Here’s what I know on our very first day in Wyoming, on the eve of the world’s biggest outdoor rodeo: The West is flourishing and potent here like a rattlesnake warming itself on a rock in the summer sun.
Wyoming has already disoriented me. As we drove north from Denver through the empty hill country, past scraps of towns clinging to railroad water stations, oases of cattle sprinkled among hills and washes as far as the eye could see, I realized Montana’s nickname, Big Sky Country, worked just as well here, and was in fact a clever way of saying there was so little to see on the ground that your eyes were forced to the clouds. Then, at dinner, I asked our guide, a native Wyomingite, to explain his state as briefly as he could. “We just like to do cowboy shit and get drunk afterwards,” he said.
This is Cheyenne, Wyoming, population 60,000, capitol building’s dome shining above the treetops, sense of city life practically nonexistent. Cheyenne’s biggest identity today and throughout the year is as the host of Frontier Days, a 10-day rodeo bacchanal. This has happened for 119 years and running. Its existence ties the old and the new together; examine how its line plumbs the dusty past, and you might just see where the West was, and where it’s headed.
The West is flourishing and potent here like a rattlesnake warming itself on a rock in the summer sun.
Frontier Days started in 1897, when a handful of Cattle Barons looking to get Cheyenne noticed rounded up livestock and cowboys and sent out word of a bang-up event. 3,000 people showed up. The first bronco-riding champ, Will Jones, won $25 for his efforts. In 2015, the total prize purse overflows $1 million. That money pairs with big-name recognition to bring the best cowboys around. The rodeo fans — this year, around 90,000 or so, total — are here for the cowboys and their counterparts, the most ferocious, skilled rodeo horses and bulls in the world. The young people and urbanites are here for the buzz and excitement and the performances by Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Big & Rich, and, if they’re old rockers, Aerosmith. (These major-artist concerts are a nascent part of CFD at just six years old.) All those pieces of the cowboy-hat-wearing puzzle, 260,000 in all, are united by Coors Banquet Beer, lariats, danger, excitement, accessibility, cheap thrills and a current of sensibility and tradition that a writer might venture to label: The New Western Life.