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Powder River Country
THE MOVIES, THE WARS, AND THE TEAPOT DOME A journey of a hundred miles on a Wyoming interstate turns up the true stories behind the powerful Western myths
April 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 3
They shot him down when he ran out of the blazing hut, and a card was pinned to his blood-soaked vest: “Cattle thieves, beware!” They neglected to destroy the diary in his pocket. Then they continued their interrupted march on Buffalo.
We knew we would have to make inquiries at Kaycee as to how to get to the legendary outlaw hide-out of Hole-in-the-Wall. We stopped at the Invasion Bar, on the two-block main street, where Betty, the bartender, faced a counter lined with drinkers in tractor caps. There was a conference as to the best route into Hole-in-the-Wall. There were apt to be locked gates if we went by way of Burnham. Best to phone George Taylor, they decided, for Hole-in-the-Wall is on his property. I phoned and received directions to Willow Creek Ranch, where Taylor would give me further directions. An appointment was made for the next morning.
Betty informed us that at the Community Center that very night, as part of the Wyoming Centennial, a local group was performing a one-time-only production of an original melodrama, The True Story of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. So at eight o’clock we presented ourselves at an echoing metal barn of an auditorium, where, among basketball standards, a stage, a curtain, and sets had been erected. The hall was already crowded, but metal folding chairs were cheerfully emptied for us. The Community Center continued to fill and overfill, and beautiful, lanky local children sat on the floor before the stage. The lights went down.
There was no doubt that the cast was amateur, delivering the dialogue with awkward pauses between the lines and with frequent anguished appeals to the prompter stationed behind the curtain. But the audience was enthusiastic, for the plot was cleverly devised. Six women who hoped to marry the confirmed bachelors of old-time Kaycee were running out of money and threatened with having to go to work for Belle, the local madam. The women perpetrated a bank robbery and rustling foray, and after their marriages, when a Pinkerton man came to investigate, their husbands were faced with covering up their crimes. They invented a gang, operating out of a place called Hole-in-the-Wall, upon which everything was to be blamed. Someone suggested that a fictional outlaw be called the Sundance Kid, named for a town in the northeastern part of the state. Another argued that that was a sissy moniker. What about a tough name like Butch—say, Butch Cassidy?
State 196, a one-time cow trail in the hills, is Buffalo’s main street.
The final applause, in which we enthusiastically joined, for the heroic cast, for the playwright, Nancy Schiffer, and for Mrs. Joe Harlan, who had written the music, rattled the basketball backboards.
The real Hole-in-the-Wall was an outlaw hide-out for half a century, home to the Hole-in-the Wall Gang and the Wild Bunch. It was protected by the Red Wall, a sandstone scarp facing west and running north and south for thirty-five miles, with only the one easy western entrance, which a few armed men could defend. Hole-in-the-Wall was an important station on the Outlaw Trail, which led from Canada to Mexico, and the roost of such redoubtable figures as Flat Nose George Curry, Harvey Logan, Ben Kilpatrick (“the Tall Texan”), and, of course, Butch Cassidy and Sundance. In Sam Peckinpah’s film The Wild Bunch, it was also the home base of the doomed and exhausted band that fled south to a violent apotheosis in the Mexican Revolution.
It is twenty-eight miles from the 3T freeway exit south of Kaycee over the Red Wall to Willow Creek Ranch. From there we were directed north along the wall, eight or nine miles through six unlocked gates in the gray-green meadows that splashed up against red cliffs. Toward the end I had to shift into four-wheel drive, churning up a rooster tail of red dust that poured over the car like liquid whenever we slowed for a difficult passage. The famous notch in the wall is located opposite some sheep pens. From here Butch and Sundance, fleeing the Union Pacific detectives, collected Etta Place and headed for South America and a violent end in Bolivia or maybe Patagonia. It is possible, however, that Butch slipped home again to live out his life as William T. Phillips in Spokane, Washington. Multiple sepulchers are the hallmark of the authentic hero. Billy the Kid is also rumored to have lived on under another name.
The actual Hole-in-the-Wall does not compare to the vision in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where a clear-running, leafy creek winds back through cliffs to a verdant paradise. It is the task of Hollywood’s location hunters to provide sites more dramatic than the actual. The homesteads in the film Shane were in the shadow of the Tetons near Jackson, rather than near the less spectacular Bighorns, where the real action took place.