Thursday, September 22, 2011

Cody, WY, and the West of today

The West lives on in many modern forms - rodeo, rafting the Shoshone River, searching for and observing wild herds of mustangs, listening to Tin Pan Alley Western songs and contemporary cowboy poetry, dude and guest ranches where visitors can ride the range and ridges with experienced wranglers, seeing the rich fields made possible by America's first reclamation project after which the great Hoover Dam would be fashioned and remembering the cruelties of war through the new Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center.

Shoshone River
The West of myth has become reality in other ways, too: men who tip their hats and address  women as ma'am; neighbors who lend a hand to one another and to strangers as well; an acceptance of nature and an accommodation with her for the land is what supports them and why they choose to live here.

Teton and a couple of his mares.

Bronc riding at the Cody Rodeo.

Cody is the self-described rodeo capitol of the world with a rodeo held every night between June and the end of August. Broncs and bulls are ridden, barrels are circled at high speed, calves are roped and there is a calf chase for youngsters as well as some fun folderol for them with the rodeo clowns.

                  Calf scramble at the Cody Rodeo.
Tip: Best seats are above the bucking  chutes but that requires a bit of a climb,  two series of about 14 steps each, but the steps are easy and there are plenty of rails for holding and balancing.


Young, unnamed bay mustang stallion.
Wyoming River Trips is a popular rafting outfitter. Ours was a high-water "cruise" along the Shoshone for summer's usual drought had been replaced by above normal snow melt and rain. That meant a swifter, safer trip as the guides didn't have to worry about the extra rocky rapids that usually pop up in late summer. It's not without eek! moments and you will get wet but you won't be white-knuckling all the time.

We encountered lots of mule deer, bucks, does and late season fawns still spotted, grazing and lazing along the river banks. The water is heavy with sulfa and the skies are filled with golden eagles and swallows as you float through the high canyons.

Tip: Guides drive you from their headquarters just outside of downtown Cody to the river. You will have 21 steps down to the river bank. Getting into the raft is easy as is getting out at the flat landing site where you will be picked up and returned to headquarters.You can opt for the short rafting trip or the long one; I found the short one just right. 

Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center was designed to resemble the barracks where Japanese American families were interned. 
Ken Martin, a teacher and high school wrestling coach, runs Red Canyon Mustang Tours, piling visitors into a bus and taking them across 110,000 acres of public land to observe bands of the 150 head of wild horses that roam there.

It is a labor of love;  Martin has come to know the horses intimately and to respect their right to freedom on and use of the land, no more or less so than the prong-horn antelope and mule deer who roam it too.

The mustangs are a handsome lot having benefited genetically from the well-bred horses from his Wild West shows that Buffalo Bill once turned loose here between touring seasons. Martin knows them by name, or more accurately, names, for each has its white man name and its Indian name. When the stallion Two Socks stood his ground and refused to budge when Land Management helicopters tried to herd him for dispersal or death, his Indian name became Two Socks Who Stands Tall.

Rules keep onlookers no closer than 500 yards from the herds. The one we watched was led by a big black, Teton, son of Lakota. Bachelors, young stallions too green to challenge Teton, stayed well away except for a large, handsome and as yet unnamed bay whose coat was already battle scared. He followed at a prudent distance but I'd lay money he takes over Teton's band in a year or so.

Tip: You can drive the free range land yourself - it's about 20 miles east of Cody - but you are unlikely to find the horses. Martin goes out every evening to see where the bands are moving and to estimate their locations come morning. The land is pretty flat but it is uneven, cacti abound and rattlesnakes are not unknown. Watch where you step whether guided as I was or on your own.

Sounds of the cowboys
Dan Miller puts on a nightly family-oriented show of cowboy music and poetry performed by himself and several other strong singers and musicians. You'll hear anything from Frankie Lane's old "Ghost Riders in the Sky" to the traditional "Streets of Laredo."

Heart Mountain
The just opened Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center will get you in the heart for it is where more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were interned during World War II. The story of how these American citizens were gathered from their West coast homes and farms, taken to holding areas then shipped to barely finished camps of barracks and barbed wire, armed guards and watchtowers is a heart-wrencher. The internees and the community joined to finance and support this center, turning it into a must-see stop.

Tip: It's flat and on one level.

 Hawk surveys the ridge top.

                                                         View at the end of the climb.

Riding along Blackwater Creek.

Dude or Guest?
A dude ranch is one that takes in visitors for minimum set stays, usually a week at a time.

A guest ranch is one that will accept visitors on a space available basis for a week, a few nights or perhaps even a trail ride.

Both provide memorable experiences, hearty, delicious meals and varying degrees of accommodation from bare-bones rustic cabins to luxuriously-appointed quarters and in some cases, spa treatments and wellness center. You'll probably have more fun in one with comfy cabins.

My ride and lunch at Blackwater Creek Ranch, a few minutes east of Yellowstone National Park, was perfect. My mount, Smoke,  was good, the food was delicious and the wranglers, Hawk and Joe, were right out of Central Casting. The scenery as we climbed to the top of Shoshone Ridge from an elevation of 5,000 feet to one of 8,000, right at the tree line, could have been selected by a seasoned location scout. Finishing the trek along the high grass trail following Blackwater Creek was the best possible finale, exceeded only by the delicious grub that awaited us, including fresh homemade peach ice cream. Does it get any better?

Tip: A good dude or guest ranch will be able to match you with an appropriate mount, see you safely into the saddle and have you feeling like a seasoned buckaroo in no time.

Rest Western style.
 Mule deer are frequent visitors.
Wherever we went in and around Cody, the greeting was one of welcome. Downtown isn't large but there are benches - with a Western theme - for resting. Even the mule deer were welcome to graze along the yards and sidewalks just a block away from the main drag.

They may say ma'am a lot, but equality is important out here.  As residents are quick to tell you, Wyoming was the first state to give women the vote, the first state to elect a woman governor and the first state to hang a woman.

The code of the West lives on.


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