Pop quiz: What U.S. state has a population smaller than that of the city of Washington, DC? The answer is John Ur's latest installment of Cinematic Road Trip: Wyoming.
Let me give you a tip about driving through Wyoming. When you have a vehicle loaded up with camping equipment, clothes, and accessories for traveling across the country, it’s probably a good idea to take it easy going up through the Bighorn Mountains between Buffalo and Worland. Though you may be tempted to floor the gas so your car can creep up the mountains at 60 or 70 mph, you’re likely to overheat the transmission and cause the fluid to expand and leak out onto your engine and smoke to come out of your hood.
If this happens to you, especially in the middle of a night without a moon, where there is only endless darkness in each direction, you may have to stop at Ten Sleep. The town got its name from Native American traders who used the number of days walking between trading-post villages as a unit of measurement. There’s only one gas station and if you order pizza at the bar across the street, the bartender will tell you to walk back to the freezer next to the pool table and pick out the frozen pizza that you want her to heat up in the toaster oven.
Fortunately, once you get out of Ten Sleep, Wyoming has a few unique locations that you won't want to miss: the spooky Devils Tower National Monument, Grand Tetons National Park's regal mountains, and the granddaddy of national parks, Yellowstone, with its signature geysers and rainbow-colored hot springs. You may think that you already have an idea of what Wyoming looks like. This is cowboy country. This is the landscape made famous by Brokeback Mountain. But hold on just a moment. Though Brokeback Mountain was set in Wyoming, it was actually shot in southern Alberta, Canada.
So if you want real deal vistas of Wyoming, try Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In this Steven Spielberg film, Richard Dreyfuss plays Roy Neary, an electrical lineman from Indiana who spots a UFO and becomes obsessed. Roy begins making a model of a uniquely-shaped mountain that he has not seen before. Then he recognizes his model on a TV news broadcast: the government and the U.S. Army have faked a report about a train wreck spilling nerve gas in the area, and this mountain is Devils Tower, the rendezvous site for the UFOs. In the real world, Devils Tower is a huge rock monolith that juts out of the plains near the Black Hills Forest (which occupies southwestern South Dakota as well as northeastern Wyoming). In the film, the army faked the report of nerve gas to keep people away from the tower, but Roy and others still reach the site and experience the Third Kind of encounter with extra terrestrials – Contact.
But if UFOs creep you out, you might want to avoid Close Encounters and this location altogether (unless creepiness is your thing) and head straight for the Tetons where the classic western Shane was shot. Aside from some local California shots, much of the film takes place near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and up through the Grand Tetons. Filmsite.org does a wonderful job of describing the opening of the film and the atmosphere there:
“Under the credits in the opening scene set in the late 1880s, a lone, wandering rider (with a pistol visible in his right holster) comes from a trail on the left, descending into a majestic valley rimmed by mountains. After a long-shot view of the valley as the tiny horseman crosses, the camera locates a log cabin frontier homestead in the foreground with cook-smoke curling up from the kitchen. In the background are the majestic Grand Tetons. A young, wide-blue-eyed, eight-year-old, Joey Starrett (Brandon de Wilde) is tracking a deer with his unloaded rifle. Shane (Alan Ladd), a retired, golden-haired, mysterious, fringe-buckskinned gunslinger-knight, rides onto a Wyoming fledgling frontier farm on a chestnut horse with white-stockinged feet.”
Wyoming might be the quintessential Rocky West experience. With its sparse population, you’ll have plenty of room to saddle up and roam.
Also recommended: For other views of Wyoming, check out Rocky IV, where Jackson Hole served as Rocky’s Russian training camp, and A River Runs Through It, which we’ll explore more next week in our CRT: Montana post.
Read more: Check out this list of other films shot in Wyoming. Previous stops on the Cinematic Road Trip: Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
Photos: John Ur