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Zeus would not budge. I kicked and hollered, but he ignored me “Zack! Help!” I yelled. Our wrangler and guide turned his steed around and grabbed the reins from me. “Come on old boy, be good,” he said gently. Zeus finally complied and we followed the other more well-behaved horses. Moseying along the trail, it was great to breathe the fresh air and gaze out at the seemingly endless grazing land of the 7,000-acre Eatons’ Ranch near the Big Horn Mountains in northern Wyoming.
This was my first dude ranch experience. If you’re wondering where the term “dude” came from, it was what they called city folks at the turn of the last century who wanted a cowboy experience. The label still works for me. I hadn’t been on a horse since I was a teenager. Maybe Zeus could tell. Despite his stubbornness, we had a great ride climbing ridges and descending into valleys as curious antelope ran by and tracked our progress from a distance. Eatons’ Ranch is the oldest dude ranch in the United States, opening in 1879. In the same family since the beginning, the ranch is now helmed by fourth generation Frank Eaton.
Bong. Bong. The dinner bell was clanging. It wasn’t actually a bell but rather a giant wrought-iron “C.” Entrusted by the kitchen staff, a younger guest was hitting it with a hammer, calling us to the dining hall. Sitting at big, round communal tables, we chowed down on a hearty meal of chicken and vegetables with ice cream for dessert.
For many people, going to Eatons’ Ranch is a summer tradition. A family I met from Alabama, the Cobbs, had been going there for 41 years. Another guest named Ely, from the east coast, told me her mom and dad had met at a ranch dance. “Mom was dancing with another fellow and dad cut in. Mom wasn’t too happy and told him, ‘people don’t cut in out here.’ He wooed her back in New York City, though, and she finally gave in.”
Over the years the ranch has also attracted some celebrities – Cary Grant, Carroll Baker and, more recently, actress Felicity Huffman (The Sopranos, Nurse Jackie).
A half-hour’s drive west of the ranch was the picture-postcard town of Sheridan. Walking along the main street, I poked my nose into King’s Saddlery, jam packed with saddles, ropes, and bridles. The founder, Don King was an award-winning saddle maker as well as collector of western artifacts. In the store’s adjacent museum, I walked among taxidermied bears and antique guns and read newspaper clippings about Buffalo Bill Cody and Oglala Lakota chief Red Cloud.
A little parched, I crossed the street and ducked into The Mint Bar. An historic watering hole, the bar got its name because locals would “spend a mint here on payday,” my waitress explained. Sipping a locally brewed Black Tooth ale, I looked around. Just about every inch of wall space was taken up by trophy elk and deer heads with huge antlers. Very western and a tad creepy for my eastern sensibilities.
Native people played a big part in the area’s history and during a demonstration by the Crow Dancers in front of the Sheridan Inn, I was pleased to be invited into the circle to join them. The inn, I learned later, is where Buffalo Bill Cody used to audition performers for his Wild West show.
At the Brinton Museum’s new, state-of-the-art Forrest E. Mars, Jr. building, an exhibit called To Honor the Plains Nations featured war bonnets, beaded dresses, cradle boards and other regalia. The museum also had a collection of art by famous western artists including Frederic Remington and Edward Borein. Next door I toured the Brinton House, once occupied by Bradford Brinton, a wealthy Chicagoan who collected art and used the house as a base for his “gentleman’s” ranch. After Brinton’s death in 1936, his sister Helen occupied the home and started an institution that would preserve the property and her brother’s legacy. When she died in 1960, the house was opened to the public. “It’s pretty much the same as when Bradford lived there, except that some of the paintings have been moved,” explained Ken Schuster, the museum director.
To get a bird’s eye view of the region, I booked a one-hour flight for $130 on Bighorn Airways. Pilot Dennis Keesling took me to the foothills of the Big Horn mountains and circled over a lonely outpost marked on the ground with a dirt outline. “That’s Fort Phil Kearny. Ten years before Custer’s Last Stand 100 soldiers were killed there,” Dennis explained.
The last leg of my trip was a road trip to see where the Battle of the Little Big Horn had been fought, just over the northern Wyoming border in Montana. En route, I stopped at Devil’s Tower a natural spire of hardened magma that native peoples consider sacred. It’s the same formation that puzzled Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
In the sleepy little town of Buffalo, I stayed at the Historic Mansion House Inn, a former doctor’s home turned B&B by Johnny Pond and his wife Pam McFadden. Johnny was full of stories, especially about the Johnson County War, a fight between the area’s cattle barons and settlers in the late 1800s.
Strolling along Main Street, I popped into the Occidental Hotel, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid posed for their pictures in the lobby. “Their hide out was 40 miles from here. It was a cave called Hole in the Wall. My friend’s great grandmother used to serve them breakfast when they stopped to switch horses at a nearby ranch,” explained Angela Fox, CEO of the town’s Chamber of Commerce. She also told me that popular TV series Longmire has its roots in Buffalo. “Craig Johnson, author of the Longmire books lives here and has based his characters on some of the town’s inhabitants.“ Every summer Longmire Days draws many of the actors for special events with the fans. “We’re expecting 10,000 people this year. It’s going to be crazy!” Angela confided.
My last stop was the Battle of the Little Big Horn site in Montana, where General Custer and 268 of his men lost their lives in 1876. An iconic moment in history (and one of the few battles the beleaguered native peoples won), the battle triggered the end of a traditional way of life for American Indians who were all eventually put on reservations. This was a dark time in history.
The story is complex, with many twists and turns. Listening to park ranger Steve Adelson’s riveting presentation, I began to understand both sides of the battle. His upcoming book, Little Big Horn, Voices from a Distant Wind, promises to be a fascinating read.
Eric Tiner, with Apsaalooke Tours took me out on the site. “The American government had told the Sioux and Cheyenne this was unceded territory and they could continue to live here. But settlers continued to push west. That’s when the trouble began.” Eric pointed to a stretch of grass beside a river in the valley below. “There were 7,000-8,000 native people in the camp. Two thousand were warriors. Custer was vastly outnumbered. The battle was over in 30 minutes.”
Although the west may not be so wild anymore, it is chock full of stories. A visit can take you back in time or propel you into the present, astride a stubborn horse. Either way, it’s good. Giddy up!