‘Living the Legend’ in Cheyenne

 Chief Washakie outside the Wyoming State Capitol building in Cheyenne. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

Chief Washakie outside the Wyoming State Capitol building in Cheyenne. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

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Wyoming’s state seal sits out front of the Capitol in Cheyenne. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — For the rest of my Lincoln Highway trek from the East Coast to San Francisco, I’ll be visiting Salt Lake City, Carson City and Sacramento, state capitals I’ve never been to before. But first, there’s Cheyenne, capital of the Equality State. This was my first time in Wyoming.

As someone who lives in the nation’s capital, I’m not the first person to point out that Wyoming’s population is smaller than the District of Columbia, yet citizens in the Equality State have two senators and representation in the House of Representatives while those of us in D.C. lack full and equal representation in Congress.

D.C.’s disenfranchisement and periodic federal meddling into local affairs has been the product of the U.S. Constitution and something that’s proven difficult to change over the decades. But enough about the nation’s capital, I’m in Wyoming’s capital city and largest city, with roughly 60,000 people.

While cosmopolitan Denver and its Front Range suburbs feel like they could fit in well somewhere in California — especially considering the high number of Californians who have migrated to the Centennial State — there’s no mistaking Cheyenne for being a true city of the American West. All you have to do is look for cowboy boots and hats.

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The historic Union Pacific Depot in Cheyenne, Wyo., sits at the center of downtown. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

The historic Union Pacific Depot in Cheyenne, Wyo., sits at the center of downtown. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

Like so many other towns and cities along the Union Pacific Railroad’s Overland Route, Cheyenne’s downtown area sits adjacent to the tracks, which are intertwined with Cheyenne’s history.

U.S. 30, known as Lincolnway here, is the main drag through the center of town and runs parallel to the tracks. (There’s a Lincoln Highway marker at W. Lincolnway at Carey Avenue.)

The stately Wyoming Capitol building, home to a large statue of Chief Washakie, sits about 10 blocks to the north of Union Pacific Depot.

Washakie is an important figure in Wyoming’s history and his story intersects with the story of John C. Frémont, one of the historic figures I’ve been tracking on my trip west.

According to the Architect of the Capitol, which oversees a similar statue of Washakie in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall:

He had learned French and English from trappers and traders, and he also spoke a number of Native American languages. His friends among white frontiersmen included Kit Carson, Jim Bridger (who became his son-in-law), and John Fremont. Having realized that the expansion of white civilization into the West was inevitable, he negotiated with the army and the Shoshone to ensure the preservation of over three million acres in Wyoming’s Wind River country for his people; this valley remains the home of the Shoshone today. He was also determined that Native Americans should be educated, and he gave land to Welsh clergyman John Roberts to establish a boarding school where Shoshone girls learned traditional crafts and language.

The Lincoln movie theater on Central Avenue in Cheyenne, Wyo. (Photo by Michael E. Grass

The Lincoln movie theater on Central Avenue in Cheyenne, Wyo. (Photo by Michael E. Grass

Like many places along the Lincoln Highway, I didin’t have as much time in Cheyenne as I would have liked because I was trying to keep to a schedule. (I still had to drive across the state to Evanston, Wyo., my pitstop for the night near the Utah border.) So I checked out the Wyoming Capitol, the Lincoln movie theater on Central Avenue and the public plaza outside the historic Cheyenne Depot Museum, which sits adjacent to what’s arguably Cheyenne’s biggest attraction: the Wrangler store.

The Wrangler store sits in the center of Cheyenne, Wyo. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

The Wrangler store sits in the center of Cheyenne, Wyo. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

All Western-wear needs can be met here. This is where you can dress like a cowboy and truly embrace Cheyenne’s current tourism-promotion slogan: “Live the Legend.”

I was certainly tempted to pick up a pair of cowboy boots, but was thinking about how I would have to haul those suckers back from San Francisco and across the continent to D.C. via Amtrak.

Jack Kerouac painted a vivid picture of Cheyenne in On the Road, when Sal Paradise happened to pass through with Montana Slim during Wild West Week:

Big crowds of businessmen, fat businessmen in boots and ten-gallon hats, with their hefty wives in cowgirl attire, bustled and whoopeed on the wooden sidewalks of old Cheyenne.

I didn’t see this kind of Western spectacle — Cheyenne’s annual Frontier Days celebration is kicking off in July — but fortunately, I didn’t have to go far to find real live cowboys. There were some men wearing cowboy boots and big hats eating burgers at the lunch spot I came across at Two Doors Down, located on E. 17th Street near Central Avenue. (Apparently, there is cowboy hat etiquette, according to the Cowboy Hat Guide: “When sitting down at a table for a meal, the hat should come off unless there is nowhere to safely lay the hat. When sitting down at a counter for a meal, the hat can stay on.”)

As I scanned the menu of the restaurant, which two Cheyenne natives opened in 2009, there were a few items on the burger list that jumped out at me. But I had a particular craving for the green chili cheeseburger.

I’ve never been to New Mexico, a state I really want to visit primarily because of its food heritage, which includes, naturally, the green chile cheeseburger. (The Land of Enchantment, in fact, has its own Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.)

My opinion on Two Doors Down’s version? It was pretty good and flavorful. (And from the photo below, you can see that it was messy.) Since I haven’t been to New Mexico, it’s hard for me to be a good judge of green chile cheeseburgers. I guess I’ll have to head down to Santa Fe or Albuquerque at some point to conduct a taste-test comparison.

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If you can't tell, this is a green chile cheeseburger. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

If you can’t tell, this is a green chile cheeseburger. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

Heading west on Lincolnway west out of the city, there’s a stretch of newer and older motels, including the Wyoming Motel, with its large sign with a neon Native American that looks like it could stand in for the Nutcracker around Christmas.

As the Lincoln Highway continues west from here, Cheyenne marks the end of the highway being totally separate from the modern Interstate Highway System. Much of the old highway in Wyoming was simply upgraded to Interstate Highway standards and no longer exists.

West of town, I joined Interstate 80 for the first time on this trip, despite closely paralleling the Interstate through much of Nebraska. Looking on the map, I still have a long way before getting to San Francisco. Onward!

This motel stands on the Lincoln Highway on the outskirts of Cheyenne, Wyo. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

This motel stands on the Lincoln Highway on the outskirts of Cheyenne, Wyo. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

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