BY CALLAN KANE PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARK EDWARD HARRIS
It’s raining men, literally.
Navy Seals to be exact. I’m sitting in the stands on opening day of the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo and they’re gliding out of high heaven under bumblebee colored parachutes and landing as lightly as Peter Pan in the center of the arena. I’m thinking this is just about the most exciting thing I’ve seen in a long time when the final Seal descends, trailing an enormous American flag. Just breathtaking.
Earlier in the day, I walked this same arena for a “behind the chutes” tour and my first—and lasting—impression of The Daddy of ‘em All is that it’s just. Bloody. Huge. Hugging the 750-foot-long arena like parenthesis are two towering, sports-stadium-style structures, complete with sky boxes and misters. Rodeo fans like myself will get their fill of bronc and bull riding, roping, and barrel racing—and also enjoy the charming add-ons at each show like the mare and foal parade. But the Frontier Park experience is so much more.
Outside the arena, beyond the chain link “locker room” where rough stock riders tape and untape on a rigging-littered floor, you’ll discover a sprawling carnival, a professional concert stage, and an air-conditioned expo hall with booths displaying turquoise jewelry, leather works, and other western items for sale. In a separate livestock area, rows of corrals hold once-wild mustangs looking for forever homes, as well as a petting zoo and pony rides. All this is bordered by “streets” of vendors offering everything western, from home furnishings to genuine pelts, to tourist souvenirs.
Cheyenne Frontier Days isn’t just about cowboys (and cowgirls), however; it’s also about Indians. From the very first Frontier Days, Native Americans have participated in the festivities, contributing cultural gifts like dancing, music, and cuisine. The Native American Village is a short, pleasant, people-watching walk from the rodeo arena, where tribal dancers in Technicolor costumes (and some in authentically earned eagle feather headdresses) dance wildly to rhythmic drumming and haunting, ancient song. “Everything here is a circle,” explains the Native American woman emceeing the performance, “the circle we dance in, the seasons, the earth, the teepees we live in.” The performing tribe does live there in the village for the duration of Frontier Days; while purchasing a guilty-pleasure-but-so-worth-it fry bread taco, I spy a rolling suitcase stashed just inside an open teepee door.
Cowboys by the dozens, sacred Native American traditions, what else could a cowgirl want? Buffalo, of course.
There are no bison at the rodeo, but on the outskirts of Cheyenne proper, Terry Bison Ranch offers up close and personal encounters with the West’s most iconic animals. Never mind those gruesome selfie-gone-wrong stories and alarming Yellowstone YouTubes, at this establishment, I’m handed a paper lunch bag filled with molasses-infused alfalfa pellets to hand feed the beasts. The open air visitor train stops near the well-fed herd, and, eventually, we get a customer. It’s surprisingly fun to feed a buffalo, but it’s hard not to drop the treat when the wet, foot-long tongue starts wrapping your hand in an attempt to maneuver the delicacy into its gaping mouth. Before long we’re surrounded by the herd: females, youngsters, and a couple massive, mature bulls who seem to feel that slurping a hay pellet from a tourist’s hand is beneath them. We discover that if we throw the pellet on the ground, the biggest bull with amble over and munch it.
For those who just aren’t into bison, the town of Cheyenne rolls out all the stops for Frontier days, including air-conditioned Trolley Tours and alfresco horse-drawn carriage rides. Trolleys stop at historical buildings, mansions, and hotels built during Cheyenne’s railroad and Gold Rush-fueled boom days, many of which are said to still house the spirits of previous inhabitants. Not necessarily being a history buff, I was prepared for my trolley tour to be relaxing, if not especially engaging. So I was surprised and delighted when our theatrical female driver parked the bus at each location, propped her cowboy boot-clad foot on the central aisle, and related the germaine dates and events with juicy, little-known details—all delivered with Old-West colloquialisms and the comedic timing of a late night talk show host. Both the trolleys and the carriages can be hired on the downtown Depot, which itself is the epicenter of Cheyenne’s social, shopping and dining scene.
Visitors wishing to work off the hearty high plains cuisine can head a short distance out of town and find two spectacular parks within about 30 miles of downtown Cheyenne: The pristine Curt Gowdy State Park, and Vedauwoo, where well-maintained walking trials sprinkled with wildflowers wind through towering, 1.4 billion year old granite rock formations popular with serious climbers and athletic tourists alike. Next summer, when attending The Daddy of ‘em All, be sure to leave time to discover the many other treasures of Wyoming’s storied state capital.