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Wyoming: Wine and Hors d'Oeuvres in the Cowboy State by Peter Thody

Wyoming is home to the world's largest outdoor rodeo, historic sections of the Lincoln Highway and an ancient tree clinging to life on a granite boulder. These are just some of the must-see attractions that Peter Thody contrived to miss on his 24-hour dash across the southeast corner of the state. What he and wife Carole did experience was an unexpected side of the Cowboy State: one of good wine, imaginative cuisine and a motel luxury that neither of them will ever be able to erase from their memory.

Storm Clouds
Peter Thody
Big sky country, Wyoming style. Thunder rumbles in the distance, warning of storms to come.

Peter Thody
The high desert plains of southeast Wyoming, famed for its cattle ranches and panoramic landscapes.

Heading West
Peter Thody
And the rains came. The first drops of what was about to turn into a torrential downpour. The colour of the grass suggests this is an uncommon event around here.

Laramie Police
Peter Thody
The sign from the Cowboy Bar reflects in the wet Laramie streets. This saloon and dance hall is as popular with the city's large student population as it is with locals.

Laramie Street
Peter Thody
Night time on busy 3rd Street, Laramie. As well as the usual chains, there are many small independent bars and restaurants with interesting menus for the more adventurous diner.

Travel Inn
Peter Thody
Outside the Travel Inn: cheap, clean and convenient. But whoever thought that pink cushioned toilet seats were the height of luxury was wrong, very wrong.

Peter Thody
Deep blue skies, fluffy white clouds and an unsignposted track leading into its wide open landscape - beautiful Wyoming at its best.

Maybe it's all in the mind but crossing a state border always seems to bring about a change in the landscape. There's no earthly reason why an arbitrary, man-made line or even a natural border like a river should signal a change in the geography and character of the place. But change it does. And how.

In just a matter of miles, the rolling fields of the Cornhusker State disappear into the rearview mirror and are replaced by the mountains and skies of the Cowboy State. And as if to emphasise the dramatic change in scenery, the now almost black skies over the Laramie Mountains directly ahead crackle and flash with forks of lightning. To someone from a country that's half the size of Wyoming (England) and a city (Leeds) whose population is almost quarter of a million greater, the vastness and emptiness of this place is almost beyond comprehension -- and hugely appealing. We could have bypassed Wyoming and cut a few hundred miles from our journey west, but the idea of missing this most beautiful of states was unthinkable.

Over the next hour or so, as U.S. Highway 26 hits Interstate 25 and we head south, the rain falls and roads flood. Anywhere else and we'd have pulled over until the worst was over but here, with no other traffic on the road, we just slow down and enjoy our first experience of extreme four-wheel drive white-water rafting.

Leaving the interstate to pick up State Highway 34 for the final leg into Laramie, the rain eases a little but not enough to allow us to get out of the car and admire the elk and buffalo at the Sybille Wildlife Research Center. Still, even with limited visibility, this is a great road to drive and if the 52 miles between Wheatland and the virtual ghost town of Bosler aren't listed as a scenic byway, they should be.

Laramie began life in the 1860s as a tent city near the transcontinental railroad. Its first mayor resigned, calling the place "ungovernable," and law and order was only established through lynchings by vigilantes (although some might question whether this really qualifies as law and order).

Today Laramie is a university town with a young, friendly feel to it. The chalkboards outside the bars promise good wine and imaginative menus; anti-Bush/war/capitalism protestors hold up placards and chant slogans at passing traffic; every third shop is a bookstore and the side streets have been closed to traffic to accommodate an organic food market. Slip in some strategically placed dog mess on the sidewalk and you could be in Paris. Wyoming has a reputation for conservatism but, like anywhere, there are two sides to the story: As far back as 1869 the state (then a territory) became the first in the U.S. to extend votes to women -- and its official motto remains "Equal rights."

Our initial plan is to have drinks in one or two bars before finding somewhere to eat but so good is the atmosphere at the first place we try -- Tommy Jack's Cajun Grill -- that we make ourselves comfortable in the window seats and work our way through perfectly sized portions of garlic/vermouth mushrooms, grilled shrimps and crawfish estoufee, washed down with a couple of beers and a bottle of California shiraz. Wonderful.

The only dark cloud on the horizon (metaphorically speaking, there are plenty of real ones) is the thought of having to return to our motel room. The Travel Inn is perfectly acceptable as budget motels go. It's clean, it's within walking distance of the downtown bars, and it's got coffee makers in every room. But my one abiding memory of the place will always be the horror that is a cushioned toilet seat. Sit on it and you can't help but feel the imprint of a thousand other backsides as the cold, clammy plastic gently moulds itself to your nether regions. It's enough to make you drink to forget. So we do.

Heading south out of town the next morning, signs tempt us to the Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Park, famous as the only facility to incarcerate Robert Leroy Parker, aka "Butch Cassidy." In 1894 Parker was sentenced to two years in prison for stealing horses but was released six months early after assuring the governor that his days of crime were over. His next move was to form "The Wild Bunch" who, despite their reputation for nonviolence, were actually responsible for numerous killings.

Unfortunately for us, the park doesn't open until 10 a.m. so, as we need to get miles under our belt today, we're only able to see it from the outside; time your visit better and, as well as the prison itself, there's a homesteader's cabin and schoolhouse to visit.

Having to miss the prison demonstrates remarkably poor forward planning on our part, and this soon becomes a recurring theme of the rest of our day. For our schedule also means we have to drive straight past Cheyenne, currently hosting its annual Frontier Days event. This is the world's largest outdoor rodeo, nine or 10 days of bull riding, bareback riding, steer wrestling, music, dance, air shows, military reenactments, marching bands and grand parades. In short, it's the ultimate celebration of all things Western and a must-see if (1) you're anywhere near the area around the second half of July and (2) you have the foresight to plan ahead.

Ah well, it's impossible to see everything. And anyway, we're going to see a tree growing out of a rock instead.

We will be ending our flying visit to Wyoming heading south, and the map offers two choices: U.S. Highway 287 (which runs from Montana to Texas and, at 1,791 miles, is the longest three-digit highway in the U.S.) or the all-interstate option of east on Interstate 80 then south on Interstate 25.

Ordinarily there would have been no question which route to take (the back roads) but our guidebook promises that the interstate takes in a well-preserved stretch of the Lincoln Highway and affords the opportunity to visit the Tree in the Rock, a small pine that appears to grow straight from a boulder. According to legend, the railroad was diverted to avoid damaging the tree and train drivers would throw a bucket of water over it as they passed.

Heading east out of Laramie, we pass under the watchful gaze of Abraham Lincoln himself, a 13-foot bronze bust on a 35-foot granite base, marking the high point of I-80. On we go, through beautiful rolling Wyoming countryside, but with little sign of any historic-looking stretch of road. There are in fact a number of driveable sections of the original Lincoln Highway between Laramie and Cheyenne, but you need to know where to turn off the interstate to find them. And we don't. Anyone wanting a more rewarding experience along this route could do far worse than consulting Brian Butko's Greetings from the Lincoln Highway before setting off. I wish we had.

And what of the tree? Well, it sits on the median and requires you to turn off via the fast lane. So unless you're fully prepared for it, you'll more than likely speed by at 70 mph, wondering to yourself: "Hmmm, that's weird. Why on earth would so many people be standing around a small tr … oh bugger."

Peter Thody

Next-- Colorado: The awesome beauty of the Rockies and westward into red rock country


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