She was a snuffy young gal, says Sgt. R. Wayne Spencer, he of the 19-inch neck and bulging biceps. Three sheets to the wind, she was, and got to taking off her clothes and dancing on the bar, right there in downtown Cheyenne.
As a member of the local constabulary, Spencer had no choice but to arrest her, and it spoiled his popularity for some time. If ace rodeo cowboy Larry Mahan hadn't grabbed the band's microphone and passed his 10-gallon hat to raise her bail, there might even have been trouble.
That's the way things go each summer at the oldest and largest professional rodeo in the world. Shouts and hollers and good times. The Daddy of 'Em All, they call it. The Whooperoo: Cheyenne Frontier Days.
For 355 days a year Cheyenne, Wyo. is just another stop on the Interstate, two hours north of Denver -- a sleepy western capital whose greatest claim to fame is the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base, one of the future homes of the MX missile. For 10 days in July, however, the Green City of the High Plains lives up to its more casual and historic nickname: Hell on Wheels.
It's a time when those inhabitants of the new, urban West -- a region where Subaru hatchbacks have replaced the palomino as the preferred mode of travel -- try to recapture lost glories in a week and more of cow-punching, bronc-riding and hell-raising.
"As the truck reached the outskirts of Cheyenne . . . suddenly we were bucking through a great crowd of people that poured along both sidewalks," wrote Jack Kerouac in "On the Road," describing the 1947 version of Frontier Days. "I was amazed, and at the same time I felt it was ridiculous: in my first shot at the West I was seeing to what absurd devices it had fallen to keep its proud tradition."sw sk
Absurd, yes. But even if it's not authentic, the 90thannual Frontier Days, July 18 through 27, should be a fine place to be.
The Cheyenne Club and the Mayflower Bar will be packed each night with real cowboys and earnest greenhorns, dressed alike in denim jeans and yoked shirts and boots of leather, boa, ostrich and anteater. They'll be drinking some of the 1.5 million cans of beer to be downed during the week, stepping to the tunes of Rocky and the Red Streaks and keeping a watchful eye for Sgt. Spencer, known far and wide as the cop who keeps the cowpokes in line.
"All it takes is a hand signal. They get the idea," he says. "If they swing from the chandelier they realize they'll pay for the damage. They know they can blow off some steam and as long as the place doesn't get broken up, we'll still be friends."
The cowboys are fond of Spencer, who grew up in Cheyenne and worked as a busboy at the Plains Hotel (the scene of some notorious drinking bouts) before joining the police. He gets Christmas cards from all over the country and his picture hangs on the "Wall of Fame" at Gilley's cowboy bar in Houston.
The basement and first floor of the Plains were gutted by fire this spring, but repairs are being made and the owner has promised to reopen the hotel in time for the celebration -- so there may again be cowboys riding horses through the lobby. In similar fashion, Frontier Days has come back from worse before, including a 1979 tornado that destroyed 100 homes and the 1978 crash of an Air Force Thunderbird that killed the pilot and two bulls.sw sk
It's a week of rednecks and longnecks. Teddy Roosevelt rode here, and Damon Runyon remarked upon "the most picturesque crowds I have ever witnessed, where the reproduction of the wild and wooly west is presented each year." Lately a tour to Frontier Days has even been sold through Bloomingdale's winter catalogue.
The centerpiece, of course, is the rodeo. Nine of them, to be exact, starting at 1:15 p.m. each day from the 19th through the 27th. Frontier Days began as a rodeo, with the contests held on the plains outside town. Records say that William Jones was the first bronc-riding champ, and collected a $25 prize.
This year a total purse of $475,000 will be the prize for nearly 1,000 cowboys competing in bronc riding (both bareback and saddle), bull riding, calf roping, steer roping and steer wrestling. The defending all-around champion is Chris Lybbert of Argyle, Texas, following in the tracks of such greats as Mahan, Casey Tibbs, Gene Rambo and Dee Pickett.
Most of the competitors are professional athletes, members of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Only 15 percent of the contestants actually work on a ranch. But pro or amateur, youngster or veteran, they'll be taking on animals 10 times their weight. Cowboys wear no helmets or padding.
In addition to the roping and riding, you can also watch chuckwagon races (the Wyoming counterpart of Roman chariot races), quarterhorse racing, bullfights and a silly spectacle in which teams of amateurs try to saddle and ride a dozen wild horses brought in from the Rattlesnake Hill of Colorado.
If the barrooms downtown or the motel lounges along U.S. Rte. 30 (the Hitching Post and Little America hotels are infamous in their own right) don't interest you, then try the shows staged every night in the rodeo arena. Frontier Days added a rock show for the first time last year, and lured enough young people to try again this summer. John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Bandwill kick off the music on July 18.sw sk
After that, it's country and western, folks: Johnny Cash on the 19th and 20th, Exile on the 21st and 22nd, the Judds on the 23rd and 24th, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on the 25th and 26th.
Tickets for the rodeo range from $7 to $11. The shows in the arena cost from $7.50 to $11. A Monday through Thursday package that includes both rodeo and that night's entertainment costs $15. For information on tickets or lodging call (800) 443-2723.
If the kids want more cowboys than they'll find at the rodeos, get up early and watch one of four parades (on the 19th, 22nd, 24th and 26th) that start in front of the state capitol and wind through downtown, past the old Deadwood stagecoach depot and the Union Pacific railyards. They are billed as the world's largest collection of horse-drawn vehicles and include buckboards, stagecoaches, Conestoga wagons and floats depicting mining camps, saloons, dance halls, lynchings and blacksmith shops. There are the usual contingents of marching bands and, of course, the horse-drawn hearse.
The rest of the week provides a kaleidoscope of western sensations. Artists and authors exhibit their work, the movie theaters run old-fashioned melodramas, Comanche dancers entertain at the Indian village, gunslingers stage shootouts, square dancers promenade, gospel singers raise the roof, the upper crust hold polo matches and the Thunderbirds will return to a Warren Air Force Base open house. The Old West Museum is open all week and the local college puts on a Broadway musical.
It's the time to buy blue jeans, Stetsons or hand-tooled cowboy boots, and the market is brisk in Elvis rugs, decorative cow horns, custom pool cues, stuffed jackalopes and the odd toilet seat imbedded with baby rattlesnakes.
The eating is standard High Plains fare: lots of steaks and burgers. If the barbecue, cotton candy, caramel apples and snow cones don't get you sick as you stroll along the Midway, take a ride on the Himalaya, Force 10 or Gravitron rides. Or drop by the sideshows and see the fish people, the Arabian Giantess, the bearded pygmy and the two-headed cow.
Frontier Days is to Cheyenne as summer is to Ocean City. About 45 percent of the 300,000 people that visit come from out of state. The local businesses make $15 million each Frontier Days -- about a fifth of the total tourist trade for the year.
Shamelessly gouging, the two local hotels and most of the 21 motels all raise their rates and many are booked for weeks in advance. A room for two that costs $40 a night in the summer season might go for $70 or $80 during Frontier Days.
But Cheyenne's seven campgrounds are cheap, and the motel owners in nearby Laramie and Fort Collins, Colo. maintain their usual summer rates. And you can't gripe about the free breakfasts offered in downtown Cheyenne at 7 a.m. on July 21, 23 and 25.
The Cheyenne townsfolk prepare 3,000 pounds of ham and more than 100,000 pancakes each year for the 30,000 people that show up. They mix the pancake batter in a cement truck and you'll have to sit on a bale of hay. But the price is right and nobody waits more than 20 minutes. Wyoming breakfasts -- a shot of whiskey and a chaw of tobacco -- are optional.
John Aloysius Farrell is a staff writer for the Denver Post.