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.