The word "cowboy" has been so associated with coolness, sexiness, and the Marlboro Man, the fact that it is made up of "cow" as much as "boy" seems to have been all but lost to our citified view. Back in 1894, the white sign above the entrance to the Cowboy Saloon in Meeteetse, Wyoming, where Butch Cassidy was arrested, depicted a very large cow standing over the o’s of saloon, tickled by two little arches formed by the words the and boy—and one can’t help noticing how small the "boy" is compared to the cow. A vintage black-and-white photograph further shows a row of cowboys lined up on the boardwalk of the saloon, some on their horses, some sitting on the wooden railing, others standing on their own booted feet, all looking like humble subjects in the kingdom of the Cow floating high above them. These days the place is simply called the Cowboy Bar.
You can drive up to your room at the Best Western in Sheridan and park your car outside your front door with the ease of a cowboy hitching a horse to a post. The cowboy’s horse serves as both a means of transportation and a companion. When I headed to Wyoming, I rented a car and persuaded a friend to come with me. The friend is a dainty creature by the name of Thérèse—faux-dainty, I should say. She has twinkly blue eyes, golden hair (the kind boys might have fainted over in grade school), and wears pale greens, blues, and icy oranges. Hermès, Pucci, and Abercrombie & Fitch might all fight for her patronage. I thought if there was anyone who could go from a Best Western to a finely equipped bunk-barn in a 10,000-acre ranch, it was Thérèse.
The itinerary was a loop through the western part of the state—from Sheridan to Buffalo, followed by Lander, the ranch at Twin Creek, an Arapaho powwow, the baths at Thermopolis, the Pitchfork Ranch in Meeteetse that was one of the first ever to take in guests (though it long ago stopped doing so), night rodeos, and the Old Trail Town museum in Cody. We set off from Billings, Montana, after rejecting a station wagon with view-blocking headrests in the back in favor of a silver Subaru sedan. It quickly became apparent that though I may be an indifferent driver, I’m a worse navigator, so I drove and Thé set the route.
At the many-gabled Sheridan Inn, where Buffalo Bill Cody auditioned acts for his Wild West shows, we had steaks in the shade of the monumental heads of some rather large stuffed beasts—elk and moose, mountain goats and mountain lions. These animals, I noticed right away, staring raptly up the curve of their throats and into nostrils so delicately finished as to appear practically moist, had none of the dusty stiffness of trophies. Their eyes, like those of a fine portrait, looked soulfully into one’s own, and I thought I detected a hint of reproach.
Reproach is one of the many invisible layers that make up Wyoming’s breathtaking landscapes. The reproach of the animals killed for sport whose pictures line the halls of the Holiday Inn, in Thermopolis, for instance—with the occasional image of a live cuddly one thrown in to lighten up the death gallery. But the Big Reproach, spoken and unspoken, is that of American Indians. In this part of Wyoming they are Shoshone and Arapaho. The Shoshone’s enlightened chief, Washakie, was interested in mediating with the white man, and in 1868 he and the pioneers signed a treaty. As part of the deal, the pioneers asked the chief to take in the Arapaho tribe, just for a while, until another settlement could be found for them. It never was. The Arapaho stayed, and the friction between the two tribes never quite let up, though now it is more of an abstraction. Today, the Wind River Indian Reservation is geographically the third-largest in America, covering almost 4,000 square miles. It is home to approximately 5,000 Northern Arapaho and 2,500 Eastern Shoshone.
When I asked Pee Wee, a Shoshone at the Twin Creek Ranch, whether he knew anything about a nearby Arapaho powwow, he said simply, "You eat dog?" Meant as a taunt, this was more of a joke than anything, since it later transpired that a niece of his, whom he himself had taught to dance in the "fancy style," was participating in the powwow. The event was an intimate version of the much larger Plains Indian Museum Powwow we saw a few days later in Cody, at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center—a procession of costumes, generations, and dancing styles. A costume for girls involves fringes made of ascending and descending rows of tin cigar tubes that make a tinkling sound when the dancer moves. One elder wore the head and skin of a wolf on his own head; another had a tall traditional feather headdress, worn with reflecting sunglasses that made the whole somehow seem less like a costume. The older women in finely beaded dresses were the most striking, especially one in a white conical beaded hat.
If you want to bathe in reproach, go to Old Trail Town just outside Cody: in this extraordinary reconstruction of original buildings salvaged from the area, you’ll feel the emotion all around. Inside, there are displays of letters and photographs and objects; it feels like a cross between a museum and a film set and is the brain child of a local man named Bob Edgar. The history comes out rather even, favoring neither the Indians nor the whites, not setting out to apologize or compensate for past actions. Edgar is on no one’s side, or rather, is squarely on both, a perfectly amalgamated white-Indian soul—this is the story the land itself might tell if it could. He has gathered as much documentation as possible, and by the time you emerge you have a fairly vivid sense of what happened in Wyoming, who the main Indian chiefs were, how they lived, and what they tried to do. The white buffalo hunter’s cabin, with its photographs of an expanse of dead animals darkening the ground, is the grisliest exhibit.
Another such treasure house of American memory is the Meeteetse Museum, founded in part by a pal of Bob Edgar’s, Jack Turnell, whose wife, Lili, inherited a share of the legendary Pitchfork Ranch, where Jack has been the rancher for 40 years. It is one of the most beautiful ranches in Wyoming and the original location for the "Marlboro Man" campaign. Precisely because these collections and displays are not decided by committee, there are many odd things and shifts in the scale and the nature of what you are seeing that keep you awake and looking. Something about the "fairness" and equilibrium of more institutional museums is soporific. Here, you feel one person speaking to you, showing you what they know and what they have found and collected. The most riveting display is the darkroom and archive of the photographer Charles Belden, who grew up on the ranch and spent most of his life there recording the day-to-day world of cowboys, ranchers, and sheepherders.
Also on view is Little Wahb, a vicious 800-pound grizzly who slaughtered a great many head of cattle and sheep, and a black-footed ferret, whose long slim body, thin neck, and delicate black-rimmed eyes are the closest animal equivalent to Audrey Hepburn. Thought to be extinct, the black-footed ferret was discovered in 1981 at Pitchfork and bred back into existence, thanks to Turnell, who spoke to me for almost 12 hours about his experience at Pitchfork. He and Lili told me what it’s like to go on a packhorse trip—and showed me photographs of their most recent one—sleeping in tents and cooking on a portable stove. (Jack likes to substitute the word puppy for thing, and I highly recommend the practice: "How do you cook a steak?" "I say, fry that puppy.") Another revelation was listening to retired cow foreman Ray Hammond and his wife, Deanna, both caretakers at the Pitchfork. They first met at a party at the ranch where her parents were living and working. Deanna gave me a copy of a poem Ray wrote about a medicine man he got to know while working on a ranch on the Crow reservation—along with her recipe for strawberry-rhubarb pie. She told me of the time, up in the mountains, when Ray had gone off to work and she was sitting outside her cabin and a black bear appeared. She signaled to the dog to be still, held her baby to her breast, and the bear just walked by. More recently, Ray was chased by a grizzly bear.
The protection of grizzlies and wolves is a sore point. You can’t shoot them except in self-defense, and government agencies can only take action against one if the animal is known to have killed. People feel threatened by these predators, which more and more are drifting into their back yards. Wolves are decimating the elk population. Now, the grizzly is about to be removed from the endangered species category, and the same may soon happen to the gray wolf.
I propose that the cowboy be put on the endangered species list. Cowboys are ecologists at heart—conservative, perhaps, but conservators, too. They are not interested in hunting, though they’ve done some in their time, or in rodeos much anymore. They know how to breed, herd, and brand cattle, and have done a lot of it.
I was initiated into such matters at Twin Creek Ranch & Lodge, near Lander, at the foot of the Wind River Mountains, by Tony Malmberg and his wife, Andrea. When Tony took me on a tour, he explained that a cow pasture must lie ungrazed for up to 14 months for the grasses to grow back. Allan Savory, a political activist exiled from Rhodesia, where he owned a farm, has convinced many local ranchers to adopt techniques of holistic land management. Driving through the ranch, Malmberg stopped his pickup truck to point out varieties of plants: astragalus, wild mustard, bitterroot (which the Nez Percé lived on), and Indian paintbrush, the Wyoming state flower. Through the clump of cottonwood trees along the creek a magpie flew, making a squeaking sound. Looking east, one could see the landscape become layers of blue. Tony said, "Wyoming is still more sheep than people." This isn’t quite true anymore, but it is the least populated state in America. At Twin Creek, they keep 700 head of cattle and 700 calves on 16,000 acres.
After taking us to see her goats, with names such as Maimona, Wilhelm, Billy, and Xena, Andrea Malmberg suggested we take the back road to Wyoming’s Atlantic City. It was beautiful driving, at first, our wheels on either side of a tuft of grass. The road wound gently through small hills, sagebrush, and wildflowers. Huge dark clouds, then little detached ones, scampered across the skies, coming down low, forming a circle. They got blacker. Denser. The sky seemed to want to come down to earth and crush it. We kept driving, the scenery wonderful, only now there were puddles and ruts. The car skidded, then it stalled. Thérèse said, "Gun it." I accelerated and the car spun almost out of control. I’m not saying it was like being on the back of Sharkey, the Famous Bucking Bull, but it was as close as I cared to get. In our effort to speed across the now seemingly interminable road, the undercarriage hit something and a strange rattling was heard.
"That road is a tire-eater," the waitress at the Mercantile in Atlantic City said. We had grilled-cheese sandwiches at one of the tables in the dark saloon.
Two old cowboys came in. One was tall and gaunt, with a long, thin, white beard, and never took his hat off. The other had white hair coming out of his black hat, a red face, and very blue eyes. The lady who ran the bar told him about our tires and he stepped outside to take a look. He stood before the front driver’s-side tire, looked at it, bent down, looked again, straightened up, and kicked it once. Nothing wrong with it, he decreed, you’ll make it to Lander. All downhill, anyway, the woman added.
We pulled over at the Red Canyon scenic turnoff 12 minutes later, on Route 28, when the rattle became deafening and black smoke began coming out the back. It’s the prettiest spot in Wyoming, said the man who got out of the Jeep I hailed. He was a retired pediatrician back from a fishing trip in Saskatchewan and on his way to Idaho, but he offered to drive us to Lander. When we arrived 30 minutes later and got out of the car, he realized he had left his briefcase—a worn leather bag spilling over with papers—on the roof of the car: he had removed it to make space for us.
There was room at the Best Western and all was well. The lady at the front desk called Thérèse Little Missie, and had the number for the Hertz at the Riverton airport. But it was already close to five. A local cab driver, Mr. Marshall, drove us out the next morning to pick up a new car. He had once been a truck driver and now worked part-time for Jud’s Trading Post, a store that sold everything from used trailers to "bed-couches." We drove through the Wyoming desert and across the Little Popo Agie River. Hearing we were heading for Thermopolis, Marshall said, "You ladies looking for something really fun to do? Go to the Star Plunge in Thermop. They’ve got a little place where you can eat. There’s a plunge and a hot pool—it’ll relax you."
Thermopolis is an oddity in that it’s waiting for tourists in a way that no other part of northern Wyoming seems to be. With all due respect to Mr. Marshall’s preference, I liked the modest and Modernist facilities of the State Bath House, where signing a register gets you in for a free 20 minutes, better than the Star Plunge or the Teepee Pools. In our remaining time, we visited the thrilling dinosaur museum, and after a buffalo burger at Pumpernicks, a family-run café on Thermopolis’s main street, we obtained directions from the State Park headquarters to Legend Rock, the petroglyphs near Hamilton Dome. Climbing up to the foot of the red cliffs and then walking along a narrow path, we saw images of animals and people as though drawn in thick white chalk, with widespread fingers like Al Jolson’s. It was a way to be in the landscape for a silent hour—we were the only visitors.
The next day, in Meeteetse, we met up with Jack Turnell, and my cowpunching mettle was put to the test. At the Elk Horn Bar & Grill, across the street from the museum, we ordered Rocky Mountain Oysters (thinly sliced and deep-fried bull’s testicles), a house specialty, and beer. The ceiling above the pool tables was hung with hundreds of single cowboy boots of all shapes, sizes, and designs. Where had they come from? I wondered. "Get a bunch of cowboys in here, get ’em drunk. They’ll give you their boots and their hat and their pants," Jack said. I hadn’t realized the mountain oysters were a test: he believes that when in Rome, you do as the Romans do. He told us that in a restaurant in the Australian outback once, he had asked the waiter, "What’s different in Alice Springs?" The answer was, "How about alligator soup and for the main course, kangaroo?" Jack said, "When I came out of there I was jumping and snapping—I was doing well." I remembered that the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, on hearing his favorite disciple recount that certain larvae in Brazil that the natives ate "appeared to have a sugary taste," thundered, "Do you mean to say that you did not taste them?" I dutifully dragged every last crunchy strip of mountain oyster through the ketchup and horseradish, and when I came out of there I was jumping and snapping and doing well.
The night rodeo I attended in Cody was not like the ones I’d seen on television. Here, the riders were very young. This was where they came to train, sometimes from as far away as Australia or Brazil. They stayed in their saddles a blurred, scary second or two, then got flung to the ground and lay there breathless a few minutes before being picked up and carried away like toys under the arms of the cowboy pick-up men who tidy everything up at a rodeo. When a 14-year-old was thrown by a steer and lay on the ground very still, I repaired to the gift shop. The bucking horse and rider that form the logo on Wyoming car plates were inspired by a horse called Steamboat who was such an "outlaw" that only two riders ever managed to stay on him. In a rodeo, the horses and bulls—charging and snorting, jarring and throwing—get at least as much admiration as the riders.
I liked talking to old-timers in Wyoming and mostly that’s who you talk to, because the young people appear to have left. At the reception desks of hotels and car rentals, in coffee shops and restaurants, clothing stores and emporiums, one is often met by genteel pensioners. But the best education, and the best traveling, was to be found on a working ranch—understanding how it functions, and that a cowboy is, among other things, a person who thinks about cows, about what they drink and what they eat, who treats their ailments, brings their calves into the world and then sells them to be fattened up—in Iowa, usually. Of the many dude ranches in Wyoming, some are still real farms. The ranchers I met may dream of Paris and New York the way we dream of the American West, but they never let you forget cows—one feels they would rather wrangle them than dudes like me.