Wyoming and Montana are famous for their outsize landscapes. But we find ourselves falling just as hard for the towns: the tidy homes beneath the cottonwood trees, the views of peaks or plains at the end of every street, the sense of civic order imposed on the beautiful wild. After Mountain Sky we dawdle across the map. In Bozeman we admire dinosaurs at the Museum of the Rockies and stroll down Main Street, savoring the lazy appeal of a university town on summer break. In Red Lodge we stay at the Pollard Hotel and eat the best rhubarb pie of our lives at the Red Lodge Cafe, Lounge & Casino.
In a barrage of thunder and hailstones, we drive up and over the Beartooth Range to Cody, Wyoming. The town draws its name from its founder, Wild West impresario Buffalo Bill Cody, and retains his swaggering charm. At the Irma Hotel, we sit on the porch, escaping the hailstorm and watching motorcycles parade in for the August rally in Sturgis, South Dakota.
We go down the street to Cody's cultural claim to fame, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. I love everything: the Plains Indian tepees, the Charlie Russell paintings, the dioramas of Rocky Mountain wildlife. My son loves the guns: Remingtons, Winchesters, shotguns, Gatling guns. After 20 minutes my wife has her fill of firearms and goes off on what she calls "the chick tour" of the museum: Native American clothing and Mrs. Cody's dresses. I ask my son if he wants to see the 1,200 additional guns downstairs. He does.
Afterward, we somehow find ourselves at a roadside store that features only antlers: antler lamps, antler chairs, antler mantelpieces. Next door is a fireworks store and I stumble in, dazed by the rockets and Roman candles. "We don't have anything like these in California," I tell the clerk.
"That's what all the Californians tell us," she says.
That evening we go to the Cody Nite Rodeo, which has been running every summer night for 68 years. Another storm. Lightning spikes the western horizon, and when through the crackling loudspeaker the announcer shouts, "Welcome to the rodeo capital of the world," each word is broken by thunder: Ro―BOOM―de―BOOM-Ohhh.
Bronco riding, calf roping, bull riding, barrel racing, the rising wind blowing cowboy hats off the riders, fat raindrops plunking in the dust. The air crackles, the loudspeakers play "Free Ride," you smell ozone, and bands of small children chase a woolly herd of lambs across the grounds, hoping to catch the lamb that wears a yellow ribbon so they can win an ice cream cone.
And at that point we give in. This could be ours, we think. We could leave our city life and move to Cody. Our son could chase lambs for yellow ribbons, then compete in calf roping. Our new house would be decorated all in antlers. We could ride motorcycles through hailstorms and set off fireworks. That's what a good vacation does. It explodes your usual idea of yourself, takes your regular life and tosses a bolt of lightning at it, making it new.