Walking down Sheridan Avenue in Cody, Wyoming, I was looking for a place I remembered from my childhood. It was one of those cowboy-clothing shops, and it smelled like saddle leather. It had creaky wood floors and dusty glass cases with knives and silver lighters in them.
I was also looking for the city park, where I threw a Frisbee with my friends from summer camp. It was a glorious field of grass, surrounded by tall trees, occasionally visited by crazy-looking biker people; our counselors warned us not to talk to them but also seemed to think they were kind of interesting. I did, too.
Most of all, I was looking for the Irma Hotel. It was the ultimate old-fashioned hotel, founded by Buffalo Bill and named for his sister. There was real magic in the lobby, with a bar that came from Queen Victoria and a breakfast that dreams are made of.
Of course, looking with 44-year-old eyes for places seen by a 12-year-old can be disorienting. I pounced on the first cowboy place I saw: the Custom Cowboy Shop. It had the right smell but had only been there since the '80s, and the floor didn't creak.
There were a lot more art galleries than I recall, too. And gift shops. And RVs. Were all those there before?
I caught a glimpse of the Silver Dollar Bar and Grill and remembered the horse wrangler at our camp describing it as a wild and scary place. My 12-year-old brain filed it under Adult Mystery Locations along with Bourbon Street, Las Vegas, and riverboats. Today I saw tourists eating burgers in plastic baskets. I would later learn that the Silver Dollar has a Facebook page.
I crossed the street to avoid a crowd on the sidewalk, only to find that was the line to see the gunfight show at the Irma. I ducked into the lobby and saw that breakfast had become a buffet.
That's when it hit me: The Cody of my youth was gone, and maybe it never existed. Those creaky floors had probably been renovated, the Irma sold to who knows what developer, and the Silver Dollar just going along with the times. I went back to my car, and on my way out of town, almost drove past the city park without even noticing it.
Ah, but there's a new Cody in my imagination today. I remembered a frontier outpost at the end of a bumpy and terrifying flight from Denver, where a shy kid from Memphis left the known world, briefly interacted with bikers and cowboys and living history, then hopped on a bus to summer camp in the mountains.
Today, Cody is a tourist hub, with plenty of hotels and restaurants, plus a village of cabins gathered from the mountains, a rodeo, and the fantastic Buffalo Bill Historical Society. Most importantly, a highway leads 50 miles west to Yellowstone National Park. All in all, this "new" Cody is doing just fine.
But here's what I would want today's traveler to know about Cody, Wyoming: It is smack in the middle of some of the most amazing and scenic country in the United States. Yellowstone, mobbed as it can be, is but one example.
Cody sits in the 100-mile-wide Bighorn Basin, a semi-arid plateau at 5,000 feet, surrounded by mountains. To the east are the Bighorns, which rise 8,000 feet above the plains, run 200 miles north-to-south, and have 14 peaks over 12,000 feet. There's more than a million acres of national forest and almost 200,000 acres of protected wilderness up there. West lie the Absorakas, running 150 miles along the border of Yellowstone, with 46 mountains over 12,000 feet and more than 2.5 million acres of protected wilderness. Try to imagine five Shelby Counties: all mountains, no roads.
I remembered a dirt road leading up to the camp with a nice view from on top of a hill. Now I know that's the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway and the 8,000-foot Dead Indian Pass. The highway is 46 winding, wonderful miles, entirely through national forest, and it connects with Montana's Beartooth Highway, which Charles Kuralt called "the most beautiful drive in America."
Miles upon miles filled with forests, mountains, fish, waterfalls, lakes, campsites, meadows, views, and wildlife: all of it basically just outside of this little western tourist town. And to think I was looking for an old cowboy shop that may have never existed.