Well, this was certainly not the plan. I’m writing now from a Mickey D’s in Cody, the closest settlement to the east entrance of Yellowstone National Park, after spending two nights in Thermopolis – practically as long as we spent in Chicago. I’ll most likely be out of pocket for the next several days as Paul and I explore the park, but I’ll keep on writing and put up a flurry of posts once I’m back online. Until then, let’s focus on what a little town of 3,000 has to offer.
As you might have guessed by the name, Thermopolis’ claim to fame is heat related. On the northern outskirts of town, we found the world’s largest mineral hot springs. A quick dip in the State Bath House was refreshing and free, the result of a treaty made with the Indians years ago. Go figure that one of the few treaties America honored was a promise to never capitalize on a potential gold mine – though the State-run facility is flanked on both sides by commercial establishments that do charge for water slides and more temperature options.
We capped off our first night by attending the rodeo. Just about the entire show came off as alien to our eastern eyes. For starters, there were the events themselves: bull riding, steer wrestling, and bronc riding are incredible. Watching a guy hang on to a thrashing animal for dear life (and then sometimes get knocked in the stomach by said animal) makes even football appear tame.
There were also multiple tributes to soldiers throughout the night. That’s not to say there isn’t troop appreciation back east, but it takes on a much different form. At some point during the game, they’ll point out a guy in a sailor’s uniform and he’ll get a round of applause and some free beer. Here, testimonials to the fallen were read and a mounted flag-bearer made a circuit of the arena.
Sandwiched between the salute to military service and the national anthem was an invocation. This caught us completely off guard. Imagine the PA announcer leading the crowd in a prayer before tip-off at a Knicks game or the first pitch at Fenway. Whereas the entertainment at hand is the focus at a stadium in the Northeast, here, God and country take precedence over the show.
We ultimately decided to stay in town an extra day because they were throwing a huge party: Thermopolis, or rather the county it inhabits, was celebrating its centennial. A parade marched through town in the AM, followed by an official ceremony replete with dignitaries, including one of Wyoming’s sitting senators. The afternoon saw most of the town come out for musical and dance performances, while a Wild West stage troupe put on a gun fight. Lastly, food was served, with donations solicited but not required. All around, this celebration exemplified community: coming together to share in an important milestone, the townspeople showed due deference to the past while looking ahead to a future full of challenge and promise.
It was at this county-wide party that I finally ran into some folks willing to speak frankly about how their home compares to elsewhere. A lifelong resident of Thermopolis and his wife explained what distinguished Wyoming from the rest of the U.S. For starters, barely anyone lives there, making the state free of traffic congestion and strip malls. Things are so open that they described Wyoming as a “virgin state”, and even said half-jokingly, “not a lot of people know about us, and we like it that way”. They were most blunt, however, in a comparison with Colorado. According to the couple, their southern neighbor was much like Wyoming twenty years ago, but they now view it as too tightly packed because “all the Californians moved in”. If there’s anything that Westerners seem to place a premium on, it’s having plenty of open space.
Finally, I ate three dinners in this town, all with a unique western flair. While scanning the menu the first night, I came across something called “Rocky Mountain Oysters”. Needless to say, we are far from the ocean and the dish was not seafood. I recommend you give it a try if you find yourself out west, though you may not want to know what exactly you’re consuming. At the rodeo I indulged in some tasty pulled pork – not too out of the ordinary but a good deal fresher than back home. At the centennial celebration, though, I was able to eat a rare treat: buffalo burgers. A little leaner and sweeter than beef, I’m thankful that the white man only hunted the buffalo to near extinction.