Cowboys, Indians and Hot Water in the Big Horn Basin, Wyoming

Written by Deryn Van Der Tang
(A Runner-up entry in the Off the Beaten Track Writing Competition.)

Cowboy Bar & Outlaw Café, Meeteetse
Cowboy Bar & Outlaw Café, Meeteetse

We had seen the popular tourist destination of Yellowstone National Park, so we decided to explore a nearby lesser known area of Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin. We drove through the sage brush covered countryside and crossed the Greybull River at Meeteetse about 46 miles from Cody on the road to Thermopolis.

Meeteetse, a small town built in the 1870’s, now has a population of only 327. It used to be a thriving settlement at the base of the Absaroka Mountains. It was known for its many saloons and brothels as it served as the centre for local ranches and the mining town of Kirwin, built during the gold rush. It was very much alive when the miners and cowboys came to town when the wagon train for supplies arrived. It was bypassed when the railway was taken to Cody and Kirwin became a ghost town

Meteetse Jail
Meteetse Jail

History still lives on in Meeteetse in the Cowboy Bar & Outlaw Café built in 1893. The wooden structure stands as it originally was with 27 bullet holes in the ceiling. The old saloon has beautiful rosewood and cherry wood bars and swing doors.

Some of the interesting characters who populated the bar at that time were Blind Bill, Sagebrush Nancy, Silent Charley and Grasshopper Bill. The most famous was the outlaw Butch Cassidy, who had tried to cross the Greybull River before he was arrested here. Amelia Earhart also had a cabin near to Kirwin.

The owner of the Cowboy Bar, Jim Blake, author of several books about the history of the area, told us interesting stories of his life. He used to be the bodyguard for Marty Robbins, a pop star in the 60’s, famous for his song ‘El Paso’.

The author chatting with Jim Blake
The author chatting with Jim Blake

There was quite a personal story attached to this song, as Jim had been shot and stabbed when Marty had offered Jim’s services to the police in El Paso. Jim was asked to bring an outlaw back onto US soil from Mexico over the River Grande from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso where he could be tried for his crime.

Jim was also shot and stabbed at Spokane, Washington State, protecting Marty Robbins. He had seen someone drawing a gun and went to protect Robbins and was shot and stabbed in the process. He still suffers from these injuries today.

Across the road from the Outlaw Café was the Meeteetse Chocolatier, started by a cowboy who had gone to Europe to learn the trade and set up shop making his own special brand of chocolates, including Wyoming Whiskey and Sage Chocolates, which we sampled!

Legend Rock Petroglyph
Legend Rock Petroglyph

We drove on to Thermopolis, turning off at Hamilton Dome (an oil field town) to explore. We saw a herd of prong horned antelope at the side of the road amongst the sage brush. At the end of a dirt track we found the Legend Rock Petroglyphs.

This was a sacred place for native Shamans who came here to enter a higher place of consciousness to speak to the spirits whom they believed lived in the rocks and entered and exited through the cracks.

Pictures were tapped into the rock illustrating some of their beliefs, ceremonies and animals. There were pictures of half figures next to a crack in the rock depicting transitions from one world to another. The original petroglyphs are estimated to date from around 8000-6000 BC. Over the centuries they have been added to until relatively recently.

Wyoming Dinosaur Center: Reconstructed dinosaur skeletons
Reconstructed dinosaur skeletons

We returned to the main road to Thermopolis passing colourful rock formations and a large area of mining before arriving at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center with its reconstructed dinosaur skeletons. The paleontological story of this area was well explained with an exhibition of fossils.

After that we went to the Thermopolis Mineral Spa built on land the local Indians had sold to the government on the condition that they could come and go to their sacred waters whenever they wanted to.

It is free with a time limit of 20 minutes which is quite adequate as the water was so hot any longer would make you dizzy. We showered afterwards to remove the slight sulphur smell that clung to us.

This lesser known area of Wyoming was rich in local history; it gave us a taste of pre-historic times, anthropology and the real Wild West. We thoroughly enjoyed it and the fact that we were almost the only people viewing the places, whereas Yellowstone had been overcrowded!

POSTED 26th MAY 2017 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of DERYN Van Der TANG. The photographs were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged.