Wyoming is a flat grassy state interrupted by some of the most beautiful mountains in the country.
That includes the Tetons on its western edge, looking like mountains ordered out of central casting, with the perfect features of a Hollywood star. But there are also the Wind River range that seem to extent forever and the thorny Absorokas, high to the east of Yellowstone.
In Wyoming’s east, you find the Laramie and Medicine Bow ranges.
All of them high, stony, craggy, pine-sided cordilleras rising over the high plains like the abodes of gods.
And in north central Wyoming, the Bighorn Mountains divide the state in half. Approached from the west, they are a dry range, not rain-forested like the Olympics; you see a sedimentary ridge, not a wall of frozen lava like the Sierras. They are not green or gray or blue, but are a rich orange and yellow, stratified and striped with darker reds and browns. What you see are the Cambrian, Ordovician and Carboniferous sandstones and limestones. They surround a central core of granite that you only see as you climb to the high plateau and cross Granite pass at 8950 feet.
Along the way, traveling from Greybull, you drive up the Shell River Canyon and its waterfall. And when you reach the top, you don’t find a peak to descend from, but a 30-mile wide plateau of trees and lakes, unimagined from the grasslands below.
As we followed the plateau top across the range, we passed a cattle drive. Slow, lurching cows wandered distractedly across the narrow road. The look in their eyes gave me a new etymology for “vacant,” from the Spanish “vaca” for cow.
The kine stumbled off the road on both sides, some climbing the rocky hill to our left and some dangerously nearing the edge of a cliff that dropped into the wide canyon to our right.
Cowhands on horses herded the cattle back onto the road — all an extremely slow process. Traffic was snarled and it was almost like being on the Santa Monica Freeway at rush hour. Well, not quite. There were only two or three cars, bumper to bumper, but the thick cattle traffic was nose to tail.
The road was a bakery display case of cow pies.
We wondered about the men on horses, how they had their bedrolls tied to the back of their saddles, and whether they really did have to spend the night under starry skies boiling coffee in tin pots and sleeping to the sounds of lowing cattle.
Among them were several small children riding horses and watching their daddies at work.
One blond, tow-headed youngster in front of our car was hardly bigger than the saddle horn on his saddle.
There was a relaxed, even lazy festive air about the job at hand, as though it were a community project forced to work at the cows’ pace.
The men were dry-faced workers with oily hats and tattered shirts, the extreme opposite of the drugstore cowboy. There were no shiny 10-gallon stetsons, no arrow-ribbed shirt pockets, no fringe, no buckskin, and no shooting irons on their hips.
What there was was flies, horse sweat, the squeak of leather saddles and the muffled clop-clop of hooves on pavement.
When we asked, we learned that the cows were being herded up the mountains to their summer pastures on the plateau.
The mountains that were so rocky and rugged seen from the west, in fact did become a plateau and we drove for nearly an hour across the summit of the Big Horns, past those forests and lakes.
So, when we reached the eastern escarpment, it was a shock to see the land stretch out under us as flat rangeland, semi-desert again for as far as the eye could see.