Hawks soar above sandstone and sagebrush. A roped calf thuds into the dust, coyotes howl in the hills and a mountain man rides alone. It's the Dream of the American West, and it's alive and well in Cody, Wyo.

William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, the famous hunter, scout and showman, founded the town in 1896. An hour's drive from Yellowstone National Park, Cody is a cowboy town surrounded by solitary ranches. There are no tall buildings or parking meters. You can wear jeans anywhere and all the signs have bullet holes. In Cody, the chinook wind warms the winter, and local bands have names like Boot Hill.

Traveling in the West last summer reawakened this Easterner's childhood cowboy fantasies, reminding me of when I was the only girl in the B-Bar-B Club. This fantasy is most colorfully portrayed at Cody's nightly rodeo.

My friend Lou and I entered the rodeo grounds as sunset clouds glowed above Rattlesnake Mountain. In their pens, calves looked moony and placid. Humpy-necked Brahman bulls stood or lay about indolently, giving no hint of the explosive energy within.

We climbed a ladder and clattered across a metal catwalk over the horse pens and a group of shaggy buffalo to get to our places in the grandstand. Sitting above the chutes gave us a chance to watch the rodeo personnel prepare for each event.

Below us, lean young cowboys were sipping coffee and buckling chaps over their jeans in front of an audience of teenage groupies. Their pale curved Stetsons gleamed in the arena lights.

Suddenly, a rolling thunderhead of buffalo galloped into the ring and the announcer cried, "Welcome to the Rodeo Capital of the World!" For the first event, bareback riding, horses were hustled nose to tail into the chutes. Each rider fastened on his bareback rigging, which looks like a strap with a suitcase handle, and the stage was set. A cowboy climbed the white bars of the first chute, straddled the bronc and let himself down gently, holding onto the bareback rigging. The gate of the chute swung wide and the announcer cried, "Come onnnn, cowboy!"

Each cowboy had to stay on his wildly thrashing horse for eight seconds, holding on with only one hand, with his feet up and toes out, and bouncing like a wood chip on a heaving sea. These horses had clearly declared war. Mushroom clouds of dust puffed from rapid-fire hooves. Hats flew. Two cowboys stayed on for the duration; the others were bucked off. "How 'bout a nice round of applause, audience?"

Fiddle tunes and hoedown music rang through the arena as the calf-ropers and steer-wrestlers tried their skills. Those sleepy-looking critters put on a surprising show of speed and strength against their cowboy foes.

The rodeo cowboys were carrying on a tradition of independence and courage expressed by earlier cowboys, and before them, by the mountain men. We tried to understand their experiences in that beautiful high country. Riding and walking, we found a radiance of sunlight, dry wind, the scent of sagebrush and juniper, the welcome green of willows and cottonwoods in stream valleys, all under the limitless, changeable Western sky. Range cattle roamed the hillsides -- "T-bone on the hoof," Lou called them. A coyote loped up the side of a sandstone bluff in a timeless image of freedom and the natural life.

Mountain men, nomadic trappers who explored the Rockies in the early and mid-1800s, believed that shedding civilization opened the spirit. Civilization followed them, however, as homesteaders built isolated cabins much like the ones we saw when we visited Cody's Old Trail Town. Between two rows of historic frontier buildings, a line of wagons stood in the still-visible ruts of the old Red Lodge-Fort Washaki trail.

Terry and Bob Edgar, who live in a log house nearby, had the vision and the drive to collect these weather-worn buildings in one place, restoring and preserving them for posterity. The oldest cabin was built in 1868, the newest in 1900. Most of the buildings contained furniture and other articles of the period. One cabin belonged to Gen. Custer's Crow Indian scout, Curley. Another cabin, brought here from Hole in the Wall, Wyo., was frequented by Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and other outlaws.

The Edgars' Museum of the Old West contains such diverse objects as a mammoth tusk, 9,000-year-old arrowheads and prospector's tools. It also displays items owned by Jim White, a buffalo hunter who killed 4,600 buffalo in one winter (1879-1880). White is buried in Old Trail Town's cemetery (like its other inhabitants, he was re-interred there). Each grave is fenced, outlined in logs and blanketed by boughs of cedar and pine. The most famous grave belongs to John "Liver-Eating" Johnston (his name was changed to Jeremiah Johnson in the TV movie), who is said to have eaten his enemy's liver.

Beyond the cemetery, mountains loomed above a monument to the American Mountain Man. The monument commemorates two men in particular. John Colter, a hunter for Lewis and Clark, stayed in the West and discovered "Colter's Hell," the now-inactive sulfurous mud pots on the nearby Shoshone River (formerly called the Stinking Water). Jim Bridger, fur trapper and scout, is the best known of the mountain men. He discovered Yellowstone's geysers, though his reports were called "Jim Bridger's lies" by his contemporaries.

Richard Fish is a modern-day mountain man. We talked to this Cody original at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, where he was appearing in a show about Jim Bridger. Fish was wearing a cap made of a silver fox skin, its pointed dark ears like a second set of eyebrows, its plumy tail streaming down onto the elkskin top he'd dressed and made himself. The beaded line of a powder horn and the leather strap of a knife holster crisscrossed his chest. He wore a necklace of bone beads and bear claws.

Fish is a member of the Stinking Water Free Trappers. To join the organization, one must "believe in the earth and believe in the way of life of the mountain man." He hunts with a Hawken rifle that takes 100 grains of powder and shoots a 54-caliber ball. When hunting in grizzly country, he keeps two balls in his rifle. "Grizzlies are hateful, mean, nasty suckers," he told us. "A 1,000-pound grizzly can shift his weight from foot to foot so he doesn't snap any sticks. Normally, you don't know they're there till you hear 'em breathing."

He loaded his rifle and prepared to shoot. "I'm going to fire on three," he warned us. Even so, we jumped as the rifle exploded, echoes crashing into the mountains. "She's a noisy old devil," he said, patting the rifle affectionately, "and if she don't hit you, she'll scare you to death."

We reveled in more Western Americana in the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, which contains four related museums. You can spend a day or a week there.

The Whitney Gallery of Western Art displays a wide selection of paintings and sculpture. Though Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, the most famous Western artists, are both well represented here, my favorite painting was a landscape by Alfred Bierstadt called "Yellowstone Falls," an 1881 oil on canvas. Light glowed on golden rock, drifting mist, cascading water. Earlier paintings of Yellowstone's grandeur by Thomas Moran helped convince Congress to establish Yellowstone as the first national park.

We also enjoyed the other collections, especially the Plains Indian Museum, with items ranging from Sioux tepees to eagle-feather war bonnets. Buffalo Bill's personal and historical memorabilia round out a picture of a dynamic frontiersman and showman.

Cody, by the way, got his nickname because he had to provide 12 buffalo a day to feed the track layers on the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Friend of Indians, lover of the West, symbol of drama and excitement, Buffalo Bill Cody is reflected in this Historical Center as his Wild West Show is reflected in the Cody Rodeo.

The rodeo is a unique American Spectacle, and saddle bronc riding is the classic rodeo event. It's like bareback riding but with a modified saddle and a rope to cling to. When the cowboys lost the battle, which many did, they landed hard, rolled over in the dust and got up slowly. "Those horses are tough," said the announcer. I agreed, watching the broncs hump and fishtail. Rodeoing is a hard way to make a living.

During the team roping and barrel racing, a storm began to threaten. Lightning zigzagged down the sky and the breeze increased, wafting up odors of dust and horse. Below us, cowboys battled another natural force. The Brahman bulls were being readied in the chutes. A furious flurry of hooves protested the fastening of the flank straps.

Bull riding was the last event, the pie`ce de re'sistance, the real stuff. Brahman bulls are 1,500 pounds of unpredictable hostility. "All these bulls have even dispositions," said the announcer. "They stay mad all the time."

The bulls' bells clanked as the big animals shifted in the chutes. The first rider let himself down onto the bull's back and gave a quick grim nod. The bull came out of the chute like a hurricane, twirling and bucking, heels flickering up. The rider flew over the bull's neck in an instant.

The second bull spun his rider sideways into the dirt.

The third bull bucked his rider off right at the chute; clowns danced over and enticed the bull away. The announcer spoke soothingly of the fine medical attention at the rodeo. They carried the young man off the field of honor, and the show went on.

At the end of the contest, the score stood: Bulls 5, Cowboys 2.

The rodeo was over. Wind eddied the brown dust as lightning strobed images of departing horses and cowboys. We passed a small shelter, where the injured bull-rider sat with an ice bag on his head and a smile on his face, amid a circle of sympathetic females.

As we returned across the catwalk above the animal pens, lightning split the sky and thunder rumbled. With a sense of energy released, we walked above the bulls and broncs in the clean sweet smell of new rain.

Cecily Nabors is a freelance writer who lives in Silver Spring.

1846 Born in Iowa

1861 Rode for the Pony Express

1868 Became chief of scouts for the U.S. 5th Cavalry

1872 Won the Congressional Medal of Honor

1873 Appeared in first touring stage show

1876 Spoke out for Indian rights

1883 Began 30 years of touring with Wild West Show

1894 Spoke out for women's suffrage

1896 Founded Cody, Wyo.

1899 Established newspaper, the Cody Enterprise (still published)

1917 Died in Colorado

To get to Cody from Yellowstone, leave East Yellowstone on Route 120 and drive 50 miles through the Shoshone River's dramatic Wapiti Valley. WHERE TO STAY: On my first trip to Cody, I stayed at one of the secluded guest ranches outside of town. Most of them are in the Wapiti Valley and offer trail rides and Western living. This trip, we stayed in downtown Cody at the Irma Hotel (1192 Sheridan Ave., Cody, Wyo. 82414, 307-587-4221), which is on the National Register of Historic Places. At the Irma, which was built by Buffalo Bill in 1902 and named for his daughter, you can stay in one of the original rooms or in the modern, less expensive annex. Rates range from about $51 to $63, double. WHERE TO EAT: Try a hamburger at the Silver Dollar Bar and Grill on Sheridan Avenue. It's good local beef on a fresh-made roll, served in an eclectic atmosphere of stuffed deer and bighorn sheep, Tiffany lamps over pool tables, and surfboards advertising the "beach" outside (picnic tables on a deck above the sandy soil). Cassie's Supper Club, just west of Cody on the road to Yellowstone, has good food and live music all summer. The food at the Irma's restaurant is also good. Don't miss seeing its historic $100,000 cherrywood backbar, given to Buffalo Bill by Queen Victoria. WHAT TO DO:

The Cody Rodeo is a nightly event from June through August. Admission is $5.75 for adults and $3.50 for children (for regular stands), or $6.75 and $4.50 (for "Buzzard's Roost" stands above the chutes). The Cody Stampede, a special rodeo festival, takes place July 2 through 4 this year.

The Buffalo Bill Historical Center (720 Sheridan Ave., Cody, Wyo. 82414, 307-587-4771), a four-museum complex featuring Western artifacts and memorabilia, is not to be missed. Tickets cost $5 for adults, $2 for children over 6, $4.25 for seniors and $3.25 for students; a two-day family pass is $14. The center is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. in the summer (call ahead in spring and fall, when hours vary). The center is closed from Nov. 30 to March 1.

Old Trail Town, a collection of historic buildings and frontier relics, is open mid-May to mid-September. Admission is $2. INFORMATION: For more information, contact:

Cody Chamber of Commerce, 836 Sheridan Ave., Cody, Wyo. 82414, (307) 587-2297.

Yellowstone National Park, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone Park, Wyo. 82190, (307) 344-7381.

Wyoming Travel Commission, I-25 at College Drive, Cheyenne, Wyo. 82002, (307) 777-7777. -- Cecily Nabors