Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sheridan, WY: The Trouble Down Below

©2013 Text & Photos by LeeZard
Monday September 16 – Rapid City South Dakota-Sheridan, Wyoming
Wow, I can’t believe I am heading for Sheridan, WY, my last “official” destination. I wrote from Rawlins, WY very early in my journey but I will break with my “rule” of not repeating for a couple of reasons.
Frankly, when I hit Rawlins in July, I wasn’t at the top of my game. I’d just escaped my horrible adventure in Yellowstone National Park and had driven a long way. I stayed only one night and interviewed a small number of people. Their stories were valid and I wrote a short piece. So, Wyoming gets a second, and deeper look – a good thing, as it turns out.
In a way, it is unfortunate that Sheridan will mark the end of my search for The New America. In a perfect world, I would’ve headed south, then west from New York City for a longer drive home through vastly different cultures and economies.
Ben Stiller’s 1994 flick “Reality Bites” comes to mind, though, because the title speaks volumes. In this case my reality that bites is financial. I simply cannot extend the trip south without leaning further on my family and friends whom have already contributed greatly to this project. Secondly, I am finally road weary and that’s saying a lot. To say I love being on the road is putting it mildly. If I were a gangster, I’d be the wheelman. But, by the time I get home I will have driven almost 10,000 miles in 70 days. Holy Crap! The Interstates are starting to look better and better.
Speaking of Interstates, my drive west to Sheridan will be mostly on I-90. Thankfully, as I head into Wyoming, Montana and the Idaho Panhandle into Washington, the freeway drive becomes more scenically palatable, starting with The Black Hills that extend from western South Dakota into eastern Wyoming.
The name Black Hills is a translation from the Lakota Pahá Sápa. The Hills do look black from afar because they are so dense with Evergreen Trees. I am surprised to learn they are the tallest mountains east of The Rockies, topping out with Harney Peak at 7,244 feet. This is deceiving because I am driving at an elevation of 3,200 feet so The Black Hills do look more like rolling hills than mountains. Whatever you call them, they exhibit an almost eerie, singular beauty.
Crossing the state line into Wyoming The Black Hills begin to spread out with more open prairie and ranches between them. Eventually The Black Hills fade into wide-open space and only the occasional cattle ranch mars the empty landscape. Even though I am more than 150 miles away, the Front Range of The Rocky Mountains appears from a ghostly fog on the horizon. About 50 miles further I am on a long straightaway and The Rockies rise up like a great wall. I-90 in the distance seems to disappear into the wall. I love optical illusions as they play with the eyes and your brain.
After 252 miles on I-90 I enter Sheridan, WY (est. pop. 17,598 in 2012) in the Tongue River Valley between The Black Hills and The Rockies. Whoo Hoo! The first freeway services sign shows a Starbucks Logo. All I need is a good cigar store. Sheridan may claim only three exits but it is big enough for me. Have I said this about other towns as well? Probably. I am a simple man and sometimes so predictable.

Tuesday September 17 – Sheridan, WY 

This city is named for General Philip Sheridan, a Union Cavalry leader during the Civil War. In 2006 True West Magazine named Sheridan as “The Top Western Town in America,” something the city still touts; tourism is a big part of the economy. The other big draw is William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
Bill Cody wasn’t born in Sheridan; that would be Le Claire, Iowa Territory in 1846. Nor did he die here; that would be Denver, CO in 1917 – liver failure. What Cody did do here was own and operate The Sheridan Inn.

The city was actually plotted in the early 1880s but it began to really flourish in 1892 when the Burlington Missouri Railroad extended to Sheridan. Shortly thereafter, the railroad commissioned construction of The Sheridan Inn to ensure travelers would have a decent room and a good place to eat.

By 1894 Bill Cody, by killing several thousand buffalo to feed railroad workers and the U.S. Army (for which he was a scout), had earned the “Buffalo Bill” sobriquet. He was also a consummate businessman and showman. His Wild West Show was already famous worldwide. In that year, Cody invested in The Sheridan Inn and for years used the property to audition acts for his show.
Sadly, the Inn has a ragged history with many owners since Cody’s day. Now, it is closed and a dilapidated shell of itself. There is talk of new owners. I hope so; it can once again be a grand structure and serious tourist attraction for Sheridan. The town needs it.
While ranching and tourism are important here, when I was in Rawlins I heard that the state of Wyoming receives most of its revenue from the energy production industry and, as a result, avoided a big hit from the recession. In Sheridan I confirm the first fact and learn the second is only partially true.
Unemployment in Sheridan has dropped from a high of almost eight percent in 2010 to the low fives now. In 2012 home sales rebounded from a low of 48 in 2011 to 71 in 2012. But there are problems still and they bubble – literally – just below the surface.
Twenty-nine year old Ryan is a coal miner. He is walking down Main Street with his wife and baby daughter. He tells me the mine in which he works produces a different kind of coal than that of the other mines. His company’s coal is shipped by rail to The Port of Vancouver, British Columbia where it is shipped to Asia and so the recession passed him by. The others, he says, weren’t so lucky.
“Prices and production dropped in the other mines around the state,” he tells me. “The mine next to us laid off half their work force during the slowdown, hundreds of people lost their jobs.”
Fifty-five year old Don Barrett works above ground but his living is down below. He is an accountant for one of the local natural gas exploration companies.
“Business was good until natural gas prices collapsed during the recession and they still haven’t come back. It’s a big problem. About two-thirds of our employees were laid off, about 70 people. Even the oil industry suffered.”
In 2011 economists predicted Wyoming’s energy-based revenue would “flatten.” By last year, as prices continued to drop, Governor Matt Mead ordered and additional eight percent in budget cuts for fiscal 2013.

Surprising Buffalo Bill Sidebar – War Hero!
While Bill Cody’s legend is based on his (some say destructive) buffalo hunting skills and basically romanticizing the Wild West for the world, he apparently did some heroic work as an army scout in the Indian Wars.
He was a civilian scout mostly for the Third Cavalry Regiment from 1868-72. There are many varying and mostly vague accounts of how he earned the honor. My favorite version is also the most detailed. It comes from blogger Bill Hanks at and goes like this:
“He achieved this honor on April 26, 1872 for gallantry in action at Platte River, Nebraska (Battle of Summit Springs). On July 11, 1869, Cody killed Chief Tall Bull and rescued a captured White woman. The skirmish was between the 5th Army and the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers. Tall bull was the leader of the Cheyenne. 
The Army was outnumbered 450 to 244 on that day. At the time, he was a civilian scout, working for the Army. He was a member of the Pawnee Scouts. On February 5th, 1917, 24 days after Cody's' death, the medal was declared invalid because he was a civilian and therefor wasn't eligible for the award. However the medal was restored to Cody, and eight other civilians, in 1989."