Writing Wranglers and Warriors

A Tour to Hole in the Wall

By Neva Bodin

The Hole-in-the-Wall gang, if not already famous, was catapulted into public awareness back in 1969, by a fiction film, based on some fact, about one famous gang that frequented the place in Wyoming known as the hole in the wall: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Paul Newman and Robert Redford were the stars. The gang existed in the late 1800’s.

And, in 1988, Paul Newman opened The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut so that children coping with serious illnesses could have a special hideout where they could simply be kids. http://www.holeinthewallgang.org/Page.aspx?pid=471

In Wyoming, the Red Wall is a bluff of red sandstone connecting southwest Johnson County and Natrona County, approximately fifty miles long, It has one narrowing canyon dividing it. This canyon providing access to a valley of grass that nourished stolen cattle, became known as the “Hole-in-the-Wall.”

I have had the privilege of writing some homesteading stories for a local newspaper and interviewed a couple families who mentioned connections to the gang. In my research, I found out it was not just one gang, but several who lived in that area and used the secluded and hard-to-reach spot to hide from the law. It is a beautiful area.

The ruins of one of the cabins in the valley.

Perhaps there is some “honor among thieves” as, according to Wikipedia, the gangs built cabins, left each other to their own pursuits and managed to co-exist. I wonder how they kept the rustled cattle separate, if land boundaries were an issue, and did they get together for card games?

One rancher in this area, (about 30 miles from the hole-in-the-wall) put a notice in the paper that he was coming to get his cattle. The rustlers put an answering notice in, saying basically, “Come and get ‘em. We’re ready.”

One of the red buttes on the trail to Hole-in-the-Wall that makes up the Red Wall.

My husband and I had the privilege of going on a tour of the area in 2013. We had to have a four-wheel drive vehicle, take our place in a long line of 20+ other vehicles and snake our way, perhaps 11 miles, across a prairie surrounded by sharp-edged red buttes. The prairie also hid sudden deep and narrow arroyos to cross that I was sure our pick-up would be wedged into and not able to get out of again.

Me standing on the wheel of the chuckwagon where we ate our lunch on the tour.

It is a very informative tour, beginning with visiting a spot where events of the Johnson County War happened, and culminating with a picnic beside a chuck wagon, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. However, the small canyon where we ate had a trail coming into it that had been a stagecoach trail that became a county road for a time.

And if you could make it over a treacherous fence, a short walk along another arroyo led to petroglyphs on a rock wall.

To add to the ambience of the tour, Butch Cassidy’s great grand-nephew, Bill Betenson, who wrote the book, “Butch Cassidy My Uncle,” was on the tour and we ate lunch while sitting beside him, on a stump at an old wooden picnic table. It was great. Until it started to rain.

We hurried to our vehicles and began a treacherous, slow crawl across a prairie trail, now wet and slick with Bentonite. Bentonite, a clay formed by the decomposition of volcanic ash, is very slippery and can expand to several times its size. It is used in many products, some being cat litter, drilling mud for oil wells, sealants, and in wine purification. Wyoming is full of it.

Turning a sharp corner on that prairie road on the very slippery soil was not easy. Or coming up out of those narrow arroyos.

There is a deep canyon with a cave where the outlaws stayed nearby also. We have camped near there and hiked down…down…down to the river below and into the cave. Artifacts, like a table, etc, have been removed by sight-seers, so one must use imagination when standing in the cave. Some locals remember the items there.

And then one must use much stamina to get back out of the deep canyon—about a half hour crawl back up an almost vertical side. (You slide part of the way down.)

Beauty, awe at what outlaws accomplished and went through to practice their (dare I say craft?) lawlessness, and my meeting someone who actually supplied them with food because some were family, makes the history of this area, and the era of the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, fascinating to me. Oh, if I only knew all the secrets this dusty, red, brown, tan, green, gray and yellow ground holds. And if Butch and the Kid really died in Bolivia, or came back to Wyoming and died in obscurity.