Pronghorn antelope all but outnumber people in wide-open Wyoming, the ninth largest but least populous state in the union, with just 576,000 residents. This is classic cowboy country – the inspiration behind Shane, The Virginian and countless other Western novels – replete with open range, rodeos and country-music dance halls.
The state emblem, seen everywhere, is a hat-waving cowboy astride a bucking bronco, and the spurious “Code of the West”, signed into state law in 2010 and urging residents to follow such maxims as “ride for the brand”, illustrates Wyoming’s ongoing attachment to the myths of the Wild West.
Unlikely as it may seem, this rowdy state was the first to grant women the right to vote in 1869 – a full half-century before the federal government, on the grounds that the enfranchisement of women would attract settlers and increase the population, thereby hastening statehood. A year later Wyoming appointed the country’s first women jurors, and the “Equality State” elected the first female US governor in 1924. Today the state government is dominated by Republicans and President Obama managed just 28 percent of the vote in 2012 (only in Utah did he get less).
The mineral extraction industry and the tourism sector are the main drivers of Wyoming’s modern economy. Indeed, the state is home to one of America’s most famous natural attractions, the simmering geothermal landscape of Yellowstone National Park, along with the craggy mountain vistas of adjacent Grand Teton National Park. Travelling to Yellowstone from South Dakota on I-90 you will pass the helter-skelter Bighorn Mountains, likeable Old West towns such as Cody and Buffalo, and the otherworldly outcrop of Devils Tower; anyone crossing the state from Nebraska to Utah on I-80 will also pass a handful of worthy detours.
The jagged tooth-like peaks of GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, stretching for fifty miles south from Yellowstone to Jackson, are more dramatic than the mountains of its superstar neighbour park to the north. These sheer-faced cliffs make a magnificent spectacle, rising abruptly to tower 7000ft above the valley floor. A string of gem-like lakes is set tight at the foot of the mountains; the park also encompasses the broad, sagebrush-covered Jackson Hole river basin (a “hole” was a pioneer term for a flat, mountain-ringed valley), broken by the gently winding Snake River, rich in elk, bison and moose – it’s a lot more common to see the latter here than in Yellowstone.
Of the three scenic highways that wind through the Bighorn Mountains, US-14A from Burgess Junction, fifty miles west of Sheridan, is the most spectacular. The road (typically closed Nov–May due to snow), edges its way up Medicine Mountain, on whose windswept western peak the mysterious Medicine Wheel – the largest such monument still intact – stands protected behind a wire fence. Local Native American legends offer no clues as to the original purpose of these flat stones, arranged in a circular “wheel” shape with 28 spokes and a circumference of 245ft – though the pattern suggests sun worship or early astronomy.
The route down the highway’s west side, with gradients of ten to twenty percent, is said to have cost more to build per mile than any other road in America. Tight hairpin bends will keep drivers’ eyes off the magnificent overlooks down into the Bighorn Basin, a sparsely vegetated valley walled in by mighty mountains on three sides and ragged foothills to the north.