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CASPER, Wyo. (AP) — Bus 107 emerges from the cold Wyoming night into the bright light of the Independence Rock rest area. It rumbles to a stop in front of a trailer nestled at the base of the historic monument, which is still hidden in darkness.
The door opens and a 15-year-old girl wearing a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, work boots and a camouflage jacket saunters onto the empty school bus. Victoria Nichols smiles at the driver, Shirley Robinson, then flops down in her seat, the second from the front.
Nichols mother, Bobbie Butler, is the rest area's caretaker. Standing in the chilly morning air, she clutches her chest against the wind and complains to Robinson about a cold she can't shake. They chat for a few minutes.
There's no rush this early in the morning.
With a whoosh of air brakes, Bus 107 lumbers forward. It's 6:15 a.m., and Victoria's 12-hour school day has just begun. The sophomore at Kelly Walsh High School has one of the longest commutes in the Natrona County School District bus system.
The bus begins to carve a path through the frigid darkness of Wyoming Highway 220, squeaking and grumbling in protest.
Victoria is one of 6,280 students who ride the school bus each day. Not counting the Midwest and Powder River routes, or field trips and sporting events, district buses traveled more than a million miles last year.
She stretches out her right leg and rubs her knee. Years earlier, she tore a ligament inside the joint.
"I was told I could be in pain for the rest of my life," she says. "If I had listened to my physical therapist the first time, it wouldn't be like this."
Victoria broke a rib riding a steer when she was 10. She's a boxer, a cowhand, a bronc rider, and unlike most 15-year-olds, she's pretty sure about the life ahead of her. Next semester she'll spend part of her day at the district's new high school, Pathways Academies. The school's shop classes will help Victoria toward certification as a mechanic.
"I was going to go into the agriculture part of it, but I figured I already know it all."
Victoria was raised near a ranch in Meeteetse. She's happiest corralling cattle, training horses and setting fence posts. Anything physical, she says.
It was hard leaving Meeteetse. She grew up there with her dad, siblings, stepbrothers and sisters. She's made the move twice now. The first time she didn't have that many friends in Meeteetse. But when she went back, she made friends, only to leave again.
"Most of the kids at school either hate me or are scared of me," she said. That might be because she likes a good fight, she says. But she's made some close friends, too. Mainly boys, rednecks like her.
None of Victoria's friends rides the early bus. Mostly she keeps to herself and sleeps.
In a few years, Victoria will turn 17. She wants to go into the Army National Guard like her sister. She's even considered joining the Marines. Eventually, she'll be a rancher. There's no question of that, she says.
It's early in the commute, but the sky has turned a misty blue-pink. Each day, the teen watches the sun rise and set from the windows of Bus 107.
The bus pulls up to a small store to pick up two more students.
Robinson has a soft spot for the rural kids on her route, so she lets Victoria hop out to buy a Danish for breakfast. As the bus pulls back onto the highway, Robinson and the two newcomers discuss a giant elk, hit by a semi. The conversation peters into silence until the next stop, a barren dirt road off the highway, Clarks Corner.
The trip is only halfway over.
Victoria transfers to the 113 bus, driven by Joshua Pantier. It idles on the side of the highway for 15 minutes, waiting for the elementary school kids to arrive.
Weighted down by backpacks, their faces obscured by scarves and hats, the little ones clamber aboard, and the volume on the bus doubles.
"In the old days, tablets were called Gameboys," a little boy said. "That's why I'm gonna get one."
Someone comments on the sunrise.
"Would you call that peach? Peach-colored colored pencils are what I use for skin color."
Victoria has curled up on her bench seat. She sets her cowboy hat aside as the bus rolls out and checks her phone. She begins to text her friends.
Because of the long commute, Victoria isn't involved in after-school activities like sports or clubs. She hopes to have her driver's license soon. She'll work at a neighboring ranch in the summer to save money for a truck.
Patience is what a ranch kid has that other kids don't, she says, her face illuminated by the blue light of her phone as she taps out the texts.
It's like training a horse, she explains.
"It takes forever. You have to have patience growing up on a ranch," she says. "You got to have patience or you're going to ruin the horse."
The bus makes stops at a handful of schools. Students who got on the bus after Victoria depart. She remains in her seat.
The sun is glittering overhead when the bus approaches Kelly Walsh - the farthest of Casper's three high schools from her home — at 8:15 a.m.
The remaining students press their foreheads to the glass and discuss the kids on the sidewalk.
With a smile and a wave, Victoria hops off the bus. Classes will begin soon. About seven hours will pass before she boards the bus again and heads back toward Independence Rock. The sun will set before she arrives home.
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com
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