welcome, Chad. Thanks, Emmy. It's great to be with you.         


Yeah, I've really been looking forward to our conversation and just to learn about you, your background and where did you grow up? I grew up in Minnesota. I grew up about hour north of the twin cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul. We lived in the country.         


I grew up on a Christmas tree farm that grew too tall to harvest trees, got too big too big to be Christmas trees anymore. And my father and my grandfather bought the place, and we used it as a kind of a hobby farm. And that's where I grew up, north central Minnesota. North central Minnesota. And then what was your journey to Wyoming?         


How did you end up in Colorado and Wyoming? I went to college down in Arizona. A lot of people who grow up in Minnesota grow up dreaming of Arizona and warmth and sun and cactus and things like that. So after my youth in Minnesota, when I had a chance, I moved to flagstaff and then later Tucson, Arizona. I went to college down there.         


I bounced around a little bit. I was in El paso, Texas, for a time. My wife and I lived in Wisconsin for four years, and living in Wisconsin felt a lot like going home to me. But my wife is a lifelong westerner, and after a few years there, we started looking for a way to get back out west, and this job opportunity came up at Casper college in Wyoming. At the time, I was in the throes of an obsession with fly fishing for trout, and it turns out that Wyoming is a perfect place for that.         


And Casper in particular has a blue-ribbon trout stream flowing right through the middle. So it was a long journey full of twists and turns. But we've been in Casper for a little more than two decades, actually longer than we've lived anywhere else. Longer than I've lived anywhere else. Okay, so you've been in Casper quite a while.         


You do mention the red feather lakes of Colorado. That's why I asked you about Colorado, probably because I grew up in fort Collins, Colorado. So it kind of just like went ding. Yeah. I discovered red feather lakes in probably the early 2000s, maybe as late as 2009, 2010.         


As you mentioned, I teach both sociology and religion at Casper college. And I became aware that there was a large Buddhist retreat center. Just outside of red feather lakes. It's actually home to the largest Buddhist stupa, or statue and shrine in north America, just south, a little village of red feather lakes. So in part for that reason, I went down, and I spent a little time exploring that corner, Colorado.         


And to tell you the truth, it felt a lot like home. All the little lakes were surrounded by cabins, and that's the very kind of setting that I grew up in. So after we discovered red feather lakes, we started to look for a small retreat of our own. And since about 2012, we've used that as an artist and writers retreat. It's a small village.         


There's just one single dirt road and a lot of little lakes scattered about it's, right under the mummy range. So we could actually see the high country of rocky mountain national park from our property. It's quite a place to get away to. Well, I'm sure you probably love going there often. Yeah, we try to get down there as often as we can.         


But as you know, once I discovered that there were wild horses in Wyoming, it's hard to find time to pull ourselves away from them, too. Tell me about that journey. You were a fly fisherman. Yeah, that's right. And that was your passion.         


And then discovering the wild horses of Wyoming became a new passion. So tell me about that journey. You are right. Part of the motivation for me to move to Wyoming. Was the outdoor opportunities, public land, the mountains and streams, the fly fishing.         


And it was actually on a fishing trip that I discovered that Wyoming is home to bands of free roaming horses. We were planning a trip to green mountain, which is about 70 miles west of Casper, where we live, and we started to see horses on public land. I knew we were on land that was managed by the BLM or the bureau of land management, and I couldn't figure out whose horses would be out on public property. So we did a little research, and we found out that these are in fact, federally protected bands of wild horses. And I've always been A bit of a photographer.         


We had camera gear with us on this fishing trip, so we started to try to get close to these animals. So that we could make images. And it was that single instance, it was just by happenstance they happened to be visible from the road. We were driving up to green mountain every weekend after that. When it's a choice about what we're going to do, it's looking for wild horses and making images.         


It's hard to make a bad image of a horse. And as a photographer with mediocre talents, that suits me. All I have to do is push the shutter and it's pretty easy to make great images of horses. They just stand there and look beautiful. That's a good way to put it.         


But then it became more than that for you, it sounds like, because when you wrote your latest book in a Land of Awe as your journey after you discovered the wild horses, and then after that you started doing the research, what did you learn? Why did it become such a great part of your life that you would write a book about it? You're right to point out that it was some of those initial encounters with wild horses that got me thinking about who they were. How did they get here. I felt compelled to go out and see them weekend after weekend.         


And since I'm a social scientist, I was curious about even some of my own feelings driving me out there into the field to try to make images of these animals. And that led me to some of the new research on the experience of feelings like reverence and awe in my own personal history. It was some early encounters with the natural world. As I said, I grew up on a Christmas tree farm that grew too tall to harvest. Also, when I was young, my family would make trips to Lake Superior, and I have memories that I will never forget, especially seeing that great lake for the first time.         


The size of it, the sounds Lake Superior is as clear as tap water. So even in 40ft of water, you can look down and see the pebbles on the bottom. And here you have this great body of water. It's like a pillow of nothingness that stretches out past curve of the earth. All you can see in the distance is the horizon.         


And it was early moments, feeling reverence and awe like that, that I think probably led to a lot of the endeavors in my life, including things like mountain biking, certainly fly fishing. If there's any listeners who've ever found themselves in a middle of a mountain stream whisking a line above them in the sky, reverence and awe are very much part of the experience. It was the novelist Norman McLean who wrote that there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing in his family. And I think for a lot of people that's true. So once I started to think about feelings like reverence and awe, I started to piece things together.         


There's a strong thread in my life where I've been pulled outside into beautiful places for the sake of feeling things like reverence and awe. Wild horses are just the latest example, I think the best example. It's hard not to see wild horses in their natural environment and not feel flabbergasted, to be completely moved by the side of these creatures and the landscape. So on a personal level, some of the research I was doing helped make sense my life story. There's also a good deal of new research on the biochemical processes that happen when people experience things like reverence and awe.         


Cortisol, which is the body's stress hormone, declines when people find themselves in a natural setting and find themselves experiencing things like reverence serotonin, which is the body's mood regulator, levels rise. Oxytocin, which for a long time was considered the quote unquote love hormone. We find elevated levels of Oxytocin in the human brain when people experience things like reverence and awe. And the reason they call oxytocin the love hormone is because when you find elevated levels of oxytocin, there's a whole series of what we call pro social feelings that go along with things like sharing, cooperation, generosity. And that brings me back to my home field or discipline, which is sociology.         


Not only is there a personal thread of reverence and awe in my life story, but there's a lot of good sociological reasons to study these experiences or these feelings, too. They play a role in bringing people together and helping us form and maintain communities. That is really interesting how you pulled all those ideas and thoughts and your own philosophies together in creating and writing the book. And when I was on your website, I was really interested as well, because you have a couple of books that kind of follow what you were just saying into your life of teaching. And so I'm looking at a book that you wrote called In Search of Self Exploring Student Identity Development and the Community College and the Good Society, which tells me that you have done a lot of work in searching for those things that help you identify with life and the goodness of life and the beauty of life.         


So tell me about why you wrote these two books. Yeah, the book called Exploring Student Identity Development and the book about the American community college are both part of a long-standing effort I've had to improve education in the United States. I had an incredible educational experience myself. I was really fortunate. I just lucked into courses and teachers that I found fascinating and that encouraged me along my journey as a teacher and a writer.         


And so I have a deep sense of gratitude when it comes to my own education. And so in my work as a teacher, always in the back of my mind, I'm trying to see if I can give my students the kind of experience that I had myself. Today's generation of college students struggle in a variety of ways. The typical age, or the traditional college student age, is between about 18 and 24. And today that puts us squarely in the middle of what we call Generation Z.         


Traditionally aged college students today are members of Generation Z, and social scientists, sociologists, and psychologists have been studying this generation in real detail. And some of the patterns that we find are alarming. They suffer from depression, anxiety, loneliness, and even suicide rates that are breaking records compared to any other American generation. And I think apart from basic skills and knowledge, I think higher education also has a social component. There's a sense of belonging that should be a part of the higher education experience.         


And so much of the work I've done, the couple of books that you cited, each book was an opportunity for me to give thought to how we can improve this enterprise or how we can improve the college and university experience in particular for this generation of young people. Just threading that needle. How can we? I mean, what are the things that you've learned that you can put into practice in your teaching? I put college students in a van and I bring them out to see wild horses.         


It's phenomenal. It's hard not to have an awe-inspiring experience. Actually. There's a lot of good survey research on reverence and awe. You can experience these feelings in a variety of settings and in a variety of ways.         


Music and art both inspire awe witnessing acts of moral courage. People find that awe inspiring. And globally, it's a real range and a real variety when it comes to awe triggers or the things that inspire awe. But in the United States, the survey research all points in one direction. Americans are most likely by far.         


And when I say most likely, most recent data I've seen says that about 75% of us, when asked about the last time we felt awe, about 75% of us will say it was in response to something in nature an encounter with wildlife, sunset, a landscape that's particularly beautiful. So I'm not kidding. We take students out to see wild horses. At Casper College. I have a class called environmental Sociology, where we spend part of the semester in Grand Teton National Park.         


And we do all of that with hope that students build memories that they don't forget, just like my experience of Lake Superior when I was a child. I want college students to build memories that stay with them to the grave, and I want them to build connections with other people that last their lifetimes too. And I think when college is being done right, it provides people with both of those things. We've probably all had the experience of learning things in school that were quickly forgotten. But I think when education is at its best, it's memorable.         


That's what I strive for, and it's what led to those two books you referenced. That was my way of sorting through the best research on how to make education effective. So I find that really interesting on two levels. One is that probably the majority of your students have grown up in Wyoming. One of the main things I always hear when I'm talking to people about Wyoming is wide open spaces and the beauty of the landscape.         


So you're dealing with young people who already have learned and had that experience, don't you think? Actually, I got a little different take on that. I'll give you a couple of examples. I travel to Grand Teton National Park with students from Casper every other year, and I've been doing it for years. I usually travel with between ten and twelve students, and I don't think I've ever had more than three students out of ten or twelve that have seen Grand Teton National Park before.         


I take a lot of students out to sea wild horses. I do it on a regular basis. All of my students, I shouldn't say that by far, most of my students were raised in Wyoming. Most right here in Casper. I don't think I've ever taken a student out to see wild horses who wasn't seeing them for the first time.         


Wow. So, in fact, and it may be something unique to generation Z or the traditional college students of today, but I think even in Wyoming, big parts of our natural world are not making it into their experience or their life story. So for most of my students, the adventures that we take part in for our courses at CC, it's all new. And in part, that's what makes it so exciting for me to introduce people to bands of wild horses. The skyline of the Tetons for the first time, it's incredible to watch.         


Well, I think that is super interesting that kids are growing up in these small rural communities and they haven't left those communities to experience the rest of Wyoming. That has been my experience. In other parts of the state it might be different, but in Casper and at Casper College, we have some students who are widely traveled, of course, but we also have a lot of students who have big parts of Wyoming that are left unseen. I think that's amazing. But I get where you're coming from and I have heard some of that before.         


And it also is, I guess, really sad and disturbing that Wyoming has one of the highest suicide rates per capita. We do? Yeah, we wrestle with suicide rates. As long as I've been keeping track of that data, wyoming has been in the top five among US. States with the highest rates of suicide.         


And for a project I'm working on right now, I'm actually digging into the work of this psychologist, Abraham Maslow. Maslow is most famous for what we call the hierarchy of needs, ranging from the bottom of the totem pole basics like food and shelter and clothing through love and belonging. And then at the top, Maslow’s hierarchy is what we call self-actualization. And in some of his work on the hierarchy of needs, Maslow makes a point that awe inspiring activities, what he calls peak experiences, they actually have the effect of preventing suicide. It's hard to entertain thoughts about ending your own life when you're feeling or experiencing emotions like reverence and gratitude.         


Those are lifesaving feelings. And you're right to point out that in Wyoming, unfortunately, too often, those feelings are in short supply. But think about your own youth. I'd ask readers to do the same thing. When I grew up in Minnesota, I took most of my surroundings for granted.         


I have a much deeper appreciation for my home state today than I did growing up. My experience on the shore, Lake Superior aside, mostly when I grew up, I wanted to move out, see the world go away. And that's true for me. It's true for most people. It's true in most parts of the world.         


I just think in Wyoming, we have so much to offer that when young people have a chance to see this state of ours and some of the landscapes and wildlife around us, I think it can be life changing, and I think it could be lifesaving. Absolutely. And I think you're right, and I think we take a lot for granted. And so taking the young people out to see the wild horses must be a great opportunity for you to turn that channel for them or help them experience the gratitude that you're experiencing, which is why you wrote the book, which I think is so beautiful. Still, when I've been reading just bits and pieces out of your book, I think it is part poetry, just the way you've described the relationship that the horses have going back to the book.         


In the land of awe, how close do the horses let you get to them? That depends a lot. We have what's called flight distance in wildlife watching, and that's the distance that you could put between yourself and a wild animal before they flee. So for some bands of mustangs, the flight distance is a quarter mile. If they see a car coming down a dirt road, it's enough to set them running.         


We do have bands of wild horses that see enough cars and experience people often enough that they're more comfortable with photographers approaching. The official wild horse etiquette says that you're supposed to keep 300ft between yourself and bands of wild horses. My experience has been that if a person sits down and if you're willing to spend time on a prairie in the presence of wild horses, sometimes they'll get curious. They're highly intelligent, and they might get curious about you. Or if you're lucky, they'll just forget that you're there and they'll start to go about their business.         


And when that's the case, when you've been stationary for a good long while out on public land in the places where wild horses live, sometimes they'll wander in a bit closer. But officially, it's 300ft that you're supposed to maintain between yourself and these animals. Well, in thinking about that, can you relay one experience while you were writing this book that you had that just was profound and is one thought you think about when you think about wild horses and your experiences watching them? Yeah, I'd have to say, it was the first time that I encountered wild horses. It's definitely something that I'll never forget.         


It was early summer day and we were going on a fishing trip. We saw a band of about twelve wild horses on the prairie, and my wife and I took our cameras and we were walking out to try to get close enough to make a picture. We didn't know any of the tricks at the time. Of course, when you're hoping to get close to wild horses, you have to be quiet. You have to move slow.         


It's best not to look directly at them with your eyes. There's a lot of tricks we use today that I didn't know at the time. So we marched out there faster than we should, and we marched straight at them, as opposed to taking a different angle. And as you might expect, they ran away. But as they were running away, the group split.         


It was wide open prairie, so we were able to watch the whole situation unfold. The group split. Soon after it started to run away. One group moved off to the left, further away from us. But then a group of six horses began to turn to the right, and we watched as they curled around.         


And then pretty soon it looked like they were coming toward us. My wife and I had our eyes locked on this band of half a dozen wild mustangs. Pretty soon it was obvious that they were coming toward us. And keep in mind, this was our first encounter. We fully thought that we were going to be trampled to death by wild horses.         


I use a tripod for my camera, so I pulled my wife beside me. The two of us were huddled behind this spindly tripod of aluminum, and the horses rushed in. And they probably came within about 30ft, and then they screeched to a halt. There was dust and noise. Their ears were back, they were puffing through their nostrils, and we were frozen like statues.         


And when the dust settled, we saw that the horses were frozen too. And there was about five or ten minutes where it was us and them. And it was this encounter that I'll never forget. Eventually I started making pictures and my camera makes a little beeping sound when I focus the lens. And it actually seemed like that noise put them at ease.         


You could tell that their muscles started to relax, and then pretty soon they went back to eating. They wandered off. But it was that initial moment with these horses rushing in at us. They were scared, they were angry, but they were also curious. They wanted to know who these two legged creatures were out on the prairie.         


Some wild horses don't see a lot of human beings. And that's a moment that I'll never forget. It was a life changer. I still fly fish, but to this day I have yet to meet a brook trout that weighs 1000 pounds and can run 30 mph over open ground. This was a revelation.         


I love that. That's great. Well, it's been great talking to you today, Chad. What a pleasure and love your book and I hope to see more of you. Thanks.         


It's great to be with you.         




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