Landing on a recent short visit to the US, I was greeted with the shocking news of Anthony Bourdain's death.
I'd just been thinking of his sage advice on plane food and questioning why airlines don't offer red wine and cheese platters on flights instead of soggy pasta and shrivelled omelettes. Desperately stabbing at my phone for news while facing frustratingly long queues at LAX, I wondered what the hell I was going to do without his pseudo-presence in my travelling life.
Thus Bourdain was destined to remain in the dark recesses of my mind on this week-long trip to Wyoming, a US state that remained a mystery to me as he'd never covered it in one of his shows.
The closest he'd been was neighbouring Montana, speaking on Parts Unknown of a landscape that generations of "dreamers, despots, adventurers, explorers, crackpots, and heroes fought and died for. It's one of the most beautiful places on Earth. There is no place like it."
But Wyoming comes pretty damn close.
Situated south of Montana and South Dakota, the Cowboy State is the country's 10th largest. With a tiny population of 600,000, it has vast empty spaces, where you could drive for miles without seeing another soul. Where a traffic jam means a herd of bison on the road is holding up cars for hours at a time.
Bourdain instinctively beelined to the unusual or the far-flung places in search of their quirky characters. Yellowstone, Wyoming's biggest tourist attraction and first national park, probably wouldn't have intrigued him as much as the alluring Devil's Tower, a strange volcanic rock formation thrusting from the landscape into the sky in the state's north-east. Similarly to Australia's Uluru, it's as controversial as it is weird – sacred to native Americans, who frown upon its climbers. It's also ingrained in popular culture as the iconic setting of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
He probably would have been drawn to Wyoming's small towns like Sundance, that celebrate the state's romanticised lawless period, where outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Jesse James used to hold up passing stagecoaches. And it still holds on to elements of that lawlessness – riders on Harley Davidsons roar over its verdant green hills with no helmets, which is still legal in a few states of the US. I'm sure he would have loved the mountainous landscapes that thrillingly change over every hilltop – landscapes that inspired writers such as Annie Proulx, who wrote Brokeback Mountain while living on Wyoming's remote plains.
And he would have most certainly spent time in its wild west bars where you can disappear into the abyss in the early evening to be spat back out a lot worse for wear at 2am. Where a bar notoriously once a morgue would have the dead and the not-quite-yet-dead kept on slabs of concrete in the cellar.
I'm sure he would have thrown back a few local whiskies with local punk rockers Teenage Bottlerocket, having a sly stab at the inescapable country music warbling out of speakers across the state, singing about drunk girls "bouncing like a pinball". And he would not have missed the legit speakeasy Mint Bar in Sheridan. The neon-lit beacon has been slinging beers since 1907, hidden behind the facade of a soda shop and cigar company during Prohibition.
He would have loved hotels like the infamously haunted Sheridan Inn, which holds the history of the Wild West within its walls – and literally holds the ashes of a former devoted employee. This is where sharpshooter Annie Oakley used to compete with Wild Bill Hickok and Butch Cassidy shooting hats off people from its wide verandah (Oakley never missed) and later became a party hub to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway, who eventually had to leave fearing A Farewell to Arms would never have been completed.
He would definitely have rallied Wyoming's best chefs to rodeo capital Cody for some rocky mountain oysters and bison burgers at the historic Irma Hotel – simple, straightforward Americana. They may have taken him, against his better judgment, on another wildly unsuccessful fly-fishing expedition for local favourite cutthroat trout.
He probably would have tasted ranch-raised beef steaks at the Prime Rib in the north-western town of Gillette, that come with a side of potato that comes with another side of fries. And maybe he would have washed it down with some mead at Big Lost Meadery and Brewery, where they are madly reintroducing the medieval wine made from honey. I'm sure he would have cured a hangover with an artery-clogging breakfast at old-school diner PO News in Sheridan, that's housed in a century-old cigar shop.
Bourdain was always finding gold in unexpected places that would eventually lead like-minded travellers to beat down doors of no-name restaurants. From seeking out taco stands in a car wash in LA to a tiny little wine and cheese bar hidden in Vienna's sprawling markets, he has forever changed the way we travel.
Sadly, we'll never know if he would have done any of these things. But while we're visiting, we can aspire to do as he would have done, and explore the parts unknown in Wyoming. As he once said, travel is about "the gorgeous feeling of teetering in the unknown".
And at the very least, we can advocate the introduction of wine and cheese platters on board international flights.
United Airlines flies to LAX from Melbourne and Sydney daily. It has connecting flights to Denver, and then to the northern towns of Gillette (for Devil's Tower) and Cody (for Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton). United.com
The writer travelled as a guest of Visit Wyoming, visitwyoming.com