I still recall, rather vividly, driving those last few miles to Cody, en route to my University of Wyoming student teaching assignment. I drove slower, and slower, as if the pace would delay and allay my classroom jitters.
My unlikely trajectory into teaching was due to my indecisiveness. I had no particular interests but words and writing, but shared the worry and objective of many college students in the late 1960s: how to avoid getting drafted and dispatched to Vietnam. So I chose education, along with speech and English.
But there was another reason I felt uneasy on the road: I came from nitty-gritty Rock Springs, a union coal town starkly unlike the conservative, white Cody Country to the north. I grew up with all kinds of kids, sons and daughters of miners and railroaders, a mix of nationalities and races.
As it turned out, student teaching was not as grim as I feared, thanks to the mentoring of icon Wynona Thompson. Upon graduation, the school district even hired me and I spent two years teaching full-time there.
I ponder my Cody memories a half-century-plus later, when national talk is punctuated with, “that’s not who we are.” But exactly who are we? My Cody glimpses offer insight about Wyoming, a solidly conservative state now increasingly dominated by far-right politicians. And there’s a swath of the USA on the same path.
In my first year in 1967, I lived in an apartment, and it was there I heard from neighbors the latest town gossip: The first Black family had moved to Cody! It wasn’t shocking to me, as I had classmates in Rock Springs who were Black.
In 1968, I moved to a rented old house just off Cody’s main drag. And I added a part-time job, playing music for a couple hours nightly and weekends at KODI-AM. The station then also aired daily far-right programs, including the John Birch Society’s 15-minute noon commentary, five minutes from the “peace through strength” American Security Council and station owner Lyle Ellis’ local morning riff.
Wayne Coffey, the program director who hired me, came to KODI from California. He knew music and compiled a station hit parade, even playing, when other stations banned it, Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child,” about Black and white teens dating. But one night, when Wayne ditched the standard sign-off national anthem and substituted Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Ellis hit the roof.
It was also in1968 when former Wyoming Republican U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson performed in blackface at a Cody Rotary Club “minstrel show.” The once-feisty Casper Star-Tribune, where I subsequently worked as state editor and columnist decades later, ran the photo on the front page in 1992, prompted by Simpson’s grilling of Anita Hill during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing, in which he referred to her allegations as “sexual harassment crap.” The picture was taken by Dewey Vanderhoff, a former student of mine and freelance photographer. Simpson, in a statement in 1992 said he had come to realize blackface was “insensitive and offensive.”
It wasn’t me who pushed to publish the photo, but rather my assistant state editor, the late Debra Calling Thunder, who wrote accompanying articles on Lander’s One-Shot Antelope Hunt, where Simpson appeared in red face, dressed as a parody of a Native American woman with unsuccessful hunters. Calling Thunder, a Northern Arapaho, noted the hunt raised questions about how whites treated their tribal neighbors. The annual event was “the only time they want to act as our friends,” a former Shoshone tribal official told her.
I left Cody in 1969 when the school district decided it needed to do its part to support the Vietnam war, and no longer backed teacher deferments. I secured a teaching graduate assistantship at UW, but the draft board rejected my appeal, and at an old draft age of 24, I shockingly found myself at Army boot camp, low-crawling at Ft. Lewis in the shadow of Mt. Rainier.
I didn’t return to Cody until 2000, when I was working on a story (never published) about Wyoming, my interest fueled by negative national publicity in the wake of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay man, outside Laramie.
Cody has a low-wage service economy based primarily on Yellowstone tourism. So I expected local chatter to be about snowmobiles because the National Park Service had announced snow machines would be barred from Yellowstone by 2002.
But when I tuned into KODI’s “Speak Your Piece” program, the word “snowmobile” was never mentioned. Instead, the buzz for two days running was about “foreign workers,” probably Mexicans and Jamaicans, possibly headed to Cody that summer to work in motels and cafes where $5.50-an-hour jobs go begging. The callers worried where “these people” would live, how many would stay in a house, if they took baths, if they would speak English — and if they would leave after the tourist season.
“I wonder if this would be a problem if the workers coming in were fair-skinned and blue-eyed and came up here from Utah … (not) brown-eyed, brown-eyed and brown-skinned,” suggested one caller, at the end of the program. “I doubt it’d be as big a problem,” agreed the radio host.
That caller, I learned later, was former student Vanderhoff.
At the end of 1990s, the U.S. Census Bureau listed the percentage of whites in Park County at 98.8%. It’s remained that way for decades, a “white bread” town, another former student said.
To a certain degree, that’s what brought some retirees and summer-home owners to Park County, then-County Planner Ken Markert told me in 2000. “I’ve heard of people who consider … a place like this that’s ‘all-white,’ and they say, ‘this looks good to me.’” Another motive that drives the Cody Country second-home and retirement market is money: Wyoming residents don’t pay income tax.
At the Cody Chamber of Commerce office, I talked with Paul Hoffman, also the area’s economic development director. I asked what he would like to attract. In “my wildest dreams,” a gun factory that would bring maybe 400 jobs, Hoffman said. “There’s still a fairly good political climate for guns in Wyoming.”
As I left Cody on my 2000 state tour, headed south to my hometown Rock Springs, I spotted a billboard advertising a Wyoming-based taco joint offering a bit of parting irony: “A Whole Lot of Mexican.”
Fast-forward to late 2020, when the harassment of a same-sex couple from Chicago living in a subdivision on the road from Cody to Yellowstone hit the news. “You are not welcome in Cody Country … You pretend to be a man, and you need to leave,” they were reportedly told.
“On one local Facebook group, a man described the couple as “liberal socialist democratic homosexual transvestites from Chicago’ who ‘hate this country,’” NBC News reported. One of the couple told NBC, “We have employees and friends and neighbors who don’t fit the ‘white Caucasian’ profile who have been made to feel uncomfortable in our town in recent months.”
Considering Park County’s demographics, what brought another new transplant — Kayne West, the Black music mogul and shoe entrepreneur — to Cody? Money, and “economic development,” seems to be the answer. His apparel company, Yeezy, in 2019 leased two vacant warehouses built for another failed firm with state funds. By December 2020 with little Yeezy activity, local development officials fretted about a “‘here today, gone tomorrow’ type of relationship” with West, who appears preoccupied with his high-profile divorce from Kim Kardashian.
One other stop I made in 2000 was in Laramie, where, by sheer coincidence, the city council discussed a proposed but watered down “hate crimes” ordinance in the wake of Shepard’s killing. One councilman suggested it was “pandering to the left-wing socialist agenda.”
No surprise. Wyoming remains one of three states without a hate-crimes law. And when Congress in 2009 passed a federal hate-crimes act, the state delegation voted against it.
Those Cody Country values I witnessed back in the late 1960s seem to have spread throughout Wyoming, the state that gave Donald Trump his biggest vote margin in both 2016 and 2020. My once-home Sweetwater County, once Wyoming’s “Democratic stronghold” in Wyoming, has even gone full Trump. “Socialism” fears grow more intense: When Cynthia Lummis ran for Senate in 2020, she talked about “stopping the socialistic agenda,” invoking the “Wyoming way of life.”
The right-tilted, Republican-dominated Legislature frets about voter ID and loosening gun laws but refuses to tax incoming high-rollers like West, figuratively fiddling while coal fizzles.
There remain in Wyoming nice people who support gay rights, racial and female equality and voting rights. Indeed, many Cody neighbors actively supported the Wapiti couple in 2020.
But It’s been 20-plus years since I moved from Wyoming, joining many younger folks who voted with their feet. Similarly, isolation, lack of opportunity and intolerance fueled my departure. And with Biden-Harris elected, a good share of the USA isn’t following the “Wyoming way.”