“Everything’s better in the mountains. Chicken soup, coffee with the grounds in it. It’s just better up here.”
Scott Schroder has spots of gray in his big red beard, and wet pants. That’s only because he decided against waders and is walking in jeans through the knee-deep South Fork of the Tongue River. He’s leading me on a fly-fishing lesson for the day, and our conversation could fill an open range. As I occasionally tangle my line in a riverside tree branch, we chat high school football, rhythm guitars, Sweden, speed limits, our late dads, Hemingway, and a few things about fishing too.
“It’s like throwing mashed potatoes off a spoon,” he tells me of flicking the fly with a ten-foot rod. Not a fisher, I surprise myself by creating an arc of a loop in the line. I soon can “mend it” to adjust to changing currents, and catch (and release) a couple ten-inch cutthroat trout. This is a small river, with smaller fish. “I prefer these [rivers],” says Scott, who’s guided for years around the region—and incidentally doesn’t eat fish. “People who fish bigger rivers like the Bighorn have [them] on their bucket lists. People who come here are more interested in fishing.”
Wyoming is just great. Colorado to the south may be the Rocky Mountain State and home to 15 ranges, but Wyoming has over a hundred ranges. And their names run an imaginative gamut. There are the literal mountains (the Green, Gas, Granite), the scary ones (Freezeout, Freak) and the tasty ones (Gumbo, Honeycomb, Pumpkin Buttes). There are mountains named for local folks (Jack Morrow, Pedro, Old Woman—even Laramie is named for a dead French guy, LaRamie) and for local critters (prairie dogs, badgers, rattlesnakes, sheep).
It’s another range named for an animal where I’m lingering for a few days to fish, take back roads, visit cowboy bars, eat elk steaks. The Bighorns—named for the ram and perhaps the range’s crescent shape—stand like a 200-mile wall halfway between Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park. The first dude ranch in the world opened here (and is still going). In 1892, the so-called Johnson County War erupted here between sheep and cow farmers. The Bighorns saw its own Custer’s Last Stand prequel in the form of the Fetterman Massacre near Fort Kearney, east of the range. Higher up are a couple of intense Native American sites with elusive origins, as fascinating as any archaeological site I’ve seen.
Everyone coming this way meets the Bighorns, which are crossed by Highway 16 to the south and Highways 14 and 14A to the north. The challenge is to give them time.
On a block full of century-old buildings east of the mountains, Buffalo’s Occidental Hotel is old-school Wyoming. An elk head and Tiffany lamp look over a cozy Victorian-styled parlor with a grand piano and paintings of Native Americans and local scenery on pale green walls. An old Bing Crosby song is playing, of all things, as my feet creak on the wood floors. I pass through the old barber salon to the saloon just as a three-piece band starts playing “outlaw” country songs, mostly, and some originals. You know you’re in a good place when locals call the bartender “ornery.” Once an Oregonian, she’s in her upper 50s, lazy-eyed, dress cut very low; she bows her head to look over her oval glass frames when you order. And I’m relieved she seems to approve of my choice, a local amber ale.
Half the cowboy hats in here are real, I reckon as I watch the dance floor filled with people ebbing toward retirement. Some of the newly bought cowboy hats top a few dozen rambunctious women known as the Sisters on the Fly, a club of women who are in town to camp in trailers and fly-fish. One, an art therapist from Laramie, high-fives me when I say how much I love her state. Their club’s rules are simple, she says: “No men, no kids, no dogs, be nice.”
“We love our husbands,” another pipes in. “But sometimes we just don’t want to worry if he has a sandwich.”
This is the sort of thing that happens here a lot, a local couple at the bar tells me. The man, in a ball cap, is a (relatively sober) sheep farmer who resembles actor Scott Glenn. I soon have my map out, and he jots down my plan for tomorrow, a confusing network of gravel and back roads across the south end of the Bighorn range.
“That’s the road we’d taken when we’d been drinking. Won’t get caught. You’ll see plenty of elk and moose if you get there early,” he says.
You mean leaving then?
“No, being up there.”
The next morning I leave too late for moose but with plenty of time to stumble along local sheep farmers’ favorite ride in the Bighorns. It begins south of town, at the Crazy Woman Canyon Road, a one-lane gravel ride that twists unexpectedly in the rolling plains toward a range that looks like stacks of pink diamonds in the mountain face. Soon pine trees line the road as it rises sharply. I stop at a winding curve that seems to dead-end, stacked with giant, jagged, sharp-top boulders that look like they’d been tossed here in anger.
Over the next hour, I follow the farmer’s hand-drawn map—onto Highway 16, off on Hazelton Road, onto Rome Hills Road, and back onto Highway 16 again. Every five minutes it looks like a setting for a different Western. Gravel pops up on my car as I make switchbacks in bulging blonde hills, with shadowy pines crowding the far end. I pass sheep farms and cow farms. In one, a black bull stands in the road on an open range like a tolltaker. He lets me pass, and the road rises, disappears, reappears on higher hill, like stepping stones leading toward far-off reddish buttes topped in brush like stern crew cuts. To my right, I suddenly notice, is a steep canyon with pines spilling over the sides, like a portrait of a buffalo jump painted in a palette of greens.
I’m sure glad I’m not drunk.
In Ten Sleep, a town of 260, I stop for a chicken sandwich (the pizza place is closed on Sundays), then head into more arid spaces and reach Medicine Lodge Archaeological Site. In isolation, I wander along a sandstone cliff filled with 10,000-year-old pictographs and petroglyphs I had never heard of before—a rare glimpse at ancient, original American art. I sketch one of the round figures in my journal and write below it, “I’m so proud of these guys.”
I leave the mountains and cross the wide Bighorn Basin, just west, and head north to recross the mountains to the east via Highways 14A and 14. It’s a steep incline up. At pull-offs, I get out to look over the horizon, seeing as far as the Absaroka Range 60 miles to the west. Just above, I turn off a steep gravel road to reach Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark.
A walk along a bald hillside, with views down into opposite valleys, leads a mile and a half to a circle of stones 75 feet across. The fence around the wheel is lined with hanging tokens dangling in the wind: rolled pieces of colorful fabric, dried grass stems, bandanas, feathers, woven bracelets, dream catchers, pouches of tobacco. This has been a holy site for many Native Americans for perhaps 10,000 years. I read in the site’s brochure that 81 tribes come on pilgrimages still. A 20-something ranger with bangs tells me she’s seen indigenous visitors from central Mexico, Alaska, and upstate New York.
“I consider it a privilege to be here,” she adds, while holding a library copy of Don DeLillo’s White Noise. “It’s a powerful place. It’s an emotional place. So many Native Americans who come have such powerful reactions.”
I walk around the wheel twice, each time clockwise as a sign suggests. After 15 minutes, a couple from an Arizona reservation comes, ducks under the fence (as only Native Americans are allowed to do), and offers a prayer. I keep my distance, then let them return to their cars undisturbed, though I’m curious what language they were speaking.
After they go, I begin my mile-and-a-half walk back to my car. The hike up and the moving atmosphere of the wheel have slowed me way down. Soon I see a guy in his 30s walking fast the other way. “Took a while to get here, didn’t it? Is it worth it?” he says, not slowing to hear my response. It’s OK. The wheel will slow him down.
HOW TO DO THIS TRIP:
Fly-fish. I arranged a private fly-fishing tour with the Flyshop of the Bighorns in Sheridan. The day is as long as you like it to be, usually from about 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., including instruction, equipment, transport, and lunch. Rates for one person start at $325.
Stay old school: Buffalo’s Occidental Hotel is a remarkable time-lapse experience and by far the best hotel in the area. Try to stay on a Thursday night, when area musicians amble in for a bluegrass/country jam that draws all sorts of locals out of the woodwork (literally). Eaton’s Ranch, outside town, is the world’s first dude ranch; it requires three-night minimum stays.
Drink at cowboy bars: Other than the Occidental, Sheridan’s Mint Bar—a half-hour north of Buffalo—is a cowboy-bar institution, filled with a seemingly endless line of trophies and old photos you can stare at while trying local brews. If you want to go really local, though, order a Bud Light.
See Native American Sites: Medicine Lodge Archaeological Site has some great camping spots across a tiny creek from a wall of sandstone cliffs. Medicine Wheel National Historic Site, a two-hour drive north, is open all hours, but staffed only until 6 p.m. It requires a three-mile return walk to see. Rangers have drinking water handy.