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Driving Wyoming’s North Plains

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

There was room at the Best Western and all was well. The lady at the front desk called Thérèse Little Missie, and had the number for the Hertz at the Riverton airport. But it was already close to five. A local cab driver, Mr. Marshall, drove us out the next morning to pick up a new car. He had once been a truck driver and now worked part-time for Jud’s Trading Post, a store that sold everything from used trailers to "bed-couches." We drove through the Wyoming desert and across the Little Popo Agie River. Hearing we were heading for Thermopolis, Marshall said, "You ladies looking for something really fun to do?Go to the Star Plunge in Thermop. They’ve got a little place where you can eat. There’s a plunge and a hot pool—it’ll relax you."

Thermopolis is an oddity in that it’s waiting for tourists in a way that no other part of northern Wyoming seems to be. With all due respect to Mr. Marshall’s preference, I liked the modest and Modernist facilities of the State Bath House, where signing a register gets you in for a free 20 minutes, better than the Star Plunge or the Teepee Pools. In our remaining time, we visited the thrilling dinosaur museum, and after a buffalo burger at Pumpernicks, a family-run café on Thermopolis’s main street, we obtained directions from the State Park headquarters to Legend Rock, the petroglyphs near Hamilton Dome. Climbing up to the foot of the red cliffs and then walking along a narrow path, we saw images of animals and people as though drawn in thick white chalk, with widespread fingers like Al Jolson’s. It was a way to be in the landscape for a silent hour—we were the only visitors.

The next day, in Meeteetse, we met up with Jack Turnell, and my cowpunching mettle was put to the test. At the Elk Horn Bar & Grill, across the street from the museum, we ordered Rocky Mountain Oysters (thinly sliced and deep-fried bull’s testicles), a house specialty, and beer. The ceiling above the pool tables was hung with hundreds of single cowboy boots of all shapes, sizes, and designs. Where had they come from?I wondered. "Get a bunch of cowboys in here, get ’em drunk. They’ll give you their boots and their hat and their pants," Jack said. I hadn’t realized the mountain oysters were a test: he believes that when in Rome, you do as the Romans do. He told us that in a restaurant in the Australian outback once, he had asked the waiter, "What’s different in Alice Springs?" The answer was, "How about alligator soup and for the main course, kangaroo?" Jack said, "When I came out of there I was jumping and snapping—I was doing well." I remembered that the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, on hearing his favorite disciple recount that certain larvae in Brazil that the natives ate "appeared to have a sugary taste," thundered, "Do you mean to say that you did not taste them?" I dutifully dragged every last crunchy strip of mountain oyster through the ketchup and horseradish, and when I came out of there I was jumping and snapping and doing well.

The night rodeo I attended in Cody was not like the ones I’d seen on television. Here, the riders were very young. This was where they came to train, sometimes from as far away as Australia or Brazil. They stayed in their saddles a blurred, scary second or two, then got flung to the ground and lay there breathless a few minutes before being picked up and carried away like toys under the arms of the cowboy pick-up men who tidy everything up at a rodeo. When a 14-year-old was thrown by a steer and lay on the ground very still, I repaired to the gift shop. The bucking horse and rider that form the logo on Wyoming car plates were inspired by a horse called Steamboat who was such an "outlaw" that only two riders ever managed to stay on him. In a rodeo, the horses and bulls—charging and snorting, jarring and throwing—get at least as much admiration as the riders.

I liked talking to old-timers in Wyoming and mostly that’s who you talk to, because the young people appear to have left. At the reception desks of hotels and car rentals, in coffee shops and restaurants, clothing stores and emporiums, one is often met by genteel pensioners. But the best education, and the best traveling, was to be found on a working ranch—understanding how it functions, and that a cowboy is, among other things, a person who thinks about cows, about what they drink and what they eat, who treats their ailments, brings their calves into the world and then sells them to be fattened up—in Iowa, usually. Of the many dude ranches in Wyoming, some are still real farms. The ranchers I met may dream of Paris and New York the way we dream of the American West, but they never let you forget cows—one feels they would rather wrangle them than dudes like me.

Gini Alhadeff is a T+L contributing editor.

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