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In the Shadow of Wyoming's Wind River Range : Wild and Empty, the Old West Lives On in a Region Not Far From Yellowstone


JACKSON, Wyo. — I knew the Old West--the real West--was alive and well the minute my wife and I stepped into the noisy Outlaw Saloon in Dubois, a dusty little ranch town in the shadow of Wyoming's Wind River mountains. It was a Friday night, and on the dance floor, sun-weathered ranch hands were spinning their partners in a sprightly cowboy two-step to the tunes of a four-piece Western band. We joined them, more or less managing the fancy footwork. But I couldn't quite duplicate the cowboys' oddly formal, stiff-legged style, which I guess comes from a life in the saddle.

Actually, we would be spending some time in the saddle ourselves. Enamored of the lore of the West, we had journeyed to one of the wildest and emptiest places in America: Wyoming's beautiful Wind River country. In our new Stetsons and pointy-toed boots, we aimed to play cowboy for a week and a half.

And what a spectacular playground we found. Commanding our view daily were the perpetually snow-capped peaks of the Wind River mountains, Wyoming's loftiest range, many of which rise above 13,000 feet under an often dazzling blue sky. On their rugged slopes and rolling foothills, and in the long, green valley of the rushing Wind River, the proverbial deer and the antelope still play, and we saw herds of them, along with bighorn sheep and moose and elk.

With the 100-mile-long Wind River Range as our scenic backdrop, we immersed ourselves last summer in America's Western heritage. One day we explored the vast Wind River Reservation, home of the Shoshone and the Arapaho tribes, and chanced upon an all-Indian rodeo that drew bronco busters and calf ropers from throughout the Rocky Mountains. On another day, we walked the old streets of South Pass City, a historic mining town named for the famous pass over which the wagon trains of the Oregon Trail struggled to cross the Rockies. In little Pinedale, another ranch town, we discovered the Museum of the Mountain Men, a tribute to 19th-Century fur trappers such as Jim Bridger, whose exploits in the region are legendary.

For a full week, we stayed at a small guest ranch, where our private cabin beside a pond took in a beautiful view of the Wind River Range. Every day we went horseback riding, often into the mountains but sometimes as "assistant cowboys"--or so we considered ourselves--helping the wranglers check the cattle grazing on the sage-covered range. In no time at all, my polished boots were scuffed and scarred and my hat bent and dusty. I think--anyway, I hope--I had begun to look like a real cowboy.

Twenty-six Wyoming peaks rise above 13,000 feet, and 23 of them are in the Wind River Range--most clustered within nine miles of each other. Craggy, glacially sculpted pinnacles, they thrust above the tree line, sheltering in their rocky crevices glaciers and permanent snowfields. This is the Wind River high country, and it is a sometimes inhospitable wilderness. Even in summer, snow is apt to fall at any time. One afternoon, venturing deep within the mountains, we watched a blizzard raging on the barren peaks above us. Amid the flurries, I imagined we had stumbled into the icy realm of a mythic snow god.

Forests of evergreens and aspens blanket the lower slopes of the Wind Rivers, and here the mountains shed their intimidating aura. In my mind, I've kept the picture of a clear mountain stream racing through a verdant meadow ablaze in wildflowers of all colors. On one end of the meadow is a hilltop grove of aspens, their leaves seeming to sparkle in the dappled sunlight. And just emerging from the trees is a startled elk into whose habitat we had intruded. This is the sort of scenery through which we hiked, rode on horseback or drove every day of our trip.

Yet, as majestic as they are, the Wind Rivers tend to be overlooked by most travelers bound for bustling Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, which are located just to the west and north. As a result, the Wind River region has been spared the throngs that all but overwhelm the two popular parks in the summer. In many ways, it remains the West of 50 years ago, where herding cattle is still as important as catering to tourists. The mountains themselves have been protected as part of both the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton national forests.

Stretching southeasterly, the Wind River Range begins at 9,600-foot Togwotee Pass, about 40 miles northwest of Dubois, and it ends fairly abruptly at South Pass, about 80 miles southeast of Dubois. The Wind River, tumbling from the mountains as white water in early summer, traces the eastern foot of the range through rolling grasslands and irrigated fields of hay. The western slope gives way to a vast and arid plateau, where large herds of bounding antelope sometimes seem to outnumber cattle.

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