I don’t wear my cowboy hats much anymore. I have two, both bought cheap at Wal-Mart: a gray wool felt for winter and a light yellow straw for summer. Maybe I don’t wear them around town because fewer people seem to favor them. Lately, Cody, Wyo., sports a new fashion statement: those canvas, earth-tone wide-billed caps. I have a couple myself, and find that I use more sunscreen on the back of my neck and ears nowadays.
It’s not that the dominant cowboy culture is abandoning Cody. But there seems to be a change in the air; a distinct feeling that — after more than a century — the prevailing buckaroo zeitgeist is hanging up its spurs. Cody has been discovered by the cap folks, and the hat folks have competition.
"I just hope we don’t get Bozemanized," said a friend. "After all, I’m just getting used to the rednecks."
The Rocky Mountain West has seen a 119 percent growth rate in the last three decades. According to studies, 80 percent of newcomers regularly practice at least one outdoor activity, whether it’s hiking, mountain biking, skiing, fly fishing, ice and rock climbing, kayaking and river rafting. I’m an avid day-hiker myself, and belong to a local hiking club, High Country Hikers. We haunt nearby parts of the Shoshone National Forest and Yellowstone National Park on weekends. Anyway, I’ve been bumping into the cap folks a lot lately.
I was in a coffee shop recently, when a young mom with two small kids in tow approached the counter and announced to the smiling woman proprietor: "We just moved here and friends told me to stop in because you have such great coffee." Later that same day I was in the public library, when I overheard a couple trying to get a library card. The librarian patiently explained that they needed some sort of proof of residence to get a card, and they had none.
"Oh, I know," said the woman to the librarian, and then turning to her husband, said: "Honey, go out to the car and get the closing papers for the house." "That’ll work," said the librarian.
A few days later, I struck up a conversation with a geriatric biker and his wife at the laundromat. They were sun-bronzed and had fading tattoos, were dressed in Harley black, and had gray hair (his long and in a ponytail). They told me that they were from Florida. Eyeing the big bike parked outside, I asked them if they where enjoying their Western road trip. The woman’s eyes smiled through her sunglasses as she carefully folded a small load of laundry into a backpack. "Oh, we moved up here last month," she said. "We got tired of the damn hurricanes." She nodded to her husband: "He rode the bike and I drove the U-Haul. But I think we’ll get a truck for next winter." Motorcyclists don’t really count as cap people, but you get the idea.
While standing on a corner and waiting to cross the street at a busy Cody intersection last summer, I noticed that most of the passing vehicles sported blue-and-white Wyoming plates with our signature cowboy and bucking bronc logo. I wondered if that cowboy would someday be replaced by a mountain biker. Summer traffic in town is always heavy thanks to the tourists, but this past year in addition to our visitors, it was heavy due to all those new Wyoming tags. And those many Subarus and Minivans and SUVs were hauling a lot of aquatic gear: kayaks, rafts, drift boats and canoes, not to mention trailers laden with all manner of luxury watercraft. The nearby Buffalo Bill Reservoir and the two forks of the Shoshone River offer the cap folks a variety of maritime experiences. It sometimes seems that there are as many boats in arid, landlocked Cody on a summer weekend as are found in Sausalito or San Diego.
"I kind of like it," said my friend. "It reminds me of growing up in Newport Beach. In fact, when I was a kid I had an uncle who worked at the marina and who used to scrape the barnacles off John Wayne’s yacht, the ‘Pilar.’ The Duke once hired him as a deckhand on a cruise to Baja. My uncle had a great time; fished for dorado, drank some tequila. Weird, huh? The West, John Wayne, boats, Cody."
"Yes," I said, humoring my friend, who is given to these flights of fancy. "The times they are a-changing." It was a bright day, and I adjusted the bill of my olive drab cap, the one with the mountain logo and the message "The Wilds of the Rockies."