Rodeo, Buffalo Bill and Japanese Americans in Cody, Wyoming
By Bart Beeson
You would be hard pressed to find any city in the world where you can fire a Gatling gun, go to a former WWII internment center, visit a five museums-in-one Smithsonian-affiliated complex, and attend a rodeo — all in one day. But that’s exactly what I was able to do on a recent visit to the small town of Cody, Wyoming. While many visitors may simply use Cody as a base to access nearby Yellowstone Park, to anyone who spends more than just a few hours here, it’s obvious that Cody is a worthwhile destination in its own right.
Cody was founded in the early 1900s by William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and his influence is still seen throughout the town. For dinner my first night I headed to the Irma Hotel – built by Buffalo Bill and named after his daughter. The Irma still functions as a hotel, and has a popular restaurant known for its prime rib and furnished with an impressive cherry wood bar given to Buffalo Bill by Queen Victoria. There’s also an attached bar where you’re likely to catch some locals two-stepping to live music. Don’t miss the stone fireplace and chimney next to the bar – complete with fossils found by Buffalo Bill and his friends.
After a first full day in Cody I was ready to check out the area’s main attraction – Yellowstone Park. I headed to the park’s northeast entrance, the least used of the five park entrances, and a good way to avoid the long waits at some of the park’s more popular entrance gates. The drive from Cody takes you over Dead Indian Pass, which affords spectacular views of the park.
After a stop at the Roosevelt Lodge for a bison-burger lunch, I headed down to Canyon Village to check out the brand new lodges there, as well as the renovated Canyon Lodge Eatery, which has launched new food outlets this summer offering fresh, locally sourced menu options. I went on to spend the night at the grand old Lake Yellowstone Hotel, where from my room I had impressive views of the lake and the snow-capped mountains beyond.
The next day I headed along the lake toward the upper geyser basin. I joined the crowds to catch Old Faithful do its thing, which was impressive, but I was really blown away seeing the more powerful eruption of the nearby Beehive geyser, which usually erupts every 15 hours or so. I was also fascinated by the Old Faithful Inn – a quirky hotel that’s enough of an attraction in its own right that guided tours are offered four times a day. The gnarled pieces of wood used as railings, the immense stone fireplace, the zigzagging high staircases and asymmetrical window placement give the building a truly magical feel.
Leaving park via the east gate, I passed by the stunning rock formations in the Wapati Valley, and mad a quick stop at the Buffalo Bill dam, where I had to hold onto the railing to keep from being swept over by the ferocious wind gusts.
The following day I woke up ready to see the best Cody has to offer. The first stop was the Cody Firearms Experience, where visitors have the opportunity to fire reproduction and modern day firearms. As owner Paul Brock explained, the different guns tell the history of the U.S. and the west, from flintlock pistols used in the late 1700s to fully automatic machine guns. I started out firing a .45 caliber pistol, then moved on to an 1866 lever action Winston rifle, and ended by cranking rounds out of an 1862 Gatling gun. While I’m not a gun person, it was fascinating to get a feel for the historic guns and feel of how they evolved over time.
The next stop was the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, set 15 miles outside of Cody. The center tells the story of the internment camp set up at that location in 1942, when Japanese Americans from the West Coast were rounded up and sent here at the outbreak of World War II. While a bit off the beaten track, the center is a fascinating reminder of a dark chapter in U.S. history, and does a great job of giving visitors a small glimpse of what the 11,000 internees endured – from the sparse living quarters and frigid temperatures to the an almost complete lack of privacy (demonstrated through the placement of mirrors in some of the center’s restroom stalls). The center also touches on issues that are very relevant today, such as the challenge of finding the balance between national security and civil rights. As Heart Mountain board member Claudia Wade said, “One of the goals of this interpretive center is to educate people to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.”
The next stop on the Cody tour was the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, another must see for any visitors to the town. The center houses five museums: the Buffalo Bill Museum, the Cody Firearms Museum, the Plains Indian Museum, the Whitney Western Art Museum, and the Draper National History Museum. The center, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, offers something for everyone – from world class art to mounted animals to displays on Buffalo Bill’s famous Wild West show.
After dinner I was ready for the last stop, and the highlight of my day – the Cody Nite Rodeo. Cody is often referred to as the rodeo capital of the world, and for good reason – the Cody Nite Rodeo started in 1938 and claims to be the longest running and only nightly rodeo in the world, held at 8 p.m. every night from June 1 to August 31. In addition, the Cody Stampede Rodeo, held July 4thth weekend every year, draws huge crowds and attracts world class rodeo riders looking for the big payouts. I was thoroughly entertained watching the barrel riders, bronco riding, breakaway roping, and off course the bull riding. The best part of the night may have been watching dozens of children try to chase down two calves to retrieve a ribbon off their tail in exchange for a prize.
At the end of the day it seemed like an eternity since I was back cranking the Gatling gun. Driving back to my hotel and passing by the Irma Hotel, it occurred to me that Cody somehow manages to be both authentic and touristy at the same time, as if an amusement park Old West town were abandoned and taken over by real people. I couldn’t help but think that Buffalo Bill would be proud of what the city he envisioned has become.
Bart Beeson is a Burlington, Vermont-based freelance travel writer and photographer. He is a regular contributor to Travel Weekly, and has published in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and other media outlets. When he’s not travelling, Bart can be found hiking with his dog Kesey or spending time at his family’s New Hampshire lake house.