Wyoming is not only one of the nation’s most beautiful states, but also one of the most fascinating. The 10th largest in area, it ranks number 50 in population at just over half-a-million people. By contrast, Rhode Island, the smallest state in the Union, has nearly double the population of Wyoming.
This lack of population may be due to wilderness on an epic scale — Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, Devil’s Tower National Monument, and Medicine Bow and Shoshone National Forests — and only three cities of any significant size: Cheyenne, Casper and Laramie.
That’s why it’s a bit surprising to learn that from its earliest days, Wyoming was unusually progressive, especially in equality for women.
When it was still a territory in 1869, it became the first in the nation to give women the right to vote. It was the first to elect a woman governor — Nellie Tayloe Ross in 1925. In 1870, it became the first to appoint a female justice of the peace — suffragette Esther Hobart Morris, whose first act was to arrest her husband for drunk and disorderly conduct.
CHEYENNE — CAPITAL OF COWBOY COUNTRY
Wyoming’s capital and largest city, Cheyenne, is on its southern border, a 90-minute drive north of Denver. If, like me, you are fascinated with the Wild West in all its glory, this is the town for you.
Wild Bill Hickok married circus performer Agnes Lake here; notorious gunman and Pinkerton agent Tom Horn was hung here the day before his 43rd birthday; and Big Nose George Parrott, a bank robber and cattle rustler, met an end that was grisly even by Wild West standards. After he was cut down from the hangman’s noose, his skin was made into a pair of boots and his skull into an ashtray.
On a lighter note, Ida Hamilton, whose House of Mirrors was one of 60 brothels in the booming railroad town, sent out engraved invitations to her establishment’s opening.
If that wasn’t high falutin’ enough, Ida instructed her girls to take any patrons deemed not clean enough outside and hose them down before allowing them entry.
Exterior image of the Nagle Warren Mansion, a historic and luxury Bed & Breakfast in Cheyenne. (Visit Cheyenne/TNS)
Credit: Visit Cheyenne
Credit: Visit Cheyenne
Visitors can learn these fun facts on narrated trolley tours or carriage rides taking in 150 years of history. Both tours (May through October) can be booked at the Visitors’ Center in the restored train depot.
Built as the Union Pacific Depot in 1886, it’s one of the last leftovers from the transcontinental railroad, and overlooks a central plaza lined with fiberglass sculptures of … what else? … giant cowboy boots.
Walking Cheyenne’s compact downtown is easy. The first stop you may want to make is the Wrangler where you can get fitted and shaped for your cowboy/cowgirl hat. With some 500 different styles available, being without one here is a bit like strolling the streets naked.
Once you’re properly attired — they also sell jeans and boots at the Wrangler — you’re ready to head for the saloon, or at least one of Cheyenne’s ubiquitous breweries.
Check out Danielmark’s, located in a historic home; Freedom’s Edge Tap House, or the popular Accomplice Brewery. The latter is in the Depot, and every Friday night from early June to early September, you can enjoy a free concert in the plaza along with your beer.
If you prefer craft cocktails to craft beer, there’s the Paramount Ballroom. Once a movie theater, the former lobby is now a cool cocktail lounge with specialty drinks either sizzling — the Lion and the Mouse (mescal, passion fruit, lemon, agave, hellfire bitters and jalapeno) — or silky — the Sweet Lavender (vodka, crème de violette, blueberries, lemon and bitters).
While Cheyenne doesn’t exactly rival Manhattan for nightlife, Broadway doesn’t have the Historic Atlas Theater with its campy melodramas, such as The Great Muffin Caper, subtitled the Calamitous Case of the Cookie Mobster.
Put on by the Cheyenne Little Theater Players, the classic melodramas are the perfect vehicles for cheering on the hapless heroine and lustily booing the leering villain.
OUTSIDE THE CITY LIMITS
Sandwiched in between Cheyenne and Laramie in the Medicine Bow National Forest is an area of rocky outcroppings the native Arapaho called Vedauwoo or “earth-born.”
With their myriad shapes and sizes, the unusual boulders do appear wedded to the earth — and is some of the oldest rock in Wyoming, dating back 70 million years. Vedauwoo is a favorite of hikers and climbers or those who just want to relax under the aspen trees and watch golden and bald eagles make lazy circles in the sky above them.
Vedauwoo, a sacred spot for Arapahoe Indians, is an area of unusual boulders and rock outcroppings between Cheyenne and Laramie. (Visit Cheyenne/TNS)
Credit: Visit Cheyenne
Credit: Visit Cheyenne
Another popular recreational area, Curt Gowdy State Park, honors the sportscaster and outdoorsman who was a Wyoming native.
Known primarily for its innovative mountain biking trail designations — similar to those delineating levels of difficulty on ski slopes — the park is an area of outstanding natural beauty.
One place visitors shouldn’t miss is the previously mentioned Terry Bison Ranch. Even if you aren’t up for the Wyoming-to-Colorado horseback ride, you should go out on the ranch’s train to feed the bison.
If there is anything better than seeing a herd of shaggy bison ambling across the green prairie in hopes of a handout, it’s giving them the snack from your own hand. Because bison have no teeth in their upper jaw, they can’t bite. But don’t think you’ll escape unscathed. They’ll leave you with a slobbery kiss courtesy of their long tongues.
THE DADDY OF THEM ALL
My primary reason for being in Cheyenne the last week of July was to experience Cheyenne Frontier Days, a 10-day annual event that, as organizers like to say, “has been kicking up dust since 1897.”
That’s a lot of dust when you consider marquee events such as steer wrestling, bull riding, bronc busting, tie down and team roping, and the grand finale wild horse race.
Cowboys from Texas to Canada compete for more than $1 million in cash and prizes, and the chance to move on to the national rodeo championship in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas may award the title, but Cheyenne has the history, pageantry, color and excitement. When you see a bull and rider come charging out of the chute, you’ll know the true meaning of adrenaline rush. By comparison, a scrambling quarterback facing a rampaging defensive line looks like child’s play.
Before taking their seats in the 19,000-seat arena, visitors can go “Behind the Chutes” for a backstage tour of the rodeo events, and head over to the Indian Village in Frontier Park for a lunch of delicious Indian tacos and a performance of traditional dances.
Cheyenne’s quintessential annual event is the perfect metaphor for the cowboy culture it has never surrendered. Hopefully, it never will.
(Patti Nickell is a Lexington, Ky.-based travel and food writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
IF YOU GO TO CHEYENNE
Where to stay: Nagle Warren Mansion B & B. This is luxury, cattle baron-style, with period furniture, stained glass and floral wall furnishings in the 12 rooms. Built in 1888 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Innkeeper Jim Osterfoss serves a smashing English high tea on Fridays and Saturdays. naglewarrenmansion.com
Where to eat: Sanford's Grub & Pub, where the ebullience of the decor matches that of the food. thegrubandpub.com; Bunkhouse Bar and Grill is the place to go for steaks and live music on the weekends. bunkhousebar.com; Wyoming's Rib and Chop House — the name says it all. ribandchophouse.com