Their very names conjure up images of gunslingers and the old West. Lindsay Sutton pays a visit to the USA's traditional cowboy country...
You can tell you’re in traditional cowboy country. Even the name of local newspaper, the Laramie Branding Iron, fits the image.
So does the old classic downtown saloon, with its regular square dancing every Saturday night. The local jail even housed the legendary outlaw Butch Cassidy back in the rough-tough frontier days.
So it’s little surprise to learn that in lawless Laramie, the town’s first mayor lasted just three weeks, declaring the place “ungovernable”.
Outside the town, you’re pretty soon home on the range in the vast High Plains. But they, too, were the battleground for conflicts between the pioneer white settlers and the Native American tribes.
Laramie’s impressive statue of Chief Washakie is testimony to the great leader of the Shoshone tribe. There he sits, in all his dignified majesty, high on horseback, complete with full head-dress, and lance in hand.
He may have been a wise leader but he and his people ended up being beaten, humiliated and pushed onto featureless reservations: the tragic consequences live on.
As you travel across the seemingly endless northern states of Wyoming and South Dakota, evocative names from that period zing from the map like a list of characters in old film classics such as How The West Was Won.
Wyoming’s capital city of Cheyenne brings back memories of a proud Native American tribe. But when the trans-Continental railroad came through, the place became a ‘hell on wheels’.
Deadwood and the Badlands in the neighbouring state of South Dakota need no introduction. The towns of Buffalo and Cody could be just your bill. Heading west from Laramie you find yourself crossing vast areas of desert scrub that are virtually uninhabited, a place where the cow is king and people are as scarce as watering holes.
And since many of the westward-bound pioneer wagon trains came through here, it gives you an insight into what those brave folk experienced.
Nowadays, you look out to see freight trains stretching a mile or more in length and your cowboy ‘fix’ is reinforced by country and western music on the radio, blaring out songs about lyin’ and cheatin’ and weepin’ and wailin’.
It’s real Jeremy Clarkson country. Huge distances, open roads, powerful cars, trucks as big as mountains, and no cops in sight. Clarkson would also love the Branding Iron’s report on the splendidly named would-be politician Cynthia Clinkingbeard, who was up in court for handing out ‘Vote For Me’ leaflets at gunpoint. Anyone who disagreed was greeted with the words: “Prepare to meet your God!”.
Clearly, the old-style, gun-toting tradition lives on.
In fact, that old Wild West legacy is all around you.
The legendary Buffalo Bill Cody was a huge figure up here. Custer’s Last Stand at Little Bighorn was just across the state line in Montana, and the tragedy of Wounded Knee, where the Native Americans were humiliated and beaten into submission in 1890, took place just south of South Dakota’s perfectly named Badlands.
Back in Wyoming, Buffalo Bill actually set up the community of Cody, which he named after himself, and which he saw as a major bridgehead for tourists visiting the awesome splendour of the neighbouring Yellowstone National Park. That’s why he bankrolled Cody’s Irma Hotel, to be run by his daughter back in the early 20th Century.
The Irma is still a great place to stay, with its old-fashioned Western bar and its mock gunfights held on the porch each summer evening. It’s not often a cafe waitress tells you: “My fiancé’s Wyatt Earp. Tell him Michelle sent you.”
In memory of Bill Cody is the town’s recently expanded, state-of-the art Buffalo Bill Historical Centre, a top drawer tourism attraction and Smithsonian-accredited research centre dedicated to the history and culture of the West.
A former buffalo hunter, Pony Express rider, US Army scout and ultimately a showman of worldwide repute, Cody went from ‘Man of the West’ to ‘Man of the World’. He entertained millions with his Wild West Show, including Britain’s Queen Victoria and other heads of state in Europe.
The Historical Centre is a treasure house of memorabilia and displays of Western pioneer and Native American history.
Original silent screen footage of Buffalo Bill and his show has a fascinating quality. There’s a natural history section, a Native American wing, a firearms display and a gallery dedicated to Western art.
No visit to Cody is complete without a visit to the town’s Rodeo, which has been going for 75 years, and showcases Wyoming’s finest cowboys and cowgirls in action. It really can be riveting as Caid, Kirsten, Zane, Dusty and Clint vie with each other in the barrel race, or the bucking bronco event.
Yes sirree, they still do it.
Next stop is Sheridan where the hotel of that name was set up by our old friend Buffalo Bill. Queen Victoria is said to have donated the bar in gratitude for his London show put on for her 50th Jubilee in 1888. The 1893 hotel is being restored to its original glory, and it’s hoped that visitors will soon be able to stay there.
Down the highway is the appropriately named Buffalo, with its Victorian houses – including the well-appointed Historic Mansion House Inn where we stayed – and another fine Western hotel from the Cowboy age, the Occidental.
Its reception, barber’s shop and bar are just the same as they were when Butch Cassidy stopped by for an auction.
Neighbouring South Dakota is another jewel, with the Black Hills, the Badlands, Custer Park – named after you know who – and the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Lakota Sioux tribe.
The Black Hills are seen as the spiritual home of the Lakota Sioux, who regard them as “the heart of all things, the only place where the whole song can be heard”. It’s ironic that one of America’s awesome wonders is found here – Mount Rushmore’s four giant presidential heads carved in the mountainside. They are billed as “representing 150 years of America’s great experiment in democracy”, and they are amazing to behold.
Each president represents a different contribution to the ‘great experiment’. There’s founder and federalist George Washington; state rights proponent Thomas Jefferson, prime mover of the Declaration of Independence; Teddy Roosevelt, who taught his country to “speak softly but carry a big stick”; and Abe Lincoln, who kept the States together, albeit through a bloody civil war.
Down the road is the same-style response of the Native Americans, a giant rock carving of Chief Crazy Horse, the charismatic Lakota Sioux leader. Work still continues on the 563ft tall by 641ft long figure high up on Thunderhead Mountain, with progress depending on funding, the weather and the rock itself. However, since Crazy Horse told his people: “I will return,” no-one doubts it will be completed.
Back in ‘yee-hah’ country is the old Wild West settlement of Deadwood, where the entire town has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
Naturally, the home of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane is brash and boisterous. Its last brothel closed in 1980, and only then because of tax evasion, and Saloon 10 is the only museum in the world with a functioning bar as its focal point. It’s a great experience for those wanting the authentic feel of the American West, a world away from the make-believe of Disney.
This is the real America.
Lindsay Sutton flew courtesy of United Airlines and as a guest of Rocky Mountain High. He flew on United Airlines’ Manchester to Washington DC daily flight and on to Denver. Return flights are from £639. Visit www.united.com
Stay at the Hilton Garden Inn, Laramie, from around £60 per night (www.hiltongarden inn.hilton.com).
At the Irma Hotel in Cody, Wyoming it’s from £80 per night (www.irmahotel.com).
For latest rates at Historic Mansion House Inn, Buffalo click www.mansionhouseinn.com. Stay at Powder House Lodge, Keystone, South Dakota, from £60 per night (www.powderhouselodge.com).
For Deadwood, luxurious Spearfish Canyon Lodge is nearby, from £166 per night (www.spfcanyon.com).
A week’s intermediate range car hire with Avis from Denver International Airport can be had for £178 (www.avis.co.uk)