I moved to Colorado two months ago and, after settling in, I set about my usual pattern of gradually exploring the neighboring cities and states. The closest state to Boulder is Wyoming, whose capital, Cheyenne, is a scant 80 miles away. Now Cheyenne is one of those names that I associate with the Wild West, along with Deadwood, Tombstone and Dodge City. The allure of a western city at the edge of the Great Plains was too much for me to resist and I allotted my next available day off for a road trip to Wyoming.
I began researching various travel sites for what I could find about Cheyenne. I learned that the city was founded essentially by the Union Pacific Railroad, which chose the crossing of Crow Creek as a location for one of its depots. People began rushing to the site before the railroad was even built and a frontier town was born. Isolated and under-supervised Cheyenne developed a reputation as a rough town in which criminal violence and vigilante retribution reigned supreme. Unlike Colorado, which profited from higher mountains for skiing and tourist as well as more lucrative mining plays, Wyoming never experienced a significant population boom and was the fiefdom of cattle barons who used the state’s grassy plains for ranch lands. Today more than half of the state is owned by the federal and state governments. Cheyenne, with a population of 55,000 is smaller than most towns in New Jersey. A quarter of the city’s residents work for the local air force base.
I printed a list of things to see and do from wikitravel. The highlights are the state capitol building, the railroad depot and museum and the Museum of the Wild West. Coupled with the drive, these attractions seemed like enough to fill an afternoon. However, travel serendipity struck again when I saw that during the last week in July, Cheyenne welcomes its largest tourist influx for the Frontier Days Rodeo Festival. Now, after growing up in New Jersey and having spent a good part of the last five years traveling Europe, I’m not what you might call a ‘rodeo fan.’ However, the prospect of seeing something so alien to my tastes had a perverse thrill of its own. With a little more research at the Frontier Days website I found a number of attractions that I wanted to see. In addition, I looked forward to eating high quality meat, one of the great boons of living in the West.
The drive to Wyoming was picturesque and uneventful. After meandering through the Colorado towns of Niwot and Longmont I merged onto Interstate 25 heading north. After clearing some road construction, the road smoothed out, running directly parallel with the Rocky Mountains. With the speed limit set at 75 mph and traffic cruising along at 80, small towns, grassland and low hills flew by. The one exception was the highest mountain, Longs Peak, which at 14,000 feet, dominated the skyline for at least 30 miles. As I approached the Wyoming border, the human presence grew more scant and the topography changed from that of rocky, lightly wooded prairie to one of unbroken grass broken only by the highway and bounded by barbed wire. Just after crossing the border into Wyoming, there was a multiplicity of billboards advertising fireworks, campsites and BBQ restaurants.
Cheyenne is one of the least centrally located capital cities in the United States, relegated to the southeast corner of the state where it’s closer to Colorado and Nebraska than it is to Yellowstone or the Tetons. With a brisk right hand exit off of the interstate, I was in the middle of town almost immediately. I parked the car on a side street near the capitol building and went for a walk. With the exception of the streets around the government buildings and the miniscule historic district, Cheyenne seems more like a small suburban town than anything else. There are a number of hotels and restaurants on Lincolnway, the road into town, that all seem to have an Old West motif. The side streets, however, boast small well-kept homes with manicured lawns.
I first walked to the capitol building, which was constructed in 1887, three years before Wyoming even became a state. It’s a handsome stone structure with a burnished cupola and a number of statues adorning its lawns. I took pictures of a buffalo statue erected in honor of Wyoming’s first century of statehood and a full sized figure of Esther Hobart Morris, a key figure in the women’s suffrage movement. After spending a few moments around the capitol, I walked south toward the historic district. Following Capitol Avenue I saw many buildings that houses the state, county and federal governments. Banners advertising Frontier Days hung from lamp posts and the air was redolent with the smell of animal waste from a parade that had been held that morning.
At the intersection of Capitol and Lincolnway stands the railway depot, one of the most impressive buildings in town. Constructed from white and red stone with a clock tower at the western end, the depot symbolizes the importance of the railroad to Cheyenne’s history. I intended to visit the railroad museum but after a few hours of driving and walking, I was famished and decided to stop for lunch at The Albany, a combination restaurant, bar and liquor store. The Albany, which has been serving customers since 1942, looked slightly rundown and dark but the prime rib sandwich, their #1 seller which I ordered for lunch, was absolutely divine. Served open-faced on a roll with au jus sauce and horseradish, the cut of meat was exceptionally tender. I was so impressed that I decided to order the carrot cake and a cup of coffee for dessert.
The railroad museum is composed mostly of pictures depicting the era from Cheyenne’s earliest days to the tragic dilapidation of many of the repair buildings after the conversion of locomotives to diesel engines. There were exhibits devoted to the building of the transcontinental railroad, the role of trains in transporting troops during WWII and the massive infrastructure once required to service steam engines. The lobby of the depot houses many local craftsmen selling souvenirs. One in particular, a sculpture who sells clocks, nightlights and switch plates made from polished steel cut by torch. I bought a switchplace depicting the silhouette of a wolf for my sister-in-law, who loved wolves.
My next stop was the Nelson Wild West Museum, on Carey Avenue, which I confused for the larger Museum of the Wild West that I later discovered is located in Frontier Park. The Nelson Museum has three levels and houses a wide variety of exhibits. On the ground floor there are spurs, bridles and saddles worn by frontiersmen as well as clothing worn by the local Cheyenne and Arapaho Native Americans. There are also military uniforms worn by soldiers of all eras from the time of the Indian Wars to World War II. The top floor showcases a variety of trophies collected from western wildlife by Mr. Nelson, who apparently was an avid hunter. There are also many pistols and rifles from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The basement is an unimpressive display of memorabilia from local criminals and lawmen.
As I left the museum it began to rain and I decided to head over to Frontier Park to catch what I could of Frontier Days. The neighborhood around the park was filled with cars, trucks and campers, some with signs on their windshields asking for rodeo tickets. The first exhibit that I visited was the Indian Village. The “village” contained a number of tents and teepees as well as the small carts of food vendors. The tents housed numerous native American clothing and jewelry vendors. In one of the tents I bought a pair of silver and turquoise earrings for my wife. In another tent that sold leather and fur goods I bought a extremely soft white leather pouch for $5 and a string of cobalt colored glass beads to put in it.
After leaving the Indian village I walked along a walkway thronged with people that led toward the event stadium. On my right was a series of tents in which lived families dressed in frontier garb. In front of each tent was a cast iron grill over a fire set in a pit dug into the ground. On top of the grill each family was preparing their own signature dishes for a barbecue competition. On the left side of the street were small cabins with wooden facades erected in the style of old fashioned store fronts. Each tent sold different wares: hats, boots, sculptures made from horse shoes, signs, soap, barbecue marinades, old fashioned candy and a variety of other goods. When I reached the end of the walkway I found a city of campers, pickup trucks, ATVs and tents for the rodeo contestants. The stadium was empty either because of the rain or because the day’s events were finished. I decided to see the animals instead. In a series of chutes and pens were hundreds of cattle, who looked confused and miserable in the rain. The horses, who were more animated because they were being fed bales of hay from the back of a pickup truck, made for better watching.
After getting my fill of horses eating from impromptu dishes made from kiddy pools and tractor tires, I wound my way back to the car. Along the way I stopped for a bowl of barbecued chicken and vegetables. The mixture of corn, squash and okra along with the chicken was intriguing and delicious. As I drove home the rain gave grudging way to light sunshine and in the east I saw a brilliant rainbow. Given the flat emptiness of the terrain, I was able to make out the full arc. Somehow I was able to take pictures out the window at 80 mph without crashing the car.