Wranglers and rodeos: Dude, this is my country

In thrall to John Wayne, Bill Hagerty headed to Wyoming for the chance to star in his own Western

Those who spend too much time in front of a television during lazy afternoons might argue that the American West, as popularised by John Wayne and other stars of the saddle, has always remained a desirable travel destination. The demise of the western suggested otherwise: if Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt weren't enticed to Go West Young Men, why should anybody other than the saddest of cowboy junkies bother to hit the trail?

Those who spend too much time in front of a television during lazy afternoons might argue that the American West, as popularised by John Wayne and other stars of the saddle, has always remained a desirable travel destination. The demise of the western suggested otherwise: if Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt weren't enticed to Go West Young Men, why should anybody other than the saddest of cowboy junkies bother to hit the trail?

But that view is changing. The western - the genre that fired millions of boys' imaginations - is back. Heading up the wagon train is Kevin Costner, hardly the most obvious rootin', tootin' son-of-a-gun from Arizona or anywhere else, although previously a mean and moody Wyatt Earp and star and director of the Academy Award-winning Dances With Wolves. Now his Open Range, a traditional western in all but a violence level as high as the Rockies, has found an enthusiastic audience among those much too young to have thrilled to High Noon or even The Magnificent Seven the first time around.

Western holidays in the shape of dude ranches have long been popular with Americans and international travellers alike, especially since Billy Crystal hit upon the wheeze of City Slickers and introduced cowboying to fantasists who were not aware they could make their schoolboy dreams come true.

We wanted to see for ourselves and decided on a complete boots-and-saddle, self-created package that would take us into the heart of gen- uine cowboy country. So it was to Wyoming - as buffs will know, the setting for Shane - that we headed, saddling a British Airways direct flight to Denver and then taking the trail north out of Colorado - in a Jeep, but there was a lot of trail to cover - to accept the State's invitation to "discover the inner cowboy" and cowgirl in ourselves.

Finding the Old West didn't take long. In the original Wrangler outfitters in Cheyenne, the charming capital that's about the size of Weston-super-Mare, a wide-eyed sales assistant told us that Tom Horn's ghost occupied the attic. Horn, one-time army scout and Pinkerton detective, became a hired gunman during the Wyoming range wars between cattlemen and farmers towards the end of the 19th century. Working for the cattle barons, he killed a lot of rustlers before being convicted of the long-range shooting of a 14-year-old boy, the son of Horn's intended victim. After busting out of jail in Cheyenne, he was recaptured and hanged in 1903.

The following morning we watched a re-enactment of the Horn jailbreak in "Gunslinger Square", close to the site of the real event and beside the Wrangler store. This turned out to be about as exciting as watching a cowboy whittling a twig. Horn's ghost is probably on the prowl in protest against the harm the Cheyenne Gunslingers Association is doing to his image.

On the way to Casper, the second largest city in the state and therefore probably smaller than Weston-super-Mare, we detoured to Fort Laramie, a military base in the 1800s but also a stopping point for many of the wagon trains travelling the trails west. Partially rebuilt, the Fort has the antiseptic aura of many National Historic Sites. The new national Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper more movingly tells the story of the thousands of pioneers who took the Oregon or California Trails and the Mormons pulling their handcarts, with many perishing in the attempt to reach Utah's Salt Lake City.

Museums are all very well, mused our nine-year-old, but where is the action? We found it in Cody, "The rodeo capital of the world" and the eponymous town founded by the man who at the turn of the 20th century, claims the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, was the most famous human being in the world. Queen Victoria - she visited Bill's touring Wild West show in London - might have had something to say about that, and she certainly has more places named after her. But unlike Colonel William F Cody, she was never a Pony Express rider, military scout or buffalo hunter.

Cody was almost 50 when he took a shine to the underdeveloped Big Horn Basin and founded the town in 1895, just five years after Wyoming achieved statehood. He built the Irma Hotel - named after his youngest daughter - and established the Cody Enterprise newspaper in 1901. Both still flourish. It is outside the Irma, whose dining room serves cow-size prime rib buffet dinners for $17.95 (less than £12), that action comes to Cody every weekday evening. We grabbed beer and Cokes from the bar, settled on the porch and watched the Cody Gunfighters issue a stern warning to watching children to stay away from guns before staging a shoot-out that would have pleased even Tom Horn. On the outskirts of Cody, beyond the rodeo grounds where every summer evening young cowboys ride bulls and bucking broncos for prize money that would make a mollycoddled Premiership footballer laugh, is the Old Trail Town, where you can see the hideout cabin - transported from Wyoming's Hole in the Wall lawless territory - in which Kid Curry and the Sundance Kid planned to rob a bank in Red Lodge, Montana. Here, too, is the last resting place of John "Liver Eating" Johnson, the legendary trapper who, to no one's surprise, looked nothing like Robert Redford, star of Jeremiah Johnson.

Come to that, Steve McQueen wasn't much like the real Tom Horn, although vanity being what it is I doubt that Johnson or Horn would have complained.

Cody, surrounded by the Cedar and Rattlesnake Mountains and dominated by one main street and a great deal of Buffalo memoraBillia, is steeped in western history. The locals are still miffed, so they say, that their world-famous patron, having died while visiting his sister in Denver in 1917, is buried in Colorado. Jackson, nestling in the Jackson Hole Valley the other side of a buffalo-spotting drive through the breathtaking Yellowstone National Park, pretends to be steeped, too, but it's just kidding. Jackson wasn't built until the beginning of the 20th century and now is a sophisticated tourist venue that doubles as a ski resort in winter. It has Wyoming's best shootout, though - take a 10-year-old's word for it. Every night in the square there's a gun-blazing confrontation between good guys and bad guys in "the longest continually running shootout in the country".

The least populated state in the US, Wyoming is a dream come true for the western buff. Its ever-changing scenery - spectacular canyons and ravines, bluffs and crags - unwound in front of us on roads where we encountered little traffic but a welter of wildlife.

So far, we had resisted a dude ranch. But the nine-year-old considers himself a dude and pleaded for the opportunity to get in the saddle. And it was at a gem of a city slicker hideout, Sylvan Dale, over the border near Loveland in Colorado, that we encountered our most memorable glimpse of the West as it used to be.

As twilight crept down from the Rockies and the sky became streaked with orange and an ever-darkening blue, six horse riders galloped abreast across a meadow pretty enough to paint. It was a scene film crews spend all day and thousands of dollars trying to create. The riders - four men and two young women wranglers - chased their shadows all the way to an appreciative watching group at the far side of the field before reining to a halt in a cloud of dust. Only when they dismounted was it obvious that these cowboys and cowgirls were of the new, rather than the old breed. Instead of guns in the holsters on their hips, they wore walkie-talkies.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

British Airways (0870-8509 850, www.ba.com) flies direct to Denver. Approximately £500 return this month.

Where to stay

Wort Hotel, Wyoming (001 307 733 2190; www.worthotel.com). Doubles from $175 (£110) per night. Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch, Colorado (001 970 667 3915; www.sylvandale.com). Doubles from $70 (£44) per night.

Where to get more information

Rocky Mountain State Tourist Office (01489 557533) or Wyoming Travel and Tourism (001 307 777 7777; www.wyomingtourism.org).

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