Fourth of July in a small Western town is a unique slice of Americana. From the barbecue at City Part, to the Indian dancing and parade down Main Street, to the rodeo and dance at the Elks Club, the celebrations represent a way of life that is gradually fading under the pressures of energy and economic development.
Lander represents a particularly fine example of these Western traditions. Located 100 miles south of the Tetons, this town of 9,000 people is in the heartland of Western history. The grave of Sacajawea, the Indian guide of Lewis and Clark, is here. Split Rock, an important landmark on the Oregon Trail, stands nearby. The town and the adjacent Wind River Mountains were a favorite haunt of Butch Cassidy, the famous outlaw. Lander also is the birthplace of professional rodeo.
Wyoming is one of the least-populated states. Only Alaska has a smaller population, and there is speculation that the 1980 census will show Alaska outstripping Wyoming's roughly 350,000 people.
All this has made it possible for the people of Wyoming to retain much of the frontier lifestyle. But it also makes them more vulnerable to the forces of change.
"Wyoming is both a state and a state of mind; it conjures up a set of values and a way of life that have all but disappeared for most Americans. Only in recent years have boom-and-bust growth, environmental issues, and other new concerns begun to thrust Wyoming, reluctantly but unavoidably into a new era," writes Janet Beardsley in the journal of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Once the point where the rails stopped and the cattle trails began, Lander retains a great deal of frontier tradition. But a number of neighboring communities -- especially Rock Springs, Jeffrey City, and Evanston -- have been transformed by energy development.
Thus the tension of change lay just under the surface during Lander's Fourth of July celebrations.
"There aren't very many of use left," sighed one Wyoming native. Another chose to express the same sentiment by wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the slogan: "Wyoming Native Endangered Species."
Unlike parades in the East with participants dressed like Revolutionary War Militia, the floats and horseback riders in the Lander parade represented a way of life that many here still follow and believe in. It had a lack of pretention and an informality impossible in the productions of a large city. It was an attempt to create a sense of continuity between the past and future.
"We . . . wish to welcome you to one of the finest Western historical parades. The floats, horseback and individual entries represent the character which was needed to endure the hardships faced by Native American and settler alike. Survival required cooperation, out of which developed many lasting friendships. Wherever people gathered, celebrations and powwows occured, and the bonds grew stronger," began the Pioneer Days program.
Meanwhile, on the flatbed of a semi the local square dance club cut its elaborate figures. On the back of another truck the Cowbelles, women's auxiliary of the Cattlemen's Association, handed out barbecued ribs.
The parade was a time to show off prize horses and fancy tack. Old cars, ranging from a 1931 Rolls Royce to a 1956 Chevrolet, accompanied the war veterans, parade queens, and mounted drill teams down the 10 blocks of Main Street.
As a 1938 vintage fire truck rolled by, the volunteer firemen aboard sprayed spectators with its hose. But at the Chevron station about halfway down the route, some of the spectators prepared a fitting retaliation. They charged the fire engine with buckets of water and drenched the firemen. After that, every fire truck and police car in the parade was treated to a drenching.
At the rodeo -- the nation's oldest paid rodeo, they claim -- local cowboys and cowgirls competed against wranglers from Colorado, Montana, California, and Arizona. For the men: bareback and saddle bronc riding, bull riding, bull dogging, and team steer roping. For the women: barrel riding and racing around three barrels against the clock.
Yet increasingly, the cowboy image is a bittersweet one -- even here. This feeling was aptly caught by Clint Eastwood in his current film, "Bronco Billy." Bronco Billy is a shoe salesman from New Jersey who runs a down-on-its-luck Wild West show but embodies all the cowboy virtues -- he is hard-riding and hard-shooting; he tips his hat to all the ladies; he is super-patriot -- in a world that no longer totally appreciates or understands them.
Today even rodeo, which began as a way for working cowboys to prove their skiils, is becoming a professional sport, like football or baseball, rather than a manifestation of a way of life.
There are only a handful of places like Lander left in the West. And these may not remain much longer.