“My parents are ranchers, they work. I play music” quips Chancey Williams with a quick grin and shrug of his shoulders. We’ve collared the former saddle bronc rider, frontman of Chancey Williams and The Younger Brothers Band, the country music toast of Wyoming, for a chat after a chance encounter in the dark but welcoming dining room of the historic Hotel Wolf in downtown Saratoga.
Saddle bronc, in case you aren’t fluent in cowboy, is a rodeo event where a rider rides a horse who is trying to buck him off. I’m sure you know the one and might have even tried your hand on a mechanical one in a terrace bar in Ibiza, it can’t just be me. What you and I might see as a novel thing to do with a metallic green wig on, (surely not just me, still?) is a real badge of honour around these parts. In fact, Chancey in his beige cowboy hat and non-ironic shining belt buckle is one of only two people to have competed in ‘The Daddy of ‘em all’, Cheyenne Frontier Days as a competitor and a performer. He’s shoulder to shoulder with much loved, and missed, Chris Le Doux. Turn on the radio while you are in the state and you’ll be treated to their music and a sweet, sweet throwback to when T-Swizzle did Country.
We’d come to Wyoming to explore the spirit of the Old West and in my British naivety, I’d been expecting a few mocked up spaghetti western Ghost Towns and the opportunity for some Westworld quips for the ‘gram. What I hadn’t reckoned on is how much that spirit is still felt, most keenly in the love and respect that Wyomingians have for horses and rodeo, immortalised in their state emblem of the horse Steamboat. Heck, one of the vibrant artists we met, Jill Pope in Cheyenne, has a 10-year-old grandson who rides bulls in rodeo and the beautiful Morgan and Emily on the Historic Trails West in Casper gossiped about classmates’ horses and high school rodeo in the way that British 16-year-olds could only about crappy part-time boyfriends. Since we’d driven the 1.5 hours from Denver International Airport in Colorado from the watchful gaze of gigantic stallion ‘Blucifer’ over the border to Cheyenne, the land and sky had opened up, traffic had died down and we’d arrived in the Cowboy State. Perhaps this was one of Ford’s tricks after all.
Our road trip started in state capital Cheyenne, outside the striking red ‘Wrangler’ building. This western clothing store has been a beacon in the petite downtown since the late 1800s, but these days you’d be more likely to be agonising over whether you can really rock a diamond-encrusted Stetson rather than afford a nice chunk of bison that used to hang from the meat rails out front. My answer to both, in Cheyenne, you sure can. While Europeans might well scoff at the American idea of ‘history’, Cheyenne has packed it in since being established in 1867.
Wafting my ‘old-fashion AC unit’ fan as we tour the city in our trolley, Esther, the tales from the wild west start to come to life. Driving around we hear about western favourites Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, enterprising brothel madams who invited local ladies to tea in the afternoons while providing a backdoor escape route for their husbands and the secretive tunnels that run underneath the town purportedly to heat buildings using steam from the railroad.
What took me aback was the wealth of strong women in the history of Cheyenne. Our trolley’s namesake was Esther Hobart Morris, widely celebrated as a hero in the suffragette movement and America’s very first female Justice of the Peace. Just before her appointment, Wyoming had become the first state to give women the vote, ultimately earning it the nickname ‘The Equality State’. Let’s bear in mind that they were given the right to vote so there were enough voting citizens to meet the population requirement for statehood…but nevertheless, they beat us Brits to it by nearly 50 years. #GirlBoss.
In addition to the historic marvels in town, you can feel the pioneering spirit in modern-day Cheyenne. On a quick evening exploration of downtown I stumble across co-working space/bar/coffee shop Paramount, housed in a vintage cinema, we sup craft ales between sucking at the game corn-hole on the patio at Danielmark’s Brewing and nibble finger food at afternoon tea at the lovingly restored Nagle Warren Mansion B&B with owner Jim. This marriage of the hipster and the Old West makes me want to move right in but saddle up, reader, the trail continues…
Leaving Cheyenne we make a quick pit stop at the highly instagrammable foodie spot, Chugwater. This teeny town of 212 people hosts The Chugwater Chili Cook-Off every June and is home to Wyoming’s oldest operating soda fountain. The faded beige and yellow store sits alone on a dusty main road and pushing the door, the bell tinkles and you step back in time. Sit at the bar, order a maltshake under the watchful gaze of Wendell the elk and his collection of vintage bottles and cans, and fall in love with a tradition that time almost forgot.
Fuelled by a Hawaiian sea salt maltshake, we explore historic Oregon Trail sites the Ruts at Guernsey, a lasting memory from the wagons travelling west for a better life, and Register Cliff and Fort Laramie, an impressive National Parks site that captures the spirit of the principal military post on the Northern Plains. The town of Fort Laramie is home to the treasure trove Frontier Trading Post, with locally made Native American Indian bags and accessories which certainly found homes in my suitcase before we decamped to the homey delights of Fort Laramie B&B.
The B&B is on owners Kathy and Arnold’s working ranch, where they’ve lovingly created a western paradise where guests stay in the plush Officer’s Quarters, a teepee complete with a ‘Go Your Own Way’ cushion and dreamcatcher, cosy repurposed sheep wagon or wood clad Cowboy Bunkhouse clustered around an open campfire and ranch building with communal library, collection of Stetsons and vintage bar
After claiming the teepee, I took to a rocking chair on the ranch building’s wrap-around porch as Kathy rustled up some delicious American fare. Later on, swapping travel tales around the crackling campfire, I’m schooled in the art of s’mores, then, guided by stars and a lantern, I snuggle in my teepee to the lullaby of crickets and maybe a distant coyote or two. Just saying ‘coyote’ would have terrified me a few days previous but being in the Cowboy state must make you embrace nature and toughen up.
Over Cowboy Coffee, brewed over the fire, and crunchy doughnut-like bear signs we reluctantly plan our next move, knowing we’ve experienced some of the best the state has to offer in Kathy and Arnold’s company. Waving goodbye, we hit the trails again, this time for Casper, for a tour of the National Historic Trails Interpretive Centre with Rob – not Ron – Swanson, a peek at the city’s very own T-Rex and an incredible 3-hour trip on the original Oregon Trail in a repro covered wagon complete with a lunchtime steak cookout. Yes, this state is as varied and wild as it sounds. We end our day in Casper with moonshine cocktails at circus-themed Backwards Distillery, live country Lorde covers in the recently launched David Street Station plaza and bar snacks and arcade games at The Gaslight Social. Another city to put on my ‘I could live here’ list.
From Casper we drive through dusty, storied towns like Medicine Bow, just missing the turning for local curio the Fossil Cabin Museum, a cabin constructed entirely of dinosaur bones and stopping for cokes by the historic Virginian Hotel, with its plush dark wood and flocked wallpaper. Every spot in this sparsely populated state is rich in culture and intrigue and by the time we pull into hot springs town Saratoga, we’ve forgotten what year we’re road tripping in and are thrown by lunch at forward-thinking restaurant Firewater, which wouldn’t feel out of place in Brooklyn. Saratoga’s natural springs have made it a tourist hotspot which can sustain diverse local businesses, from the conscious cuisine of Firewater to the vintage western clothing store Strong Tower Design and local dive Rustic Bar, packed to the rafters with locals clocking-off, sharing jokes with the resident stuffed mountain lions.
This brings us back to our opening encounter with Chancey and his band over dinner with local, but NY Times Bestselling, author C.J Box in that dark Hotel Wolf dining room. Chuck (CJ) has recently released the 18th book in his Joe Pickett crime series which centres around the town. He talks with passion and pride about Wyoming and the light he has shone on it through his work. That book, The Disappeared, focuses on the disappearance of a British woman enticed to the area by the promise of freedom for her wild heart to roam free. As I ride out at the riverside Vee Bar Ranch the next morning with my horse Aspen, the wranglers trusting his training to eclipse my non-existent experience, I understand wholeheartedly what brought her to Wyoming and vow to come back to feel the wind buffeting against my non-ironic Stetson.
We flew into Denver International Airport to explore the south of Wyoming on a direct flight from London Heathrow with United Airlines, united.com. To plan your very own wild Wyoming adventure we’d recommend you check out the downloadable itinerary planning tools at visitwyoming.com.
North America Travel Service offers a six-night holiday based on our itinerary from £1,132 per person including return flights with British Airways into Denver from London Heathrow, 7 days’ intermediate 4-door car hire, including insurance and satellite navigation, and six nights’ accommodation (2 nights’ room only at Little America in Cheyenne, 1 night at Fort Laramie Bed & Breakfast, 1 night inc breakfast at the Ramkota Hotel in Casper, 1 night room only at Saratoga Hot Springs, 1 night inc breakfast and accommodation only at Vee Bar Guest Ranch in Laramie). Price based on two people sharing and based on travel in September 2018. To book please visit www.northamericatravelservice.co.uk, or call 0161 839 8844.