It is the first leg of our journey and the sky is turning an iridescent pink above the buckskin colored landscape of southern Wyoming when my father begins to tell me the history behind this road trip, 45 years in the making. The year is 1972 and the man who would become my father is a scrawny, baby-faced cowboy fresh off the family ranch looking for adventure in far away places. It is early summer and with hats on their heads and saddles in hand, he and his older brother climb into their “old worn out” Biscayne and head the 1,000 miles north from Catron County, New Mexico, to the Cowboy State.
Just spitting distance outside Cody, my dad hooked up with a hardworking Italian couple transplanted out West from their native New York to run a dude ranch. Slim, as my dad was soon called, was hired on the spot when he proved to be the only one on the outfit that knew better than to tie a horse up in the same spot for 10 hours. From what I understand, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and a classic coming of age story where during the course of one transformative summer Slim learned the important things in life, like how to talk to pretty ladies, stay on a buckin’ horse for the whole 8 seconds, and never underestimate the grit of a Wyoming old timer when he’s mad.
In exchange for room and board and enough dough to pay the $5 entry fee at the Cody Nite Rodeo, Slim became the chief horse trail guide for nice, vacationing families looking for an “authentic” experience. By day he’d lead wide-eyed posses of city slickers, spinning wild tales of grizzly encounters, shootouts, and other accounts of how the West was won. By night he’d descend upon the bucking shoots and try his luck of the draw.
Evidently in the early days of rodeo there was no rescue team in place to retrieve fallen cowboys from the line of fire. It wasn’t an uncommon sight to see disoriented fellers wandering aimlessly in the arena searching for the concession stand to quench their concussion-induced thirst. True sons of a WWII nurse, Slim and his brother took it upon themselves to fire up the Biscayne and run a makeshift medic operation, hauling busted up cowboys to the local hospital. When Slim took a fall to the head and ended up lost in the arena, looking for the concession stand, his big brother decided it was time to pack it up and go on home.
Today the stretch from Jackson Hole, through Yellowstone to Cody, is as beautiful and untouched as I imagine it was back then. We explored the Jackson classics, such as the Cowboy Bar, and took our requisite selfies with the antler gateway as dad narrated every nook and cranny with stories of his youth. Old Faithful was as faithful as ever and we even scared up a herd or two of bison in the park. But the crowning moment, for me, was sitting in the Buzzards Roost behind the bucking shoots at the Cody Nite Rodeo, looking down on the arena where my old cowboy looked for 8 when they pulled the gate, all those years ago.