I remember doors latched with elk antler. Chairs and bookcases made of burled wood and poles, their seats of woven leather and cane,” Mark Spragg writes in Where Rivers Change Direction, his fine memoir about growing up on a traditional Wyoming dude ranch. He goes on: “The buffalo skulls nailed above doors… A bench fashioned from a ten-foot length of sixteen-inch-diameter pine, sawn in half lengthwise… A stuffed golden eagle, his wings outspread, suspended from a wire and turning in the peak of the ceiling of the lounge. There were the heads of moose, elk, deer, antelope, and mountain sheep. And rugs of bear and mountain lion tacked up on the walls. The whole bodies of owls and trout. Drawer pulls made of the sawed-off butts of deer antler.”
To an extent, of course, his family’s lodge was put together this way for effect. But these dramatic, hand crafted interiors also speak to something that lies at the root of pioneer country, where just outside the walls of even the grandest rough-hewn houses live the same things that reside within them—and vice versa. Under the tall peaks, along the dry and windblown plains, there is no true refuge.
To this day, few people live in Wyoming. It has the lowest population density of any state besides Alaska. Comparatively, it has lots of visitors—many of them lured to the glorious spectacle of Yellowstone, with its geysers and waterfalls.
A good deal of the growth and glamour these days are around Jackson Hole. Not that long ago, the place wasn’t much – a seeming depression (hence the name) between a pair of mountain ranges. But now celebrities occupy discreet ranches there, and expert skiers ply the gnarly slopes. You can order Hawaiian blue prawn ceviche at Couloir, a celebrated restaurant in town. But the people behind many of these new settlements—including Couloir—are also interested in not letting too big a gap emerge between what they’re offering and true Wyoming.
By default or design, the state has protected what it’s got. Wyoming (nickname: The Cowboy State) has long staked a claim as the authentic home of the cowboy; its brand, so to speak, is an image of a bucking horse and rider. The town of Cody was developed by (and named after) Buffalo Bill, the man whose roadshow more than a hundred years ago stirred a European mania for the Wild West that still hasn’t subsided. The original “Marlboro Man” campaign was shot in-state, at a sage-strewn dream of a place called Pitchfork Ranch.
When people linger in Wyoming, it tends to be in their imagination. In the 19th century, most of the pilgrims passed on through—en route to the gold deposits of Colorado and California, or the glittering coast. (You can still see the deep ruts left by their wagon wheels, near the town of Guernsey.) Before the sprawling cattle ranches, there were forts to defend these emigrants against the Native American tribes incensed (justifiably, it would seem) by all the traffic. Some of the most vicious Indian battles happened in Wyoming, where a congelation of spilled blood tops the layers of fossils and dinosaur bones.
Wyoming’s latest notorious breed: the maverick skiers of Jackson Hole, the enclave’s co-called ‘Air Force.’ They thrive on going out of bounds, even if they’re not outlaws in the same way they were a decade or two ago. This fraternity of hot-doggers represents a flashier way of doing things; they’re the rodeo riders, so to speak, and contrast with that other, softer-spoken image of the cowboy—men who deal easily with horses and stay laconic behind the wheel of the pickup trucks. Theirs is a life that few of us these days are actually cut out for. To join them truly, we can admit, is pure fantasy. But go to Wyoming and you can find the fodder for it—for “a life,” to crib another phrase from Spragg, “that lined the face, leaned the body, and satisfied.”