Laramie, the wild and woolly West

You don’t get as much violence in Laramie these days as in the time of the wild west – but we couldn’t help noticing the yarn bombing. John Westbrooke reports

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A lamp post was wrapped up nicely in a sleeve of pink wool with yellow pompoms. A public bench had a red woollen armrest and some multicoloured decoration on one of its planks. Even the gas meters up an alley had been adorned.

This it turned out was the work of the customers of Cowgirl Yarn, which sells wool, holds commuknitty evenings and promotes fibre art, which is why this corner of an old Wyoming railroad town still looks a bit wild and woolly.

It was a lot woollier in 1868, when the railway arrived, its construction accompanied by gangs of navvies, loose women, gamblers, drunks and desperadoes of all kinds; Hell on Wheels was the usual name for this travelling circus of ruffians. They soon moved on, leaving the stage set for some epic battles between vigilantes and outlaws who, in a particularly cunning manoeuvre, managed to take over the town council, before being caught and lynched.

(They were lucky. When the killer “Big Nose” George Parrott was lynched, the doctor performing the autopsy flayed him and used his skin for a pair of shoes, which he later wore at his inauguration as Wyoming governor. Law was an odd business in those days.)

The struggle between gentility and outlawry was at the heart of how the west was won; old cowpokes will remember James Stewart in the movie – “kind of sociable and friendly” but “there was no coyote who could outshoot The Man from Laramie”. But gentility did pretty well here. Calamity Jane, Jesse James and Butch Cassidy may have done time in the local jail, but Laramie was also home to Louisa Swain, who in 1870 became the first woman in the world to vote in a general election, nearly 50 years ahead of British women.

A couple of doors from Cowgirl Yarn we had a generous Deluxe Avocado Sandwich at Jeffrey’s Bistro (“avocado, swiss cheese, tomato, toasted sunnies, red onion, leaf lettuce & dijonaise on our whole wheat bread” – sunnies turned out to be sunflower seeds), nosed around the Second Story Bookshop, housed in what feels like a bibliophile’s home, with books stacked on chairs and chests of drawers; and strolled the streets of modern Laramie.

Downtown, like many similar cities in the west, is mostly solid brick and stone two-storey buildings, a century or so old and well kept up; the city is neither rich enough nor cramped enough to require them to be replaced by high-rises. Beyond are modest suburbs, with churches, a university and a few grand Victorian mansions, then vast rolling grasslands, and the distant Rocky Mountains. The west is a big place, towns are high up and isolated, and winters are cold. Take your time, use the empty back roads, and you may still see cowboys in ten-gallon hats and boots riding the range.

We also paid a visit to Fort Laramie, though it turned out to be more than 100 miles away, linked to the town only by name – which both took from a trapper, Jacques La Rémie, killed nearby in 1820. It’s much older than Laramie town, initially a trading post by the fork of the Laramie and North Platte rivers on what became the Oregon Trail, and it saw the start of decades of wars against native Americans in 1854.

A Sioux killed a straying cow, and the owner complained; their leader offered to pay for it but a hot-headed soldier (there were rather a lot of these) led a party from the fort to the Sioux camp to arrest the offender. They opened fire; the Sioux replied in kind and killed them all. Relations with the Plains Indians never recovered.

The fort was not completely fenced in and is wide open now; there’s a broad parade ground lined with barracks and outbuildings, cannon and trees. It looks more like a single-street village than like a vital resting place for pioneers to feed their cattle and mend their wagons.

But just 150 years ago this was virgin territory. Migrants packed all they could into wagons and joined trains heading 2000 miles west by way of routes previously known only to native Americans and a handful of European trappers pursuing the lucrative trade in beaver pelts for the top hats that were all the rage.

There are a couple of unexpected monuments to their trek near the fort. One is a sandstone ridge close to Guernsey that the wagons had to cross; gradually their wheels, and finally even the hubs, wore deep ruts in the soft stone that are still there. The other is Register Cliff, where wagon trains stopped the first night west of the fort and pilgrims often carved their names into the white cliff face in large letters: many of these are still there too, and still legible.

They came on the Oregon Trail because not much further west is South Pass, the easiest passage to the north-west, a gentle rise with good water. So gentle, in fact, that we drove along it without even noticing we were crossing the Continental Divide. Compared with the mountains and deserts along other routes – the perilous Donner Pass to California, for instance, where one party ended up trapped in mountain snowdrifts and eating their dead – South Pass was the way to go. You can still visit South Pass City, a collection of well-preserved log cabins just off route 28.

About 300,000 migrants did it over the years, and one in 10 died. Not many of these were in Indian attacks, as Hollywood imagined: real-life Indians weren’t much interested in galloping round a circle of wagons while being gunned down. Accidents and cholera were the big killers. But the survivors reached the land of milk and honey they sought, and their descendants probably work up and down the west coast for Microsoft and Apple.

Back east of the Rockies, though, the old west is still there – towns like Laramie and Cheyenne and Cody, no longer the wild west of gunslingers, but the prosperous communities of broad streets, craft shops, good food and decorated gas meters, built by their descendants in the plains and mountains of Wyoming.

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Words and Images (c)John Westbrooke