“This is Wyoming. Every man for himself.”
I had told the bartender I thought we were on the same side, eating steak as I was while my fellow bureau chief, recently converted to vegetarianism, sustained himself with salad, albeit a large one laden with ranch dressing and extra eggs.
We were seated at the bar of a steakhouse that a job applicant had recommended as the best restaurant in Casper, a “boom-or-bust town” in the midst of a minor boom.
I had spent a day in Yellowstone National Park, in the majestic northwest corner of Wyoming the year before. The state’s conservative, mineral-extraction-friendly reputation didn’t jive with the spirit I encountered there, though, to be fair, that was federal land.
This Wyoming is different.
We had driven almost 400 miles from Helena, Montana, to Sheridan, Wyoming, the evening before. I took first shift, spiraling through beautiful south-central Montana.
My fellow bureau chief, who jokingly referred to himself as the pack mule, had the unenviable duty of driving the rest of the way through much less majestic parts of Montana, first to Billings with its unsightly oil refinery on the edge of the city tucked below large cliffs, before heading into the isolated Crow Reservation.
As the light began to fade a small bird headed for the windshield of our car. Instinctively, we both ducked. The bird missed. I said I’d never experienced that before. Pack Mule agreed. I looked to the right. Small dead birds lined the shoulder of the road. We were lucky.
As we approached Hardin, Montana, a while later I got just enough cell service to check for food options. There wasn’t much, and what there was did not appeal to us, hungry though we were. We decided to press on to Sheridan, still a few hours away.
I called a highly rated steakhouse that told me the kitchen closed at 9:45. Though I don’t like to show up just before closing, we didn’t have many options, and we were on schedule to make it there by 9:30.
We made it to the relative metropolis of Sheridan a few minutes early, but blew right past the not very well marked restaurant. By the time we waltzed up to the bar after righting ourselves it was a few minutes after 9:30.
The young bartender stared at us for a second when we asked for food menus before grabbing two and plunking them on the bar.
I said I was sorry for showing up right before closing. She replied, dryly, “Sure you are.”
Not a good start.
When my companion finished ordering what turned out to be a gargantuan salad, the bartender turned to me, lips pursed.
I ordered the ribeye dinner, rare, with the red beef chili, a potato and vegetables. She almost smiled.
We explained why we arrived so late, and said we’d eat quickly and skedaddle. She warmed up a bit. It probably didn’t hurt that we promised we’d tip well.
The bartender decided to order a meal of her own, beef tips, gravy and potato, and loudly pronounced her love for protein.
She poked fun at Pack Mule for ordering just a salad. When I tried to join in she turned to me and said, “You and your vegetables.”
When we asked about Sheridan, she said the town had recently hosted a well-known rodeo, its big annual event.
She disparaged The Mint, a bar we planned on hitting up, as “too touristy,” recommending the “No Name” bar instead. If she gave us directions I’d forgotten by the time we left.
Not finding a bar called “No Name” on an internet search we settled on The Mint, which, open since 1907, markets itself as the oldest bar in town. We enjoyed a couple quick drinks surrounded by more types of stuffed dead animals than I’d ever seen, even in Maine, Montana or Alaska, while patrons on the other end of the bar played dice games for small stakes.
Later, while Pack Mule waited to pay the bartender, I looked at the old pictures and newspaper clippings on the wall, most from past rodeos. They included action shots, but also parading cowboys on horseback alongside Native Americans, some in traditional garb, surrounded by large crowds.
The next morning as we pulled out of town, my fellow bureau chief declared the bartender had hoodwinked us. He mentioned a large sign that advertised the county rodeo scheduled for the upcoming weekend. Convinced also that there was no bar called “No Name,” he wondered if we should have tipped less.
I didn’t know what to believe, but a Google search clarified that the Sheridan WYO Rodeo had in fact taken place earlier in the summer and that the county affair was a smaller-scale event.
I also speculated that perhaps the bar did have a name, but it wasn’t well-labeled, like the restaurant, and the bartender didn’t know it.
Or maybe she was just messing with us, vegetable eaters that we are.
Though we missed the rodeos in Sheridan, we had scheduled a trip to one in Cody later in the week.
Approximately an hour from the eastern entrance to Yellowstone, Cody is named for famed cowboy Buffalo Bill Cody, who helped found the town.
The rodeo takes place at the edge of the touristy town in the shadow of mountains, near a river that leads to the park.
The four of us – by now our editor had joined along with a friend from Bozeman, Montana – settled in for what was an entertaining spectacle, though the skill of the cowboys and cowgirls left a bit to be desired.
Who am I to talk? I’ve never even been on a horse.
Most of the human participants, from what we could tell, were either semi-retired, moonlighting locals or young folks in training.
We were rooting for the animals anyway, and the animals were winning. But the real highlights were the dance-off and the calf scramble.
During the former, the hosts eliminated all but one blindfolded competitor after a couple rounds, but let her think there was at least one competitor left after each round, until finally letting her remove her blindfold, only to discover she was alone. She seemed to take it well, and hey, she got a prize. A thermos, if memory serves. It rarely does.
For the calf scramble, the children from the crowd were encouraged to gather in the center of the arena. Those who managed to fetch a red tassel from the tail of one of three calves won a prize. The calves bolted and the pack of children scurried after them. Though the carnival tune the rodeo played fit the scene, I thought the theme song from “The Benny Hill Show” would have been the best choice.
After the tassels were finally secured, the emcee announced the last child left in the performance area would have to go to school the next day, a Saturday during the summer.
Most of the children raced back, but one girl stood in the middle, waited until almost everyone had left the field, and then slowly sauntered off, waving grandly all the way.
As we filed out later I couldn’t help but notice the joy on the faces of the spectators, many excitedly talking about their favorite part.
We were almost out the gate when I saw a small boy, dressed in cowboy garb, practicing his lassoing skills on an equally tiny cow statue, preparing for his role in the next generation of cowboys.
About our coverage of Big Sky Country:
Courthouse News Service has provided daily coverage of the United States District Courts for Montana, Idaho and Wyoming for more than a decade and of Idaho state courts since 2008, which includes daily in-person coverage of the Ada County District Court. CNS began regular in-person coverage of Montana state courts in 2016, including in the counties of Yellowstone, Missoula and Lewis and Clark. Courthouse News began regular in-person coverage of Wyoming state courts earlier this year, including in the counties of Laramie, Natrona, Campbell and Albany.
Ada County, Idaho Facts
County Seat: Boise (also the state capitol)
Named After: Ada Riggs, first pioneer child born in the area, and the daughter of H.C. Riggs, a co-founder of Boise.
Ada County is home to Boise State University, whose football team plays on a distinctive blue field.
Yellowstone County, Montana Facts
County Seat: Billings
Named After: Yellowstone River, a tributary of the Missouri, the longest river in the country, which spills into the famed Mississippi River north of St. Louis.
Missoula County, Montana Facts
County Seat: Missoula
Named After: Nmesuletkw, the Salish (Native American language) name for the local Clark Fork River. The name roughly translates as “place of frozen water.”
Missoula County is home to the University of Montana.
Gallatin County, Montana Facts
County Seat: Bozeman
Named After: Albert Gallatin, U.S. Secretary of the Treasurer from 1801-1814.
Bozeman is home to the main campus of Montana State University.
Lewis and Clark County, Montana Facts
County Seat: Helena (also the state capitol)
Named After: Famed explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark
Interesting Fact: Helena was founded by four men, known as the “Four Georgians.” The men arrived in the area after searching in vain for gold throughout western Montana, and decided to give their luck one last shot. They struck gold in downtown Helena on what is now a street called Last Chance Gulch. Word of their success brought other miners to the area. This bureau chief was told some were from Georgia, at least one written source claims all were from Georgia, but the clerk at the tourist information shack said none were and were so named because they used a style of mining known as Georgian.
Laramie County, Wyoming Facts
County Seat: Cheyenne (also the state capitol)
Named After: French-Canadian fur-trader Jacques La Ramee
Interesting Fact: Laramie County is the least populated county that is the most populated county in a state.
Natrona County, Wyoming Facts
County Seat: Casper
Named After: Deposits of natron found in the area. Natron is a mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate and sodium bicarbonate.
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