Susan Dalgety: Real America looks nothing like Wyoming or South Dakota

This cowboy country, the home of America's most enduring legends, is no longer America's heartland. It is a place apart, where hundreds of bikers visit, only white people live, where Native Americans are confined to reservations and African Americans rarely venture
This cowboy country, the home of America's most enduring legends, is no longer America's heartland. It is a place apart, where hundreds of bikers visit, only white people live, where Native Americans are confined to reservations and African Americans rarely venture
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There are nearly three times as many cows in Wyoming as there are people.

The cowboy state is America’s least populated, with just over half a million people scattered across its rolling plains, and living in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains.

It is the America of my childhood. Black-clad cowboys riding into town, gun-slinging sheriffs, good-time gals kicking up their heels, and in the distance, the constant threat of Sioux warriors.

It is Alan Ladd in Shane. Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. James Drury in The Virginian.

“Look, there is a bullet hole here, and one here,” laughs the young woman behind the bar in the Occidental Hotel, in downtown Buffalo.

“And there were 19 in the ceiling,” she says, pointing to the beautifully restored embossed metal roof.

We all look up, imagining for a moment that Buffalo Bill Cody was going to saunter through the swing doors, as he had in its early days.

The Occidental Hotel is a living museum. Rescued from a condemned order, it is in almost exactly the same, perfect, condition it was when the Hole in the Wall Gang and Calamity Jane stayed over. Except now the saloon sells Bud Light instead of frontier whiskey.

Buffalo, a welcoming town full of antique stores and independent coffee shops, had a brutal birth, as did the rest of Wyoming.

Covered wagons, pulled by sturdy oxen, brought immigrants from across Northern Europe to the wild west, to build a new life on its endless pastures.

It took a certain reckless courage to set up a homestead in the middle of nowhere, to raise a few cattle or sheep, to grow some crops, in this strange, often harsh, terrain, thousands of miles from home.

Many lives were lost as the white settlers fought with the Lakota tribes for ownership of this promised land.

Even when the Indian wars ended, the bloodshed continued as homesteaders were forced to defend themselves against powerful cattle ranchers, determined to rid the plains of small farmers.

Ella Watson, or Cattle Kate as she became known, was the most famous victim of this clash.

The pioneering young Scot, whose father came from Lanarkshire, was accused of rustling cattle, and in 1889, she and her husband Jim were lynched by a murderous mob for their alleged crime.

After her murder, the ranchers used the press to justify the killings. The Cheyenne Daily Leader published lurid and defamatory accounts of “Cattle Kate”, painting her as a prostitute and a cattle rustler. The story was picked up across the country and a terrible legend, based on fake news, was born.

It wasn’t until decades later that the truth slowly emerged. Ella Watson was neither a cattle rustler or a whore, but a strong woman who had stood up for her rights against a powerful elite, and paid a terrible price.

It is hard to imagine the Buffalo Bulletin publishing fake news. The local newspaper has served Buffalo and Johnson County since 1884 and is as much at the heart of the community as it was when it first rolled off the presses 134 years ago.

“This is our office,” said Floyd Whiting, one of four reporters at the paper. “Advertising and billing are over there, us reporters sit here,” he went on, pointing at the remarkably tidy desks, “and the editor is behind here, but he is out at a luncheon.”

“We’re like newspapers everywhere,” he explained. “Our circulation is dropping, because it is mainly older people who buy the print edition. I wish millennials would get the habit too,” he smiled ruefully.

This week’s edition of the Buffalo Bulletin has several articles about the Longmire Days, an annual festival celebrating the hugely successful crime novels of local author Craig Johnson – think Rebus in a Stetson and cowboy boots.

It showcases teachers preparing for the new school year, as well as stories from the local circuit court. Title of ‘Speed Demon of the Week’ goes to Kevin T Kamighetti from neighbouring Montana, who was fined $245 for driving 103mph in an 80mph zone.

Wrapped around a bundle of supermarket and DIY store leaflets – one offering a brand new three-bedroom house for $64,000 – is an extensive guide to the town, county and state’s primary elections, to be held on 21 August.

And it is while reading the biographies of the people standing for county assessor, sheriff and state senator, that the reality of Wyoming, and the neighbouring South Dakota, hit home.

In the last two weeks, as we cantered across plains and badlands in our 21st century covered wagon, we encountered hundreds of bikers, a few Native Americans, and countless people whose families came from Holland, Germany, Norway, Ireland and Scotland. Almost no people of colour.

This cowboy country, the home of America’s most enduring legends, is no longer America’s heartland. It is a place apart, where only white people live, where Native Americans are confined to reservations, and African Americans rarely venture.

People here were proud to vote for Donald Trump in 2016, and believed his promise to ‘Make America Great Again’. The polls suggest that they still support him, despite the ever-increasing vortex of scandal that threatens to engulf his presidency.

But Trump’s vision of America is like the legend of Cattle Kate – fake news.

Today, the real America, where the majority of people live, looks nothing like Wyoming or South Dakota. It is a melting pot of races, from all corners of the earth.

The country’s future will be carved out in Atlanta, in Dallas, in San Jose, by a generation of Americans whose ancestors were slaves or whose families came from Asia, Central America or Africa.

As we were getting ready to leave Buffalo, news broke of Aretha Franklin’s death.

The Queen of Soul, not Calamity Jane, is the face of modern America. As Barack Obama posted on Facebook, she helped define the American experience.

He continued: “In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade – our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect.

“She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.”

And for once Donald Trump did not lie, when he tweeted: “She will be missed!”

She will, Mr President, she will.