Chasing Old West legends on the Outlaw Trail

For some 50 years, starting in the 1860's, legendary rustlers and robbers like the Wild Bunch perfected the "pony express" method of getaways-- using fresh horses and supplies stashed at hideouts some 20 miles apart. The route linking these way stations came to be known as the Outlaw Trail, and it ran all the way from Montana to Mexico.

Most of the route is now on private land or terrain suitable only for off-road vehicles. Still, I was drawn to the trail's association with that enduring, troubling American icon, the outlaw of the Wild West. So I saddled up my trusty Chrysler Cirrus rental car and tracked down accessible sites connected with this lawless thoroughfare: outlaw-era buildings, quirky local museums, and dramatic landscapes that evoke the days of stagecoaches, posses, and cattle drives. On a ragged figure eight across southern Wyoming, looping into Colorado and Utah, I drifted across high plains, mosied into towns immune to Western chic, dipped into canyonlands, and scaled three mountain ranges.

I started in Cheyenne, Wyoming, which burst into being in the late 1860's as a boisterous construction camp for the Union Pacific. Today, this state capital appears serenely suburban-- until tumbleweeds pinwheel past your bumper. The Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum is worth an hour's dawdling for its cowboy paraphernalia, especially a silver-encrusted saddle, bridle, chaps, gauntlets, and other gear made for a California rancher in the 1940's. What also caught my eye was the deadly Winchester of Tom Horn, a bounty hunter hired by cattle barons to ambush ("dry-gulch") rustlers at $500 a head.

In a broad basin between the Laramie and Medicine Bow Mountains sprawls the low-slung city of Laramie, which was so wild that it was put under the jurisdiction of federal courts until 1874. Now Laramie is home to the state university, art galleries, and brewpubs. The Wyoming Territorial Park on the outskirts of town contains a re-created frontier town and the National U.S. Marshals Museum, but the centerpiece is a restored prison where, in 1894, Butch Cassidy began serving an 18-month hitch for rustling.

A herd of pronghorn antelope scattered as I entered Medicine Bow, immortalized by Owen Wister in The Virginian as a "wretched husk of squalor." A century hasn't greatly improved the town's prospects. Still, there's no such thing as bad publicity; Medicine Bow's oldest hotel, built in 1909, is named the Virginian. The well-preserved Owen Wister Dining Room and the parlor remain fine examples of Western Victoriana. Upstairs, tiny rooms and two suites are jammed with brass beds and other antiques.

After a sleep punctuated by the lonesome wails of Union Pacific freights, I lit out west on I-80 across the red desert. Here, two ridges of the Continental Divide split to form a sunbaked bowl scarred with gulches and stubbled with buttes and mesas. West of gritty Rock Springs, I headed south toward the canyons of Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, which surrounds a reservoir created by a dam on the Green River.

At Minnies Gap, a notch between two 7,000-foot peaks, I swapped pavement for gravel and kicked up a rooster tail of dust crossing clay basins where skittish pronghorns grazed amid nodding oil wells. A steep canyon took me into Browns Park, a mountain-rimmed valley straddling the Utah-Colorado border just south of the Wyoming line. As early as the 1860's, outlaws began using this isolated grassy bowl to pasture stolen horses and cattle and to hide out from the law. Here, in 1900, Tom Horn shot and killed Matt Rash and Isom Dart, one of the few black outlaws. The Wild Bunch hung their hats at the Bassett ranch, a social center for settlers and outlaws alike.

The most tangible reminder of those tumultuous days is the John Jarvie Historic Property, now a Bureau of Land Management site shaded by cottonwoods alongside the Green River. Jarvie, a Scottish immigrant with a patriarchal beard, ran the valley's store, post office, and ferry crossing until drifters murdered him in 1909. They were never captured. Jarvie's stone house now displays Browns Park memorabilia.

After the Jarvie ranch I rattled across the Green River on Swinging Bridge, then inched up Crouse Canyon, a clandestine defile used by outlaws riding between Browns Park and Vernal, Utah, 50 miles south. A few twisting miles later I was deposited onto Diamond Mountain plateau, an eerily deserted benchland crosshatched with dirt roads leading to scattered ranch houses, roofless log cabins, and empty corrals. The Wild Bunch grazed livestock here in what's still known as the Outlaw Pasture. I was exhilarated as my radials churned up gravel where desperadoes had galloped-- it was just me, the restless wind, and Western legends.

Heading north on Highway 191, I climbed up into the cool, piney Uinta Mountains and, once again, Flaming Gorge. My timing was good: I arrived at the Red Canyon overlook just as a setting sun painted 1,500-foot cliffs a brilliant vermilion. Red Canyon Lodge, a collection of contemporary, peeled-bark log cabins sheltered by ponderosas, was distinctly non-outlaw but exceedingly welcome after a long day's drive.

The next day, back in Wyoming, I headed into the foothills of the Wind River Range and up to South Pass City, near the Continental Divide. The place still has a pulse; log cabins of miners and recluses are scattered in hollows and draws. But it's a far cry from 1868, when a gold rush caused this remote mining camp to mushroom. After the mines were played out a decade later, South Pass became an outlaws' retreat. Butch Cassidy used to toss silver dollars to kids in the street from one of the city's 13 saloons. In a state historic park, restored buildings along a single street define what was one of the West's greatest dens of iniquity.

The gold-mining town of Atlantic City, a few miles away, also clings stubbornly to life. At the Atlantic City Mercantile saloon, which opened in 1893, miners and ranchers cut dust at an ornate bar beneath cowboy tintypes and the glassy-eyed gaze of moose and deer trophies.

The contoured sagebrush hills and high plains east of Atlantic City are Wyoming's last word in lonesome, an open range that is as empty today as it must have been in the outlaw era. Even the most antisocial soul is glad to stumble into Rawlins, where prosperity during the South Pass gold rush and a later livestock boom engendered a slew of Victorian mansions. The finest dwelling, now the Ferris Mansion Bed & Breakfast, was assembled from a mail-order kit in 1903 and painstakingly restored a few years ago.

The gloomy Wyoming Frontier Prison, a turreted sandstone fortress, is a far more intimidating joint than the lockup in Laramie. Three members of the Wild Bunch did time here, as did William Carlisle, last of the great train robbers. Carlisle served three years of a life sentence before escaping in 1919. He holed up at a ranch, where a posse tracked him down and shot him. No one expected Carlisle to live, so while he lay bleeding on the floor the posse ate his breakfast, prepared by the rancher. Carlisle was returned to the Rawlins prison, recovered, and was paroled in 1936. He eventually became president of the Wyoming Motel Association.

The Carbon County Museum, just down the street from the prison, displays a gruesome artifact: shoes made from the hide of outlaw George "Big Nose" Parrott, who was lynched at Front and Third Streets in 1880. Dr. John Osborne partially skinned the corpse during a morbidly bizarre autopsy and had two-tone shoes made from the cuttings. The good doctor laced up the grisly footwear for his inauguration as governor of Wyoming in 1893.

South of Saratoga, Highway 130 climbs more than 4,000 feet in 40 miles through the pine and spruce forests blanketing the Medicine Bow Mountains, then emerges onto a summit plateau filled with alpine ponds and wildflower meadows flanked by 1,000-foot quartzite cliffs. The rapid descent to the Laramie basin provided a spectacular climax to my drive. I returned to Cheyenne grateful that in an America that relies increasingly on sanitized, packaged experience, you can still make authentic connections with the past along the Outlaw Trail.

DAVID DUNBAR once owned half of a horse named Banner.

Best Western Hitching Post Inn 1700 W. Lincolnway, Cheyenne, Wyo.; 800/221-0125 or 307/638-3301; doubles $72-$89.
Ferris Mansion Bed & Breakfast 607 W. Maple St., Rawlins, Wyo.; 307/324-3961; doubles $60-$68.
The Virginian 404 Lincoln Hwy., Medicine Bow, Wyo.; 307/379-2377; suites $40-$55.
Red Canyon Lodge Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, Dingwall, Utah; 800/872-6084 or 902/383-2246, fax 902/383-2092; $100 for lakeside cabins that sleep six, including continental breakfast.

Restaurants and Saloons
Buckhorn Bar 114 Ivinson Ave., Laramie, Wyo.; 307/742-3554.
Atlantic City Mercantile 100 E. Main St., Atlantic City, Wyo.; 307/332-5143.
Aspen House 318 Fifth St., Rawlins, Wyo.; 307/324-4787; dinner for two $50.

Points of Interest
Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum 4501 N. Carey Ave., Cheyenne, Wyo.; 307/778-7290.
Wyoming Territorial Park 975 Snowy Range Rd., Laramie, Wyo.; 307/745-6161.
South Pass City State Historic Site South Pass City, Wyo.; 307/332-3684.
John Jarvie Historic Property Browns Park, Utah; 801/789-1362.
Wyoming Frontier Prison 500 W. Walnut St., Rawlins, Wyo.; 307/324-4422.
Carbon County Museum Ninth and Walnut Sts., Rawlins, Wyo.; 307/328-2740.

The Outlaw Trail can be driven in any season except winter, though summer is safest-- it can snow as late as May. RV's should avoid the gravel trails. The Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo, America's largest, is held in late July (this year, July 19-27).

Day 1
From Cheyenne follow Route 210 to westbound I-80, then take exit 311 at Laramie for Wyoming Territorial Prison. Drive northwest on Highway 30 to Medicine Bow.

Day 2
Go southwest on 30 to westbound I-80, then take Highway 191 south to the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. Turn east (left) at Minnies Gap onto Browns Park Road and follow it 22 miles southeast to the John Jarvie Historical Property in Utah. Drive nine miles east into Colorado, where you turn south (right) at the vernal/swinging bridge sign. Three miles farther, cross the Green River on Swinging Bridge, go three miles west back into Utah, and turn south (left) up Crouse Canyon. After about 31/2 miles, go west (right) at Crouse Reservoir and drive about 20 miles back to 191. Continue north to 44, then west to the turnoff for Red Canyon Lodge.

Day 3
Follow 44 and Highway 530 back into Wyoming. Drive west on Highway 374, north on 372, then northeast on 28 to the turnoff for South Pass City. Atlantic City is four miles away. Back on 28, head north, then southeast on 287 to Rawlins.

Day 4
Drive east on I-80 to Walcott, then south and east on Highway 130 to Snowy Range Pass. Descend to Laramie and eastbound I-80. Take the Vedauwoo exit, drive eight miles north, then follow Highway 210 back to Cheyenne.