Wyoming brands itself “The Cowboy State”
The name, “Wyoming”, means “place of the big plains”, but Wyoming is more vertical than horizontal, a series of rippling mountain ranges guttered by vast river basins at the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. Teton village sits at the south-west end of Jackson Hole, the 130-km long, 25-km wide valley which is enclosed by the Grand Tetons on one side and the Gros Ventre Range on the other. This is also Grand Teton National Park, a giant slab of sagebrush, aspens and piney mountains, and a refuge for elk, mule deer, moose, buffalo and bear.
The Tetons are the classic post-card mountains – flinty-edged peaks girdled with glaciers, shining gloriously in the string of pine-rimmed lakes at their feet. In winter, Jackson Hole has some of the finest skiing in North America. In summer, the hills are alive with the crunch of trail boots, the fields of balsam are busy with mountain bikers and photographers.
Bordering the Tetons to the north is another national park, Yellowstone. Sulphurous lakes, geysers, moose meadows, plains of elk and buffalo, mountains, forests, lakes, gorges, waterfalls. Most of Yellowstone is above 2,300m and only easily accessible between May and September. Even when I arrived, at the beginning of spring, the park was already bumper-to-bumper with Recreational Vehicles and Winnebagos and the benches that ring Old Faithful were crowded with spectators waiting for the next eruption.
While Grand Teton and Yellowstone dominate the Wyoming landscape, the state is littered with lesser-known wonders such as the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, a desiccated wilderness of scalped, sagebrush-covered hills, and one of the lesser-known geological glories of Wyoming. The canyon’s piece de resistance is Devil’s Canyon Overlook, where the boisterous Bighorn River has gnawed a 300m trench through the limestone and shale, like a cheese wire through gruyere.
The town of Cody, at the eastern approaches to Yellowstone, makes its living practically on the strength of its history alone. Cody took its name from Buffalo Bill Cody, when the city fathers decided that naming the town after the most famous personality of these parts was a lot more wholesome than the original name for the settlement – Colter’s Hell.
I almost blinked and missed Byron, in northern Wyoming, but a minor aside in my guidebook had alerted me to the Half Fast Diner, which has a unique gastronomy. The Half Fast Diner is also known as the Road Kill Diner (“You kill ’em, we grill ’em”).
Down from Devil’s Canyon Overlook where I’d stopped to admire the Bighorn River there were wild horses grazing at the foot of the Pryor Mountains, which were haloed with little whiffs of cloud. This is part of the Pryor Mountain Wild House Range, and the mustangs are partly descended from the Spanish horses that were imported to the New World in the 16th century.
Further east, Aladdin consisted of a gas station/museum/general store/post office decorated with the sort of laconic wisdoms that are peculiar to the American West (“I started with nothing and I still have most of it”; “Money isn’t everything, although it sure keeps the kids in touch”), which set me thinking about the Wit of the West as a tour theme, and so it was that I almost daydreamed my way out of the Cowboy State without even seeing cowboys, but right on cue, there they were, driving a herd of horses up to their summer pastures in the Bighorn Mountains.