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Cody, Wyo.

What happens when a legendary showman takes a shot at urban planning?

Buffalo Bill's Wild West visitors
Photo caption
The Wild West wows at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.

Somewhere between his time as an army scout and a run as the world's most famous American, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody developed some serious Old West chutzpah. There's no other way to explain his grandiose vision for the Wyoming prairie along the Shoshone River 50 miles east of Yellowstone Park. Where others saw a stark wilderness in the rain shadow of Yellowstone's mountains, Cody saw a future metropolis. In 1895 he joined a group of investors to establish the town of Cody—a place where, according to Buffalo Bill's plan, tourists and sportsmen would mingle with captains of industry. "We have some letters to friends where he predicts Cody will be as large as Denver," says Juti Winchester, a researcher at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.

With a population of about 9,000, Cody is currently 550,000 people shy of Bill's prediction. But the man who ran the Wild West Show—and who did more than anyone else to build the mythology of the West—would probably find plenty to admire in his namesake. And while Cody doesn't have any Denver-style high-rises, it does have its share of Remington paintings, buffalo robes, and Colt revolvers.

Just as crowds flocked to Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show—where Annie Oakley shot holes in playing cards and Chief Sitting Bull signed autographs—people come to Cody looking to experience the capital-letter West. And that includes people who actually live in the West. I can see plenty of Stetsons and pickup trucks in my hometown of Billings, Mont., but whenever I want to admire a bighorn skeleton, strain my neck looking up the walls of a red rock canyon, or eat a plate of prime rib in Buffalo Bill's own bar, I make the hundred-mile drive to Cody. Nearly every year, my family descends on Cody's Buffalo Bill Historical Center. This is not the typical small-town, look-what-we-found-in-Grandpa's-basement hodgepodge. With nearly 35,000 items spread out over five separate museums, it's a world-class collection of Western art, animals, and historical artifacts that attracts 250,000 people a year. (Take that, Denver.)

We always start at the Draper Museum of Natural History, where my youngest son likes to climb into the beaver lodge, touch the deer antlers, and push buttons that activate the animal sounds. Visitors start at a high-alpine exhibit where a stuffed marmot stands guard over its piece of granite and a skeletal bighorn butts heads with a fleshed-out rival. The walkway slowly descends past grizzlies and moose to the prairie lands inhabited by rattlesnakes and pronghorn. At every turn, recordings of native birds—rosy finches, red-winged blackbirds, white-crowned sparrows—help set the wild mood.

Next we dive into the Buffalo Bill Museum, which is dedicated to the relics of the man himself. Born in Iowa in 1846, Cody scouted for the Union army, rode for the pony express, and earned his nickname shooting some 3,000 bison in eight months to feed hungry railroad workers. The museum's collection of posters advertising BUFFALO BILL'S WILD WEST AND CONGRESS OF ROUGH RIDERS OF THE WORLD lets you glimpse the scenes that spurred excitement from California to Europe. One poster, made in Paris, shows a band of Indians closing in on a yellow stagecoach—as a bonus, the coach is in the museum too.

You'd need an entire day to take in all the sights at the historical center, including a 17th-century German boar rifle and about 3,300 other items in the Cody Firearms Museum, a trophy walrus head oddly juxtaposed with elk and mountain goats in the Boone and Crockett room, and headdresses and grizzly-claw necklaces on display in the Plains Indian Museum. Buffalo Bill would undoubtedly approve of Cody's downtown scene along Sheridan Avenue. Today, as in his time, it's dominated by the Irma, the hotel, bar, and restaurant he had built in 1902. (Irma was Bill's daughter.) The huge dining room—which tilts heavily toward beef-based cuisine—fills up in summer but gets more sedate by fall. A few doors down, Wayne's Boot Shop sells footwear to hikers, cowboys, and a few people who fit both categories. Further down the block, fishermen pick up tips and flies at North Fork Anglers, which offers guided fly-fishing trips all year long on the Shoshone River.

The Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway (U.S. Highway 14-16-20) leading to Yellowstone Park is still the most popular thoroughfare for locals and visitors alike. Leaving town, you enter a dramatic canyon, drive through three tunnels, and pop out at the vertiginous Buffalo Bill Dam. Bighorn sheep often graze near the road; we saw at least a hundred on our most recent drive. The pines start growing larger and closer together and the surrounding peaks reach higher as you approach the park's east entrance, a well-known stomping ground for grizzlies. Buffalo Bill may not have been the perfect urban planner, but he knew a good neighborhood when he saw one.

Photography by Lynn Donaldson

This article was first published in January 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.