MOST FOLKS, once they get within sniffing distance of the place, make a beeline for Yellowstone Park, like drones flying back to their queen for "the gracious lady" as Yellowstone is sometimes called), and regard anything between them and the lady as just so much distance to be covered.

Which is how they miss Cody. Oh, they may not miss it exactly, it's just that it's not where they're going. It's not far from, on the way to, real near, and the last town before - The Park. But The Park it is not, or even in The Park. And thus is its fate sealed; a town people flock through, but not to.

Well, whatever you do, don't tell William F. Cody that. He'd turn in his grave (which, by the way, he said should be on Cedar Mountain, just west of town, but instead is on Lookout Mountain, outside of Denver, and Denver is adamant about keeping it). Cody was his idea. He had it in 1894, one mountain range east, in Sheridan, Wyo. While there on vacation from his Wild West Show, he heard tales about the fabulous Big Horn Basin which, with a little water, they said, might just bloom. A little water, and a town.

The water was easy and the town not much harder so that by [WORD ILLEGIBLE], Cody (as in William F. and Buffalo B.) took its bow. It then settled down, prospered gently and is now a modest town of 5,200 or so with a broad main street and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, called by Esquire "the greattest collection of western memorablia and art ever assembled."

And, if you must know, it's 52 miles due east of The Park.

You can't get into Cody without losing your breath, without having it taken away, that it, by one wonder of nature or another. Coming from the east, as Cody did, you have to cross the Big Horn Mountains, which you do in a staggering series of switchbacks that take you up to nearly 10,000 feet (the mountains go on for another 3,000 to give you something to respect), then drop you down to the basin floor, 5,000 feet in 15 miles, and send you dazzled on toward Cody.

Or from the south, through Wind River Canyon and the Owl Creek Mountains and on into Thermopolis, where what you smell is the sulphur from the world's largest mineral hot spring through which flow 186 million gallons of mineral water at 135 degrees F. every 24 hours.

Then there's the West. You come out of Yellowstone pretty impressed, no doubt, wondering what they can do for an encore. And before you know it, it's all around you, what's called (even on the maps) the Spectacular Wapiti Valley, a little something the Absaroka Mountains came up with. What Teddy Roosevelt, a good friend of Cody's, called, "the most scenic 50 miles in America." You enter Shoshone National Forest, the first in the nation, established in 1891, and stare at the astounding rock formations strewn here and there by careless wind and rain, with names like Laughing Pig, Playground of the Gods and Henry Ford in a Model T. And then you're at Buffalo Bill Reservoir, really just the Shoshone River, relaxed and being patient until it can edge up to the spillway at the Buffalo Bill Dam (whence the book title, "Cody: The Best Little Town by a Dam Site") and plunge on down through Shoshone Canyon and out into Big Horn Basin. And Cody. Not bad for an encore.

Cody has some surprises. Like the grave of Jeremiah Johnson (or John "Jeremish Liver-Eating" Johnston, with a "t," to be historical) who hunted and trapped in the area much of his life and, as an old man, used to treat his rheumatism to the DeMaris Hot Springs nearby. A month before he died (January 1900) he was sent to an Old Soldier's Home in California, but, in 1974, some seventh graders out that way got the money together to send Jeremish back to Cody "and the mountains he loved" for reburial.

The gravenile is in a piece called Old Trail Town, a refreshingly uncommercial reconstruction of a Western town, containing among other treasures: the Museum of the Old West, a log cabin used by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, et al. and, of course, a saloon complete with "bullet holes in the door to remind us of its violent past."

And then there's the main event, The Buffalo Bill Historical Center, actually four museums in one: The Buffalo Bill Museum, The Plains Indian Museum, The Winchester Museum and The Whitney Gallery of Western Art. Russells and Remingtons abound in the latter, and Thomas Moran's exquisite watercolors of the splendors of Yellowstone. Elsewhere, there are guns, Indian crafts and artifacts, stage-coaches, a Paris poster with Bill's pioture and Jeviens written underneath. And Annie Oakley's things.

There's one moment in the museum, if you come upon it right, that will stun you. It's a tall painting, all of a feet, called "Cattle Drive," by John Clyner, and its force - indeed, its message - is in its perspective. The bottom half is taken up by three Indians, their backs to us, mounted, approaching a river. Out of the top, a long line of cattle winds its way down to the center of the picture and the river, a few head having already crossed, along with their driver. The lead Indian is almost upon the weather-beaten cowboy who stares him down from center left, a carbine across his saddle horn. In a gesture summing up the 19th century in the American West, the Indian thrusts out his arm and raises his hand to keep the intruder from going any further - the intruder, the cattle, the westward movement and, finally, time itself, if that's what it takes.

The painting hangs in the Winchester gun collection, between two cases of "The Gun That Won the West."

You should also stop in at The Irma, the hotel Cody built and named after his youngest daughter. You can spend the night in his own quarters (refurbished) and see the famous $100,000 Cherrywood Bar, a gift of Queen Victoria. Seems she asked Bill to bring his Wild West Show over for her Golden Jubilee of 1887, and the bar was her thank-you card.(It was during that same visit that Bill piled the kings of Belgium, Saxony, Denmark and Greece into his stagecoach and drove them around the arena, the Prince of Wales riding shotgun.

Said the prince, "It isn't often that you hold as good a hand as this - four kings - is it Col. Cody?"

Said the Colonel, "No, your highness, although I have held them occasionally. However, this is the first time I ever held four kings as well as a royal joker.")

And there's the rodeo, every night except Sunday, early June through late August. And the house Cody was born in, brought from Le Clair, Iowa.

Before you leave Cody there are a couple of other things you should do, to catch the flavor of the place. One is to buy a paper and read it. It's the Cody Enterprise (once owned the edited by Caroline Lockhart, the woman who should be given at least half credit for Mother's Day) and it makes you wonder just how "old" the Old West is. From a recent front page:

Clown Survives Brutal Beating Sid McFarland, 29, of Cody, a clown at the Jackson Hole Rodeo, is expected to be released from a Salt Lake City hospital Wednesday, after suffering a brutal beating by seven Crowheart residents . . . The seven, four men and three women, returned Saturday night drunk, and "dragged Sid from his trailer and beat the tar out of him" said (rodeo contractor) Houston. Houston was at the grounds and broke up the fight. He said, "There is no truth to the rumor that he put two of them in the hospital."

And finally, some night just before sunset, get in you car and head north on Wycoming 120. Take a left 15 miles out, onto a good gravel road, wind you way past the great red shoulders of sediment elbowing each other to take over the landscape, leave them in your dust and climb on up toward Dead Indian Summit (and note Montana receding in the distance). You're in the country where Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce shook the U.S. Cavalry and made their mad dash for Canada. (It's also where Ernest Hemingway was inspired to write the mountain parts of "For Whom the Bell Tolls.") Keep an eye out for moose, elk and deer.

And get ready for the view from the top. You come upon it suddenly, the earth drops out from under you, down into Sunlight Basin, and then, almost as suddenly, the mountains shoot up again, before you realize there's valley there (though not a valley, exactly, more like a cross between a valley and a canyon, the canyon winning out). And, hovering over it all, a sun that knows it's met its match in grandeur and quietly slips behind the nearest peak, saluting the winner with a fine show of gold and blue and pink.

It's so good they ought to charge for it.