Shortly after I got my first mountain bike, I received a go-ahead for a
travel article about the famed Hole In The Wall where many famous outlaws,
including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, hid out when the law got too hot
on their trails. I figured it would be a great chance to justify my mountain
bike by using it on an assignment. I talked a friend in Colorado Springs into
going along so we loaded our bikes into the van and headed north. We arrived
mid-afternoon at a dot on the map half way between Casper and Buffalo, Wyoming
called Kaycee which turned out to be the phonetic spelling of the KC Ranch.
Actually, it's not a town, just a one-pump store and the ranch headquarters.
Seems that when they wanted to get a post office, they had to change it from KC
to Kaycee because the postal authorities thought people would confuse KC, WY
with KC, MO. We also found there was not only no place to stay, there wasn't
even a place to eat.
When I explained our mission to a guy sitting in a rocker on the porch, he said that The Hole was on BLM land and Tug Taylor had it leased for grazing cattle and we needed to see him. He gave us directions to the Taylor Ranch which was ten or twelve miles away. We bought a few supplies to tide us over and set out on dirt roads which became more questionable the further we went. By the time we reached the ranch, the roads were close to what off-roaders refer to as "Jeepable". I noticed that all the vehicles around the ranch were four wheel drive and stood high enough off the ground for large dogs to walk under.
Three ranch hands were there when we arrived. A guy who had obviously worked around horses and cattle all his life was shoeing a horse while trying to teach the skill to a younger one who showed a total lack of both interest and work ethic. The other guy saw himself as a cross between Tom Mix and Tom Horn and considered anything that couldn't be done from the back of a horse not really cowboy work. He was rather reluctantly repairing a fence. Mr. and Mrs. Taylor were gone to Buffalo but would be back soon. They arrived half an hour later with a pickup load of calf feed, salt blocks and rolls of barbed wire. He said they told him in town that we were here. While Mrs. Taylor headed for the house to start supper, we pitched in to help unload the truck which seemed to impress him considerably. He remarked that most people who came out there stood around with their hands in their pockets and expected to be waited on, "I don't run no damn dude ranch here."
He said it was too late for us to even think about getting to the Hole In The Wall today and we could start first thing in the morning, then he told one of hired hands to keep a couple horses for us to use the next day. When we told him that we intended to ride there on our bicycles, it brought a roar of laughter from his cowboys and "No way you gonna ride no damn bicycle up there," he said. "Only way in there is on horseback or on foot." After a big dinner, the dishes washed, the cats, dogs and a couple dogie calves fed, it was dark and everyone was ready to hit the hay. We rolled our sleeping bags out on a couple empty cots in the bunk house but it turned into a restless night because the young guy talked in his sleep while the older one snored and farted all night.
There's a saying that on a ranch you get up early enough to wake the roosters and the Taylor ranch was no different. We had finished breakfast before the sun came up and Tug drew a crude map to the Hole In The Wall. He indicated the location of a line camp just before we entered the canyon where we could spend the night and find food in a metal locker under a trap door in the floor. Then he told us to be sure to seal everything up to keep the mice out of it. He told us of landmarks we would see along the way, like the spirit head. That was a rock formation on the side of the canyon wall that looked like a stone head and the Indians thought it was some sort of spirit. He also told us where to look for Indian petrographs.
We took little more than sleeping bags as we could stay in the line cabin. Just before we left, Mrs. Taylor handed me a bag containing half a dozen roast beef sandwiches, a couple oranges and half a chocolate cake. I carefully stowed the food in a pannier where it wouldn't get smashed. As we rode away, Tug shouted after us, "If you open a gate, close it. If it's already open, leave it open. If you ain't back by noon tomorrow, someone will come looking for you."
Our route followed a two track path that meandered across the prairie for about ten miles. As we pedaled along, dozens of pronghorn antelope casually grazed only yards away, apparently giving us no concern. However, the moment we stopped and reached for a camera, they turned their white rumps and bolted away. No wonder they call them "Speed Goats". Our route was generally upward toward a rock-capped mesa that rose like the walls of a castle.
We splashed across a small stream a time or two and finally came to the line camp, tucked up against the red wall of the mesa. It was there as a place for cowboys working in that area to stay so they wouldn't need to return to the main ranch each evening. There were three round metal stock tanks not far from the house, kept filled to the brim by a pencil-size stream flowing from a black plastic pipe that emerged from a hidden spring among the tumble of rocks. We filled our water bottles with the fresh, cold water.
The door was held closed by a tapered wooden peg in the hasp. It would be difficult to get any more Spartan than the inside of the cabin. In one corner was a small pot-belly heater with a stack of firewood beside it, a Coleman camp stove sat on the small table and several mismatched plates were stacked upside down to keep them clean. A couple cast iron skillets hung from nails in the wall and half a dozen folding canvas cots were stacked out of the way. Four old wooden chairs completed the furnishings. I stuck my finger in the hole and raised the trapdoor in the middle of the floor. The metal locker under it contained several cans of stew, beans, chili, sardines, Spam and peaches. Glass jars held flour, corn meal, sugar, salt, crackers and rice.
We followed a trail that ran beside the stream flowing down the canyon that disappeared into the mesa. With each turn, the canyon became narrower and often it appeared that it was ending. High on the left side of the canyon the rock spirit face looked down on us. A bit further we came to a rock overhang that protected a number of petrographs, most of which had been defaced by people who came long after the Indians.
The trail ended at a narrow slit in the wall of rock that had it not been for the ankle-deep stream trickling from it, one would never know that it went any further. This was the famous "Hole" where we had to start wading and pushing our bikes. The stream dried up as we passed the spring that supplied it and the climb became much steeper. Soon it took both of us to drag the bikes one at a time as we scrambled over the rocks. We finally emerged on top of a mesa jutting out from Big Horn Mountain. It was perhaps a quarter mile across with a sheer rock escarpment at least two hundred feet high on the three exposed sides and an equal barrier behind it. Scattered out across it were a few dilapidated cabins. We had arrived at the famous outlaw hideout. It was the sort of place where one person could hold off an army with a pistol.
One of the first things I tried to find was the trash dump because what a society throws away tells more about it than what they keep. Other than a few broken bottles and a rusted horse shoe, I found nothing. I concluded that they tossed their offal over the edge of the mesa. Even though there were a half a dozen log cabins, I could find no signs of an outhouse.
I wanted to get some late evening photos so we decided to spend the night on the mesa instead of going back down to the line camp. From our lofty perch, we ate sandwiches Mrs. Taylor made for us while watching purple shadows march across the prairie where you could see riders approaching from at least five miles away. Not that we had any worry of theft, we rolled our bikes inside the better of the cabins, leaned them against opposite walls and rolled out sleeping bags out on the dirt floor. We discussed what it would be like to live up there as darkness pushed away the last traces of daylight and the sky became black as ink. Looking up through the open roof, the stars looked as if we could almost reach up and touch them. Coyotes yelped to one another in the distance as the night sounds lulled us to sleep.
I was deep in REM sleep while my mind generated the sounds of winded horses being run hard. Suddenly something was on top of me, holding me down. I heard breathing but struggle as I might, I could not escape what had me penned down. I grabbed the CatEye headlamp that also served as a flashlight and clicked it on. Inches from my nose was a face wearing a black mask, then it was gone. By that time I was awake enough to realize that the apparition had been a raccoon and my bike was laying on top of me. Evidently the coon had smelled food in my pannier and knocked my bike over trying to get at it. I knew he would be back so I tossed a piece of parachute cord over one of the rafters and hauled the pannier as high as I could. The rest of the night was restless with every sound waking us up.
When I lowered the pannier it was unzipped and empty. They say that given half an hour, a coon can hot wire a Volkswagen so I suppose simply hanging something just makes getting at it more interesting. I'm sure it simply scampered up the rafter, hauled the pannier up and opened the zipper. We made our way back to the line camp where breakfast was Vienna sausage, crackers and a can of peaches.
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