Brent Antonson

An Ode to Wyoming—and Cowboy Philosophy

Having driven the 50 American states, it's a natural question, which state was your favorite? Of all the options, it was a clear winner: Wyoming. It's not that I'm a kindred cowboy or a Wyoming apologist.

Brent Antonson
Apr 29, 2022
6 min read

Having driven the 50 American states, it's a natural question, which state was your favorite? Of all the options, it was a clear winner: Wyoming. There's no emphasis, like say, Texas! Or Florida!

It's not that I'm a kindred cowboy or a Wyoming apologist. Wyoming is usually just another state that people have to cross to get from the Midwest to the Coast. People hate Wyoming (a kind of boring state to drive across 300 miles), largely due to the long undulating hills that Interstate-80 runs from the border with Nebraska (another boring state) to Utah (a semi-exciting state to drive). In the middle is a lot of nothingness. I love the empty plains and the lack of crowds but the general consensus is that much of the Western states are filled with nothing but undeveloped land.

I first saw Wyoming in 1991 when a friend and I were traveling the Lower 48 American states. And I truly felt some peace, some piece of 'home', and some piece of me was with the soul of Wyoming. What's to like about it? Why would anyone find Wyoming "their'' favorite state? The slow men out front at their gas stations, sitting on an upturned bucket. Chewing tobacco and moving like a time dilation experiment. Filling gas at their own speed. A few minutes looking for the oil dipstick. No change from a $20. He kept the .40 cents. I LOVE THIS LIFE!

I liked the slowness of it. The tumbleweeds, the Great Snowy Range, the rolling scrub hills, the blinding snow, the rural traffic, the geothermal stuff in Yellowstone Park, the Grand Tetons in their park, and when Old Faithful still spouts off. I like the authentic cowboy 'feel' of the towns and the backroads. With 580,000 people in the 10th largest state, there are places without people. There are ghost towns and old wagon roads, Devil's Tower National Monument, and Bighorn National Forest. The pace in Wyoming is slow. Procrastination takes on a new meaning in Wyoming. It means "when I get around to it".

My girlfriend and I had quit our jobs in Canada and decided to find illegal work in Laramie, Wyoming, simply because of the Country song "Looking For The Lights Of Laramie."

When we arrived at a motel in the morning, I needed to get my gas tank plugged, there was a small hole in it and the car was leaking lots of gas. The first place I went to was Jerry Coca's Conoco Gas Station, where he offered me a job. $4/hr for 10 hours a day. I agreed. I was putting in shocks, new brake pads, or pumping gas and checking the oil. I was thrilled to be working under the radar! (If this job was the only job I could get in Vancouver, I'd be suicidal - but in Wyoming? It was a treat... I had earned someone's trust).

"Old Blue" was a black 1980s Dodge RAM pickup with a blue door. I would drive Old Blue to get parts or go shovel someone's driveway. "Big Red" was another Dodge RAM, red, with a snowplow on the front. Jerry and Joseph, his assistant, fixed my car, and I worked off the bill. $40/day wasn't much, and my girlfriend had since decided against working illegally, fearful of being caught and sent home, unable to return. She was pathetic; this was our dream! I was living mine!

Wyoming is largely barren with striking mountain ranges, buttes, and plateaus. There's usually fifty to a hundred miles between towns. It's scarcely populated. Cheyenne, the capital, looks like a trailer park after a tornado but Laramie had some of the old West's charm. It had the railroad tracks splitting the town, my boss lived on the 'other side of the tracks' in the WWII-crafted homes, the cheaper lots. Plus you got the trains running there and back day and night. Again, I could appreciate that as pure Wyoming. Typically, this industrial side of the tracks was loud and constant with shuffling trains. People got used to it and hated it, I loved it. But I'm kind of a train guy.

The Grand Tetons (which means Big Tits) as they were named by a homesick Frenchman but they look like they're in a pointy bra Madonna would wear. They're sharp jagged peaks that overlook Jackson Hole, the richest town in the state. It's where gold, art, jewelry, and Harrison Ford live. It's rich.

In the middle is largely nothing but dusty scrub and some rock formations, some mesas, and windblown rocks. The towns don't seem to want visitors, even if you need gas. But each place you go to has some remnants of the Wild West, antlers, guns, and horse tack mainly.

I spent my free mornings taking my 1978 Toyota Corolla out onto an icy driveway and taught myself how to correct my steering on snow and ice. I'd get the car sliding wildly sideways and learn to recover it.

My girlfriend wouldn't work so we moved into a cheaper motel that had all-you-could-eat (tacos) and all-you-could-drink (beer) for $5 on Sundays! Whatta life we lived! I wasn't very useful Monday mornings but the rest of the week I was really happy to have my job.

While my girlfriend watched tv all day long, I was cleaning driveways, giving customers rides home, and getting parts. And I was responsible for the pump and the windshield service. Nola, a quiet little woman who did the cash looked amazed at me, being all foreign and pumping her gas. She liked me, but she seldom spoke to me, I was larger than life for her, Jerry said once. People there don't meet people like me.

One Sunday, as we were playing pool and drinking all the beer we could, six heavy-duty dusty cowboys came inside and sat down at the bar. They spoke amongst themselves. Somehow I got into their conversation, they were drinking that night but heading back to take 300 head of cattle to Denver. It'd take six weeks. I was offered a job. I searched my brain for reasons not to, I mean I really wanted the experience. But my girlfriend couldn't stay if I left and so I turned down another once-in-a lifetime-offers. Women... I could see the attractiveness of not having one. Her excitement and promise to find a restaurant or Walmart to illegally work at went "pop" and was no longer her intention, she was leading us to return home to Vancouver with our semi-failed attempt.

The next morning when I drove to work, those cowboys were cleaning their guns and repacking their bags as I drove off to the Conoco station. I really liked my job, I wasn't a mechanic but I was playing one, maybe an apprentice. Then the dinger would go and I'd fill some Ford F350 with 100 gallons of diesel, wash the windshield if I felt jovial, and take the cash.

I gave the cash to Nola who took the cash and put some in the till and some in her pocket. I didn't say anything. I just let the world roll. Then the phone would ring, amplified through the radio station so you could hear it in the shop, and I'd be sent to NAPA for parts or to some guy's house to get a box. Sometimes I'd take the slow snowy way back to work, circling around my little town of Laramie.

My girlfriend and I shot pool and partied at the two cowboy taverns in town before money became an issue. We partied with the college youth of the town, with nearly half the 25,000 population being students. We bought souvenirs and books, postcards and stickers. Soon, my $40 wasn't keeping us at the cheap motel.

My boss said we could move in with him. I thought "Yee-ha!" while my girlfriend had a bad feeling - when she saw the 50+ guns that surrounded our room. Jerry moved them into a drawer but they were still poking out. I felt totally safe, my girlfriend wanted out, out of Jerry's, out of Laramie, out of Wyoming.

Well, I worked until the debts were mounting and we left Wyoming, taking that boring I-80 to Salt lake then heading north through Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and finally home. We both got jobs... as regular people do, she got a receptionist's job in Vancouver but I quit and wandered off to the former Soviet republic of Estonia.

To this day I regret not taking those cowboys up on their offer. Wyoming would have opened her backcountry to me and whatever jobs I was in charge of, learn the tricks of the trade while they showed me the ropes... I really regret not having sent my girlfriend home on a Greyhound and taken the cowboys up on their offer. I'd have earned a hat and a strong ass, and I'd have done "a ride" and gotten into harmonica's, campfire meals, and standing watch.

Wyoming is a personal choice for a favorite state, it may be odd but I think I've outlined reasons most people will connect with. And if you get the chance to while away the 300 miles to cross the state, see it with a perspective, interpret the state as a time capsule to the past, it's one of the vanishing places where you can still feel a six-shooter in your back. Thanks to the U.S. Constitution, every state has guns but it takes a special state to keep up the "old school" reputation.

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