How the West Was Fun

Horses and horsepower in Sheridan, Wyo., make for a trip of a lifetime.

By Bridget Williams

August 17, 2018 4:00 PM

featured image

Like a naughty child sent to bed without supper, the guttural rumble of thunder signaled that a stormy night was in the offing. The grumbling, which became more pronounced as I progressed along a dusty two-track, was joined by a veil of pregnant clouds that gradually obscured the distant mountain peaks I’d been trying to reach for the past hour. A sucker for the chance to literally wander a road less traveled, I set out on a solo trek just steps from the front door of the guest lodge at the 3,000-acre Canyon Ranch in Big Horn, Wyoming. A barrage of steep ascents that forced me to take intermittent breaks to catch my breath also gave me an opportunity to admire the vastness of the prairie landscape in this remote area near the border with Montana.  

While taking my umpteenth panoramic photo, I noticed a hint of crimson amongst the waist-high flaxen grass. Curiosity piqued, I left the path to investigate, and found a handsome buck, recently felled, with a gaping hole in its neck.  I walked gingerly around the carcass, surveying the scene, when suddenly a grim realization dawned on me: whatever caused the demise of this majestic beast could very likely be nearby and none too happy that I was poking around its dinner. In that moment, the dichotomy of the region’s beauty and the beast reality came sharply into focus, and I slowly backed away from the buck before hightailing it back to the ranch, happy to not have become a dinner addendum.

I first fell in love with this part of the country more than three decades ago, sitting on scratchy plaid upholstery and gazing out the window from the backseat of my parents’ 1974 Westfalia Camper, a 68hp engine “powering” us along the twisty mountain roads en route to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. This time around, the scenery was still as majestic as ever, but it whooshed by markedly faster as I piloted a 563hp Rolls-Royce Dawn—top down and radio up—along the open roads.

alt
Canyon Ranch in Big Horn, Wyoming

“Wyoming is testimony to what good people can do if you give them enough space,” author Sam Morton remarked during a campfire storytelling session at Canyon Ranch on the night of my arrival in Sheridan, Wyo. Our group—a mix of writers, photographers, filmmakers and motoring enthusiasts—listened intently as Morton spoke of the highs and lows of the region’s hardscrabble history. The integral role of the horse was woven throughout his narrative, from warring Native American tribes, to the non-firstborn sons of English noblemen, who were sent abroad in the late 1800s to make their own fortunes, and onward to present-day hobbyists and hunters who continue to be drawn to this achingly beautiful landscape.

Along with thoroughbred horses, polo was one of the pursuits young gentry imported with them in the late 1800s; early matches in the Big Horn area were played by teams comprised of moneyed scions, US cavalry officers and local cowboys. Now recognized as the oldest polo venue west of the Mississippi River, match play commences in the present era on the first week in June and continues every Sunday through Labor Day. A come-as-you-are affair, visitors are frequently treated to a show by some of the world’s top-rated players at The Big Horn Polo Club.

The British right of primogeniture played a role in founding of the guest ranch where our group was lodging: Oliver Wallop, the youngest son of an English earl, purchased Canyon Ranch in 1888. Even after inheriting the title of the 8th Earl of Portsmouth in 1925 following the death of his brothers and their male heirs, Wallop chose to remain on the land he’d come to love. For more than 125 years, this ranch and its charismatic caretakers have been drawing visitors near and far: Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip stopped in Sheridan to visit the Wallops and buy polo ponies as part of their North American tour in 1984. Today, the 3,000-acre guest ranch is operated by Paul Wallop and his wife Sandra, who capably carry on legacy of hospitality that spans four generations.

alt
The Rolls-Royce Dawn

There’s nary a person who, at some point in their childhood, didn’t imagine themselves in the role of a cowboy or cowgirl, and there is certainly no shortage of opportunities to imagine the past while driving through a landscape that has been seen minimal alterations since the frontier days. Visiting downtown Sheridan, for instance, allows you to chase the ghosts of Wild West legends whose exploits, and the places where they took place, allow them to live on in infamy. We felt like celebrities as heads turned to ogle our fleet of Rolls Royce parading down Main Street; it was refreshing to see such a bustling scene and a such a well-preserved city center (a total of 46 buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places). 

A neon sign depicting a bucking cowboy welcomes visitors to The Mint Bar. Opened in 1907, it is the ultimate cowboy bar in the heart of cowboy country. With more taxidermy in one place than I’ve seen in my entire life, the walls are lined with cedar shingles emblazoned with more than 9,000 cattle brands found throughout Wyoming. During Prohibition, it was renamed The Mint Cigar Co. and Soda Shop, but those in the know could still imbibe in the backroom speakeasy. Nearby, the historic Sheridan Inn, built in 1892, was frequented by “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his Wild West Show, and in subsequent years has hosted the likes of Ernest Hemingway, President Herbert Hoover, Will Rogers and Bob Hope. The 22-room inn is now welcoming overnight guests once again following a comprehensive restoration. If you are lucky, you might encounter the ghost of “Miss Kate”, a beloved member of the community who lived and worked at the inn for 64 years.

At the Rope Shop, located in an ancillary building behind King’s Saddlery, you can watch lassos being made and try your hand at roping a steer dummy (which is much harder than it looks). Afterward, be sure to meander through the King’s Museum to take gander at an extensive private collection of Western and cowboy memorabilia from all over the world. Don’t leave without a King Ropes baseball cap, which has gained cult status after being spotted on the heads of several influential celebrities.  

alt
Canyon Ranch boats 3,000 acres of prairie landscape

Sheridan counts seven billionaires among its 20,000 residents; while the scenic beauty is certainly a draw, a lack of personal and corporate income taxes and low property and sales taxes certainly helps. An influx of affluence has contributed to a robust cultural and arts scene relative to the size of the city. Tops among these is the spectacular Brinton Museum. Located on the historic 620-acre Quarter Circle A Ranch, the architecturally significant Forrest E. Mars, Jr. Building holds an impressive array of pieces that respectfully represent American Indian art and culture, along with examples of contemporary Western art. Located on the campus of Sheridan College, the Whitney Center for the Arts stages a variety of events throughout the year, including the annual Wyoming Theater Festival.  

Omnipresent on the horizon, the mountains always seem to be calling in Sheridan, and having been given the keys to a Rolls Royce for a few days, I was happy to heed the siren song. With the convertible top lowered, the purring of the engine served as a gentle reminder of the V12 powerhouse responsible for our cloudlike ride as we headed into the 1.1 million acres that comprise Bighorn National Forest.  

Focused on keeping my eyes (and the car) on the twisty roads during our foggy morning expedition, I was (almost) jealous of my three passengers, who had ample room to stretch out and admire both the scenery and the exquisite craftsmanship that defines the cabin of a Rolls Royce.  Weighing nearly three tons and stretching 17.34-feet in length, I was amazed at how nimble the Dawn felt in the hairpin turns, and the way it rapidly responded without hesitation when a straightaway presented itself. Driving was such a pleasure that even an ardent hiker like me wasn’t all that disappointed when a planned trek up Steamboat Point was nixed because of the fog; it freed up more time to enjoy the Rolls Royce hallmark “magic carpet ride” in an equally magical landscape.