Story Clark stood along the Blue Ridge Parkway watching cars and motorcycles whip by. She noticed no one was stopping at the turnouts to read the signs sharing the history of the area. People come from all over the world to take in the scenery on the famous drive, but they took it in through the windshields of their moving cars. They were seeing the landscape, but they weren’t connecting with it.
Clark, who worked in conservation finance searching for money to protect land, saw a missed opportunity. If visitors knew the stories of a place, its history and the efforts to preserve it, they might build a better connection with it and foster a better appreciation for it and the conservation efforts behind it.
Clark realized she needed to rethink connecting people to the landscape. Maybe there was a way people didn’t have to get out of the car to learn the story of a place.
“I thought we need to stop trying to lure people out of their cars and away from their smart phones and use the things that have been the barrier keeping them (from) connecting with the place,” she said.
Clark decided to build an app. Travel Storys GPS uses smart phones as a portal to connect people to place. They can keep their eyes on the road as the application tells the stories of the area, allowing people to see a place, hear its story, fully experience it and hopefully fall in love with it. The app was a way to mainstream conservation and historic preservation — areas important to Clark and to local economies.
Six years ago app technology was still new. Smart phones didn’t yet have built-in GPS. Clark, who had no background in technology but had a business partner willing to learn how to program, struggled to find a way to trigger the phone to tell a story when at certain locations. Then new models of smart phones came with GPS. Clark had a way to create a program where locations triggered stories about the place.
Clark wanted true storytelling, not a program that spouted dry facts. She sought stories — like why the town of Jackson incorporated. The mayor noticed all the money from the town’s saloon was going to the county seat in Kemmerer and realized if the town incorporated it could issue a license and keep taxes in the community. It took 150 people to incorporate, but Jackson had only 149. So town officials asked a pregnant woman if she would name her unborn child and add its name to the roster.
Clark, who has lived in Jackson Hole for 38 years and spent years before visiting her grandfather who homesteaded in the area, never knew some of these stories. Now when she drives over Teton Pass she thinks about the rope tow that used to run on top of it. When driving by the Snake River she can’t help think of Father De Smet, an early Wyoming missionary. When he reached the banks of the Snake River, the Indians traveling with him put him in a buffalo-hide boat that looked like giant bowl. They pulled him across the waterway.
“These stories, they just makes one’s travel experiences in a place so much more colorful and interesting,” Clark said.
Clark first launched a beta version of the app in August 2012 and spent the next 18 months testing. Its new design, free for the iPhone and Android, came out about a month ago. Since the app launched it’s had more than 100,000 user sessions. Data shows once a person downloads it they use it multiple times.
Travel Story GPS partners with sponsors, like the National Museum of Wildlife Art, the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, or WyoHistory.org to create the tours. The company teaches partners how to use the platform to create a tour. The app’s growth is driven by partners interested in creating tours. While most tours are in Wyoming, she hopes to expand to feature places across the country.
The app currently features about 10 different tours and includes a walking tour of downtown Jackson and a driving tour from the airport to town. There’s also a tour documenting the Indian Wars of early Wyoming and tours in the works about Wyoming’s trona mines to run along Interstate-80 and the Immigrant trails — the California, Oregon, Pony Express and Mormon trails.
“Everyone is driving to get to Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Park,” Clark said. “What about the towns and landscapes along the way? What about the dramatic stories of the early homesteaders or the geology or the Indian wars?”
The app, which also includes photos and texts for exploration when not driving, can be downloaded and used anywhere in the world. It connects people to places, which benefits the communities and conservation and efforts.
“Conservation and preservation is tied to economic development,” Clark said. “These towns and places are prospering because of the people. Conserving our heritage is economic development, but we don’t talk about it that way, we don’t think about it that way.”
One tour she’d like to develop is along Interstate-80, featuring the geology and history.
“It’s a fairly boring drive, but the stories along it are unbelievable,” she said. “If we told those stories people might pull into Rawlins and have another meal. They might stop in Green River and visit a site.”