But there are still those little pockets of history that pop up unexpectedly; those moments when we realize this is still the West and some of its traditions are still very much a part of life. Maybe it comes when you find yourself surrounded by sheep or cattle being herded down the road to new pastures. Maybe it's the sight of a sheep wagon on a hilltop.
I usually consider myself pretty in touch with the history and traditions of the West. I've ridden in cattle drives, attended rodeos and faced down a bison. But over Labor Day weekend, I got a chance to see something that caught even me by surprise.
Despite being a regular visitor to Sun Valley for as long as I can remember, I had never seen the Wagon Days parade. I always figured it was one of those cheesy events designed for tourists, like the daily shootout in Jackson Hole, where wide-eyed Easterners and Midwesterners wearing Yellowstone T-shirts squeal as a man in a black hat shoots blanks in the air. All the while, the tourists snap photos to show their friends back home that they experienced the real West.
I found myself perched on the top rail of a fence, watching teams of massive draft horses shake the ground as they passed, towing historic wagons and coaches. But it's the final entry in the parade that everyone really comes for.
You can hear it before you see it: six historic ore wagons being pulled by a team of 20 mules. The sight catches you off guard, as the massive train of tall, narrow wooden wagons rumbles by. Visitors are amazed as the lone driver takes the convoy around a 90-degree corner and up and over a hill, but the shock of history comes when you realize that these wagons were routinely brought down rocky trails, filled full of ore from mountain mines, just more than 100 years ago.
It was a sight some of our grandparents or great-grandparents probably saw. The same people made cross-country journeys via stagecoach.
Thanks to movies and television, we often imagine the old West as a place of romantic ideals, but an up-close look just at the transportation system of the time bursts that bubble. Those times were tough, dirty, dangerous and not all that long ago.
While Sun Valley may be a haven for the wealthy and privileged who wear fur coats more for looks than warmth, if you look close enough, its roots are still there. You find them in the flocks of sheep as they come out of the hills after a summer of alpine grazing. They're in the working cowboy whose boots are a tool of his trade and not a fashion statement.
The Sun Valley celebration is over, but there are still plenty of opportunities to get a little historical flashback—just head toward central Idaho. Ranchers are moving livestock, baling and stacking hay for winter, and wildlife is more active than ever.
If you find your progress halted by a slow-moving herd of cattle, don't lay on the horn as you curse their existence. Instead, slow down and take a moment to put yourself into historical context.