Hello Yellowstone, established in 1872 as America's first national park and famous for its geysers, dramatic scenery and wildlife. It preserves a part of the original Wild West that brought pioneers such as “Buffalo Bill” Cody who made his name killing bison before touring the world with a show that did more than any other to create the myth of the frontier.
A prostitute runs across the street brandishing a shotgun and pistol. Shots are fired. A few chaotic minutes later, with armed assistance from Wild Bill, Doc Holiday and Butch Cassidy, a gang of robbers and murderers lay dead in the street. The gunfight, a nightly drama put on for tourists, is a noisy, kitsch homage to the cowboy history of Cody, Wyoming. And this is the right place to stage it: outside the Irma Hotel that was built and owned by No. 1 cowboy William F Cody, who gave his name to the town. He is, of course, now better known as Buffalo Bill.
Cody helped found and build the town as a gateway to the region’s great outdoors, particularly Yellowstone National Park. Today, it’s a small tourist town with stores selling old west paraphernalia and guns. Its Old Trail Town has trapper’s lodges, an old post office and saloon, and the grave of “Liver-eating” Johnson – the legendary frontiersman played by Robert Redford on film.
I eat dinner and drink a Buffalo Bill beer across the road from the shootout at the Irma Hotel. The cherrywood bar, where Bill and his cowboy friends once drank, is said to have been donated to Cody by Queen Victoria. “Buffalo Bill had two suites and an office at the hotel,” says owner Mike Derby. “His office is now the ladies’ bathroom. It’s said to be the most haunted room in the hotel.”
Haunted by Buffalo Bill himself? “We don’t know. He’s not saying.”
William F Cody’s presence is felt across the town. A brochure I pick up comes with a cut-out Buffalo Bill moustache and goatee; apply it to your face and “you may feel a rush of Buffalo Bill’s spirit entering your body”. I see his image on billboards, signs and beer bottles. An actor’s recreation is projected, like a ghost, into a fountain of smoke at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center of the West, which houses Cody’s guns, hats and clothing, as well as books and comics about his adventures.
Cody lived from 1846-1917, a time in US History that saw the drive west from the Atlantic to the Pacific, industrialization, civil war and the emancipation of slaves. After his father was stabbed when Cody was just 11, he took on many jobs: cattlehand, stagecoach driver, army scout, soldier, messenger with the Pony Express (though that’s debated), hunter and trapper. When the Kansas Pacific Railroad hired him to supply meat to their workers, he killed 4,280 buffalo in just 18 months, earning his nickname.
The show cemented Buffalo Bill as an international star
Books, comics and plays about his adventures made Buffalo Bill’s name famous around the world. He performed as himself in some of the onstage dramas. But the stage wasn’t big enough for his ambitions. In 1883, he launched Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, a travelling outdoor spectacular with up to 800 cast and crew, real cowboys and Indians, animals and stagecoaches. There were reenactments of battles and historical events, competitions, horse races and sharp-shooting demonstrations, the show cementing Buffalo Bill as an international star and helping create the “West” we know today. “Unless someone else can point to an earlier use of the term ‘Wild West’, I’d say Cody created it,” says John Rumm, curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum. “Everything came together to create something, part rodeo, part circus, part spectacle that no one had ever seen before.”
The show played to millions across the US, Canada and Europe, including kings, queens and the pope, with films later spreading his fame to Asia, Australia, South America.... “There’s no question Buffalo Bill was the most famous man on the planet at that time, the first truly global international celebrity,” says Rumm. “There simply wasn’t anything like him. And the show had tremendous influence on providing the romanticized view of the West as a place of adventure, excitement, grandeur. It’s too strong to say it all came from Cody. But some of the images in people’s minds, like Indians riding into battle wearing headdresses… That isn’t actually what they did, but because of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and movie westerns, that’s the image people have. A great example is cowboys. Until the 1880s, cowboys were seen as tramps and lowlifes who couldn’t be trusted. William F Cody presented, and movie westerns perpetuated, the idea of cowboys as a hero who stood for truth, justice and the American way.”
Despite his success, bad investments and failed ventures left Cody broke before he died. But not before he helped create the town of Cody. “When he came to this area in the mid 1890s, one reason he wanted to settle here was to help develop this region for tourism. He understood Cody was about 50 miles from Yellowstone and would become a real gateway. He worked to develop hotels, transport, good roads, so people could visit Yellowstone and other parts of the west. He wanted Americans to come, and for people from Europe to see something to rival the Alps.
“It was practical – he was a businessman – but also part of larger mission of presenting the west to the world by bringing them here. He loved the beauty of the west, had an almost spiritual understanding of nature. And as much as he liked being Buffalo Bill, he wanted to be remembered for doing something of lasting value. For him, that was developing a community, something tangible that would live for generations. In that sense, I think he succeeded well beyond what he envisioned. He wasn’t involved in the creation of Yellowstone but he was certainly a proponent of bans on hunting in Yellowstone and preserving areas around the park. He was in favor of conservation. He wanted land set aside for the benefit or animals and humans alike. People know the gunslinger but he’s less known as Cody the philanthropist and conservationist.”
Hundreds of Winchesters, Colts and Smith & Wessons, alongside a Gatling gun
Wyoming remains cowboy country. A sign as visitors enter the state from neighboring Montana reads: “Forever West”. The state’s license plates carry the silhouette of a cowboy rearing up on a horse against a setting sun. Shining glass cabinets in Cody’s Firearms Museum, in the same building as the Buffalo Bill Museum, hold hundreds of Winchesters, Colts and Smith & Wessons, alongside a Gatling gun that wrought destruction on Indian populations. Down the road, off Cody’s main street, is the more low-key Dug Up Gun Museum with unearthed weapons from the Gold Rush era, War of Independence and US Civil War. “Wyoming is such a historic area,” says Eva Kurth, co-owner of the museum. “We’re quite proud of it here. Everyone packs a gun in Wyoming. It’s a very gun-friendly state.”
But, perhaps thanks to Buffalo Bill, cowboy culture goes beyond guns and gunslingers. In the evening, I attend Dan Miller’s Cowboy Music Revue, three-part harmonies filling the old Cody Theatre on the high street. Between folksy country songs, Dan reads The Cowboy, a poem by Red Steagall. “The city folks think that it’s over, that the cowboy has outlived his time, / An old worn-out relic, a thing of the past, but the truth is, he’s still in his prime. / The cowboy’s the symbol of freedom, the hard-ridin’ boss of the range. / His trade is a fair one, he fights for what’s right, and his ethics aren't subject to change.”
“Wyoming is one of the last of the true cowboy cultures,” says Dan after the show. “While there are still large working ranches in many states, Wyoming still embraces the ‘cowboy lifestyle’ and mindset. Good, honest, straightforward, hard-working people who still practise cowboy ethics. Cowboy music is slipping away from the culture, but the cowboy way of life is still deeply embedded in our DNA.”
There were two sides of the story of the old West, though. “It was the destruction of culture - genocide, depopulation, loss of families,” says Emma Hansen, curator of Cody’s Plains Indian Museum. “Europeans moved in, farmers, buffalo hunters. Through the 1800s, there was a lot of warfare, fighting over land and hunting regions. Settlers wanted land and Native Indians were put on reservations, often without resources. There was a lot of breaking treaties and agreements. Diseases, like smallpox and cholera, came in, and missionaries bringing a new God. Technology and the gun had a huge effect on Indian people. Like the Gatling gun – I’ve seen the ammo and it’s huge. You have to think what effect that would have had on people, on the body.”
Bison (an estimated 3-5 million across the Great Plains) that Indians depended on for food and skins were taken close to extinction by hunters such as Buffalo Bill. “The new buffalo guns meant they could kill more buffalo, pick them off hundreds at a time,” says Hansen. “It had a huge influence on the way of life for Indians. By 1870, there were hardly any buffalo left. Millions of animals were killed for meat and hides. The tribes all have stories about their last buffalo hunt.”
The Pawnee tribe was cut down from 50,000 to 600
Emma is from the Pawnee tribe that lived in Nebraska and Kansas. Through disease, starvation and the reservation system, they were cut down from 50,000 to 600. There were tribes across the Great Plains, which stretched from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi Delta, Canada down to Texas. Despite early reports to the contrary, there were also Indians in Yellowstone. “Tribes used it going back generations, especially Shoshone, Blackfeet, Crow people. The old story was Indians never came into the park because they were afraid of hot springs and geysers. But that wasn’t true at all.”
Buffalo Bill was both a buffalo hunter and a soldier who fought against Indians. “I know people who had grandparents in the show. They’re proud of that,” says Hansen. “Some Indian people have different feeling about Buffalo Bill. My feeling is he was a successful showman with an eye for popular culture. To some, Buffalo Bill is a hero. Indians tend to have a more nuanced view on things. But actually it’s whites who are sometimes angriest about Buffalo Bill killing Indians and especially for hunting buffalo.”
“Some people still believe in the myth,” she continues. “They believe very strongly in ‘the West’, in European settlers ‘civilizing’ America and the West. There’s a saying some people use for certain guns: ‘The gun that won the West.’ I dislike that expression. That exhibits a certain amount of pride in genocide and wiping out animals. It sounds like a game they won. It’s too gleeful. I think that view has changed or is changing. But you still hear it sometimes.”
I drive west from Cody towards Yellowstone National Park, passing by Buffalo Bill State Park and Buffalo Bill Reservoir. It’s easy to see why Cody thought the area should be protected and why people from the US and the rest of the world would want to come here. The landscape is rugged, grand, American, with big drifted hills and ancient cliffs, colored layers of rock from across the ages and strange tower formations.
I reach Shoshone National Forest and enter Yellowstone, following a line of RVs on a slow winding road into the park. Often claimed as the world’s first National Park, Yellowstone was established in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant after mountain men, hunters, trappers and later a government expedition reported stories of geysers, steaming pools and unique thermal features, as well as canyons, wildlife and untouched natural beauty. The park covers a vast area, with the majority (96 per cent) in Wyoming, and a fraction in Montana and Idaho. It is the ninth largest National Park in the US, 80 per cent of it forest, and sits inside the caldera of a massive supervolcano. There are more than 300 active geysers, along with sulfurous pits and pools the color of tomato soup. The land across the park hisses, steam, spits, bubbles and simmers.
Only the rich came to Yellowstone in those days
Old Faithful is the most famous of all the thermal features, watched every time it erupts (every 90 minutes) by thousands of visitors. I persuade Kate Dube, bellhop at the Old Faithful Lodge, to show me up to the roof for a view of Old Faithful and the surrounding landscape. The lodge opened in 1904 when the park would have looked very different. “Only the rich came to Yellowstone in those days,” Dube says. “They’d get off in Gardner, Montana, from trains that brought them in from cities on the east coast. Maybe it was the first time they saw the mountains. They came here via stagecoach, pretty much the same roads system we use now, but dirt roads. It was definitely a wild experience. They were entering the Wild West. It was crazy and weird. Bears would be out and being fed, and there were all these crazy thermal features, which are what made this place a national park. Just a unique place that no one had really seen before.”
As I drive around the park, from Yellowstone Lake to Mammoth Springs, I see a herd of bison grazing out on the Hayden Valley. A short distance from the road, a gray wolf pounces on some unfortunate little creature in the long grass. A baby bear in the trees close to the road munches of plants. It is possible to see wildlife and nature up close here.
I wonder what Buffalo Bill, the Indian tribes or early visitors would make of the park today. A sign at the northern entrance, on the Roosevelt Arch, reads: “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” The problem with making a place accessible to everybody is that “everybody” is a lot of people. Yellowstone, like Zion or Yosemite National Parks, seems to be buckling under the weight of its own success. Roads are busy with cars and RVs. Tourists roll out of buses to viewpoints, like Artist Point or Sulfur Cauldron, then back to the bus. Bison are so used to traffic they saunter slowly through the roads. If a wolf or bear is spotted, it is quickly surrounded by dozens of tourist vehicles, like a lion on the Masai Mara. Moose laze on the greens outside buildings in the village of Mammoth Springs, protected from photo- hungry tourists by park rangers.
Most visitors never leave the road system
It does not feel very wild. And I am shocked to hear that more than 96 per cent of visitors never leave the road system or head out on the hiking trails. “I really would suggest people get off the roads,” says Jeff Brown, Executive Director of the Yellowstone Association, the park’s non-profit education partner. “It’s quite wild, just a few hundred yards off the road. You get a sense of wilderness, of solitude, of not being at the top of the food chain. That’s electrifying, to be out in country that has big grizzly bears, seeing the Old West how people would’ve experienced it.”
For a while, bad weather meant I risked being one among that 96 per cent. But one clear, blue- skied morning, I hike up from Mammoth Hot Springs on the Beaver Ponds Trail. It only takes five minutes for the sound of traffic to fade into the distance. In three hours of hiking, I see two groups of moose, take in views of the snowy, 1,033-meter-high Electric Peak (inside the park, but in Montana), watch ducks on the otherwise glassy Beaver Ponds, and have an up-close encounter with an adolescent black bear in the forest. I see hardly another person the whole time. The landscape feels still and timeless.
The contrast, as I descend back to the village, is stark: coach tours, rammed car parks, shuffling crowds, the noise of car engines. I meet Wes Hardin, a park ranger at Yellowstone. The idea of Yellowstone today is the same as it was when it was founded, he says. “People decided this was a unique place that’s too important to lose. Based on that, in 1872 a bill was introduced in Congress to set aside two million acres of land. They thought it was so remote that no one would go, but then a lot of people did come. The aim is to keep it unspoilt.
“When you drive the Hayden Valley, it looks the same as it did 2,000 years ago. You can go on a trail and you can’t hear traffic. To be in an empty vista is invigorating for people, to smell the air. It reconnects you with an earlier simpler life, away from hustle and bustle. The idea is to make it accessible without destroying it. You have to build roads and hotels, but try to let people see it without loving it to death.”
Buffalo Bill was not involved in the park’s founding, Hardin tells me. “He was someone who appreciated wildlife and, once the park was established, he hoped to capitalize on tourism by building hotels. Others were more influential on Yellowstone, like John Muir.”
It’s a terrible place to live all year
Establishing the park was bad news for the Native Americans, however. “A lot of whites tried to promote the idea (that Indians were afraid of the geysers) to help early visitors not be afraid of the Indians,” says Hardin. “But it was just propaganda. Indians were no more afraid of the hot springs and geysers than we are. Only one tribe – the Sheep Eaters – lived here year round, not because they were scared, but because it’s a terrible place to live all year. It’s so cold, winter is incredibly tough. Native Americans came here for hunting and trading, harvesting obsidian. But once whites moved in and set up the park, that wasn’t possible anymore.”
Bison numbers, down to 400 in Yellowstone by the 1890s, are now recovering well, with 5,000 of the lumbering beasts around the park. “People come in and they’re always most afraid of bears,” says Hardin. “We tell people they’re much more likely to be hurt by bison or even elk (moose). Bison look docile but can move quickly and unpredictably. They cause a lot of injuries. The number one cause of injuries by animals is bison. But the main cause of injuries is automobiles, which makes sense with 3.3 million visitors.”
The feeling of how tame Yellowstone has become, as you drive around the road system, can be deceiving, Hardin explains. “People come to a place like Yellowstone. They hear it’s on top of a volcano, hot water is pouring beneath their feet on the boardwalks, and somebody is going to say: ‘I wonder how hot it is?’ and stick their finger in it. Some see a 2,000lb animal and they’re going to want to get out and touch it. I saw a woman with a handful of grass trying to feed an elk. A lot of people lose their survival instinct here.”
As well as bear, elk and bison, Hardin tells me another danger is people, especially fishermen, drowning in rivers or lakes. The park also has up to 3,000 earthquakes every year. And, not least, Yellowstone is set on a volcano, with, in some places, a thin crust separating people from the thermal activity underneath. Wandering away from the trails can literally land you in dangerously hot water, which has caused severe burns and deaths. No matter what people do here in Yellowstone, nature has a way of keeping the West wild.