Denver Detour (June 1- 6)
Murky portraits of dead Europeans add the only sour notes to a charming chorus of necessaries and accessories that invite the buyer to imagine his or her living space reborn in another century. An Empire chaise appointed with the caress of silk; an English desk fortified with dark bronze; a French armoire lavished with the sheen of gold leaf. Any would do the job. Price tags are strung on green ribbons as if they too, are merely decorative.
I disappear behind a Spanish table with iron stretchers, ca. 1700, into a linen-covered Louis XIII armchair. I hide here when I come to town, an interloper in time and class, my blue-jeaned butt cradled by saffron silk, my boots at rest on silver gilt or timeworn walnut.
My friend, who is the custodian of all this, is a busy man. I have been to his house a few times, but not for many years. There is no point to it because it looks just like the store. Some men collect guns or mistresses, but for him it’s a Dutch marquetry cabinet swarming with modest, flat-chested maidens and voluptuous flowers, ca. 1730. I wait for him so that we can go to dinner. I have waited two hours so I stroll the alcoves for the umpteenth time and pledge that I will someday own a chair covered in black moire satin and a pair of lampshades to match. Sequestered with other folky things is a gingerbread mansion designed to confine a squirrel, whose terror was converted to bourgeois amusement as it raced to spin a windmill on the roof. That’s it.
“Dammit. Let’s eat,” I yell to Mr. Stuck-in-Time. He picks up his coat and keys and I catch the dark and shimmering image of my face in a Baroque Italian mirror. Twin cheeky-faced putti on the frame mock my reflection.
Days spent with the eccentric couple float by like episodes on a culinary Masterpiece Theatre: we savor smoked turkey fettuccine, Italian sausage and polenta, tender calamari rings, fresh strawberry shortcake, grilled steaks, cream cheese eggs and chocolate pecan pie.
“If I had plenty of money I’d collect pickup trucks,” I tell my hostess while we snack on hot cornmeal muffins, jalapeno jelly and coffee.
“Oh no,” she protests as if I’m kidding.
“I’d line them up along the road in front of my place like farmers do their machinery.” I can see it all in my head and the trucks mostly look like the ones parked around the motel in Cheyenne. “I’d have to buy a place first,” I realize out loud. “And I’d keep a special truck just to commute from the house to the road, so I could pick out the one I wanted to drive that day.” I’m filled with happiness just imagining it.
“I can’t even stand it when one of those things parks in front of my house,” she says.
I know. It’s a measure of her affection for me that she tolerates my truck and trailer down the street in front of a neighbor’s place. She’s so out of touch, but I keep mum and fantasize about my collection of character-ridden transport. Besides, you can’t talk seriously about these things with a person who won’t modernize the bathroom because she thinks showers are ugly.
Earlier I stopped at my old house and had a laugh. After three years the new owner has given up fighting the weeds. The ailanthus suckers are still being fertilized by drunks and the vine that consumes all is still at it. I don’t feel anything for a life that I remember imperfectly with my mind and with my heart, not at all.
Even the wheelchair folks are mostly white at this annual Denver event billed as a people’s fair. I avoided attending when I lived here, but today I feel compelled to sail the aisles like Odysseus strapped to the mast. “The past was better,” whisper stained glass windows. “Your life is empty – buy a kid,” scold the creative adoption people. “Save your guilty white ass,” admonish pseudo-Indian coyote, elk, and cougar T-shirts, your choice, twelve bucks each.
An irate man hands out Bibles in front of Your Friendly Heretics, Neighborhood Atheists, Freethinkers, Agnostics and Skeptics as an antidote to such silly slogans as, “The only difference between Witchcraft and Christianity is who you blame your fun on.” I scribble behind a man and woman who sit quietly on folding chairs and monitor the atheists. The woman turns to frown at me several times then stands up, retrieves a pamphlet from the heretics and thrusts it at me.
“Here,” she snaps. “You don’t have to write it all down.”
Three Adult Survivors of Extreme Abuse look lost and humiliated, sandwiched between furry animal puppets and pencils and pens made from sticks. I feel equally sorry for Rocky Mountain Skeptics for a Rational Alternative to Pseudoscience, two lonely guys who stand beneath a yellow canopy. Maybe they should say “high” to the tie-dyed humans at The Hemp Initiative, or visit Mensa, where one can take a humiliating brain test in public. A guy walking by trips over the first hurdle when he asks his wife, “What the hell is Mensa?”
Shining Light Peace Ankle Bells jingle in the hand of an elderly man who cools himself with a Congresswoman Pat Schroeder fan. Uh-oh. A Hare Krishna devotee fingers leaflets next to a very, very strange diorama; little clay figures of a hideously unhappy human being are born, grow up and die in a fish tank.
I wonder… What has prompted so many people give up the practice of rational thinking, as if sentiment is a substitute for moral definition, as if the incorrect inferences of superstition will ever help us understand anything? The universe is ever-silent, so I answer myself: You cannot run from where you have never been.
Next: Prairie Dog Rescue.
Rescue me. I escape to the music venue where a Rockabilly band plays to the people, most of whom stand or sit on the concrete steps of a classically-styled amphitheater. Assorted youths, a mom cum baby, a biker in a fool’s hat, a semi-naked male in a flaming orange/camouflage hunting vest and a woman on roller skates give their bodies over to various rythyms, none of which is being played by the musicians. A stoic minority of black and Chicano teenagers uniformly dressed in Charlie Brown shorts, Rocky Marciano dancing shoes, team T-shirts and caps looks on.
My destination is a there-but-for-one-paycheck-go-I cafe where any soul with seventy-five cents can sip coffee for as long as he or she likes. I go to be reminded that the poverty line is just behind my butt and because a friend who volunteered to water my hosts’ plants while they were away broke the spare key in their front door lock, and they’re not home now. The notion of procuring a replacement key has drifted into their married minds, but so far action eludes them.
The café owners have added twenty-five cent pay TVs at a few of the tables, otherwise, the place is about the same as when I started eating here in 1974. A woman, fiftyish and motherly, is having a glass of rose for breakfast in a booth along the front wall. She props her head up with a fist and dozes. She wakes and looks straight at me, or is it at something imaginary that has her attention?
“We stopped given’ out free papers,” the waiter yells at an old man in chinos and a zippered jacket who digs through a stack of leftovers.
“If I don’t find the right one I’m cooked,” he says, ignoring the waiter.
Three black men enter through the big front door and greet the cook and cashier. They sit down to have breakfast with a white man with whom they apparently work. It’s good to hear people laugh together. Even if within their hearts is buried malice that might be inflamed to fury, perhaps the start is simply in being civil, maybe it is, after all, not something natural for humans to get along, but something we learn. Well, it might be true. I scoop beans and chili into a tortilla and ask for more coffee.
I sit in the backseat of my hosts’ crumbling Toyota as we drive up one of the canyons west of Denver into a storm. The driver is prone to sudden, illegal left turns and I’m hoping we don’t have an accident. The woman holds their wind-up Schnauzer in her lap. It whines, pants and screeches until she feeds it from our lunch basket. To think, from the wolf, man made this.
“It’s not arguing, it’s how we communicate,” they tell me when I decline to join the bickering about where to stop for a picnic. I watch the milkshake creek slide by and the hard metamorphic rocks that ring when struck with a hammer. Taffy pulls of sand and mud are nearly intact in some places but have been twisted into intricate webs of light and dark minerals elsewhere. They appear dull today under the clouds, but the schists shine like fish skin on sunny days.
“We should have gone to that other canyon,” she starts in again. “The one we went to last time. This isn’t the same one darling, is it? Darling?” Her husband fidgets like an irritated pigeon and I withdraw much as I did when my parents practiced the same loving intimacies on each other’s nerves. While they survey sections of the creek bank (each spot so far has been rejected on the grounds, chiefly, that the other suggested it), I distract myself with looking at rocks. Marriage: a subtopic of the immense question, Why can’t people live sanely?
I hang my legs out of the car door to feel the tender warmth of the frail afternoon sun; they lunch on the wet, willow-choked bank of the creek. The result of their marital head-butting is that she picked an undesirable spot out of spite. White clouds lurk behind a peak that retains sizable snow patches in the dips that lead to its scree covered summit. The aspen and stream willows are newly leafed; the leaves are small and bitter green and supple beneath the wind. My toes are purple, but the air feels like a gentle river and I’m content, for now, to be cold. The sun loses to the clouds and thunder threatens.
Chapter 4: Snowies-Lander-Cody (June 8 -10)
The truck is on cruise control as we sail through crotch-high wheat and ankle-high corn west of Laramie. I’m waiting for the rubber band to snap, to send me peacefully into this fat, beautiful world. A hawk that is as perfect as an Egyptian sculpture waits on a fence post.
Higher up in the Snowies, the wind has made dog-tail trees of the pines, iris cluster in the green grass and there’s a healthy spring rock crop. Below the west side of the peaks I have a campground all to myself, through which a stream cold enough to freeze anybody’s anything flows through the long grass. A fallen log blocks the stream’s path and causes it to cascade into the meadow; willows, which will later stand on dry ground, shake from the rush of water. Aspen, their new leaves the size of dimes, live with the big pines.
I collect deadfall that is wet from a just-passed storm and get a good fire started by using peanut butter. I have nothing to cook, so I eat PBJ on a bagel. Still hungry, I search the trailer and turn up a can of soup. The fire has burned to billowing fragments and I put the pan in the coals. It rains. I run to clear the table; while my back is turned the fire flames then subsides, leaving the soup fortified with ashes and the pan sticky with resin just like the tin cans we used for tramp cookouts as kids.
At 9 p.m. the sky is quite light even with a heavy cloud cover. I have four candles, two dogs, and a stack of blankets to keep me warm. The old dog is posted about ten feet from the trailer where he listens carefully and raises his nose to catch what’s in the air. Occasionally he gets up and does a little perimeter walk or lopes down to the stream for a drink. I wear sweat pants, a T-shirt and a jacket and I’m tucked into bed. Still, whatever sticks out gets cold. The black dog raises his head when I pet him, but his eyes roll shut and he quickly buries his nose in the crook of my knee.
Eye blue iris erupts from the meadows and lightning cracks the sky. Three black crows crouch on every other fence post. It looks as if the Snowy Range Ambassadors sign by the side of the road refers to them. I wasted the sunny morning sleeping and now the cloud cover has reduced the land to a flat, indifferent scene. I suffer from cramps: a quick visit to the museum in Saratoga will let me fill the dogs’ water bottle and use the restroom.
A little lady in a red vest and trousers corners me. “It’s my job to guide visitors,” she says as she steers me into the archaeology room, a mini version of museums all over the west: atlatls, speer points, pot shards, beads. Any other afternoon I’d love to chat but I’m almost sick to my stomach from the pain. The museum is small and we make it back to the entryway in minutes, but she stops near a stairway that leads to the basement.
“Come on,” she says, “there’s more.”
Oh God, no. My interior parts hurt without respite. The basement is damp, fortunately, because the old woman is anxious to end our visit there. “My arthritis doesn’t like it here,” she says as she massages her knuckles.
I scoot up the stairs, but can’t escape. “You must sign our guestbook,” says another volunteer. She points to the damn thing then asks, “Where’re you from?”
“Just make it Phoenix.” She sticks my stand-in, a red pin, into a map on which the state of Arizona is curiously empty except for me.
My plan was to cross Interstate 80 north of Saratoga and go on to Medicine Bow, but I feel so awful that I turn west to Rawlins instead. A hot shower and a cooked meal may not make a cure, but I’ll feel better, and I can visit the town of Sinclair tomorrow.
At the RV park I have a section to myself, reserved for little trailers like mine. Big rigs, like flights arriving at an airport, taxi over the gravel to numbered spaces to the east. After a long prelude of thunder, lightning, and scattered showers, a full storm commences. I realize that I have never cranked open the front awning on the trailer, but do so now. Dirt, decayed leaves, tree seeds and spider webs that accumulated over the seventeen years the trailer sat unused in my father’s yard, are revealed to the western skies. Inside, I open the curtains and a nice light fills the trailer, but nothing is visible through the filthy windows. I clean the glass: ultrasuede hills south of the interstate make a lovely backdrop for a mini golf course and laundry barn.
The post-storm sun seems brighter than it has all day. Silvery light falls across my table and the curtains are sucked in and out by the wind. I cook two pork chops for dinner, not because I need two, but because that’s the smallest number that comes in a package. I’m left with an iron skillet, a plate, a cup, a knife and fork and last night’s soup pan to wash. This is why I dined on peanut butter and jelly down south. But here, where it’s cold and hot and wet by turns, the carnivore has returned.
The RV park is empty except for two motor homes that are staying over and three stragglers like myself. The sun is hot and high, the horizon treeless.
“Say, you’ve got Wyoming plates. What’s the road like to Casper?” It’s a little man in a powder blue shirt, double knit pants and a yellow golf hat.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m going up that way, but east first, through Medicine Bow and the Shirley Basin.”
“Why?” he asks.
“Don’t like the interstates. Too many trucks.”
“There’s more room to get out of the way on the interstate,” he says.
“The backroads are prettier,” I answer.
“Oh, I got a brother-in-law like you,” he says and writes me off with a wave of his hand.
“Say, what if you break down?” Who is this guy, a spy for my Dad?
“That’s fine for you. All you have to do is do this,” and he mimes a girl pulling up her skirt to flash her leg. He pats the hood of my truck. “Just thought you might know.” He walks to a motor home so big that if he did break down he could start his own town.
“Where are the refinery tours?” I ask a round man in greasy coveralls who wears a silver hard hat ribbed like an acorn squash. He and his partner are the only people I can find at the Sinclair refinery complex.
“Tours?” He looks up at a man who stands by a red tank.
“Aren’t any. Not for years,” the man above says.
A young woman is removing loose paint from the steps of the town hall with a wire brush when I walk up. She offers to show me to the town museum. “This is it,” she says and lets me into a room across the hall from the dark and empty police department.
“Boys to Logan, Utah, to train as mechanics.” Sixteen men dressed in ill-fitting suits, ankle boots, crumpled neckties and a variety of hats sat in rows on a bank of steps to have their photo taken. One held a dog in his lap and another a lamb. On another day, nine more “boys” presented smiles to eternity. They were hatless, had ribbons pinned to their suits and were bound for Camp Lee, Virginia. The faces of the last twelve men to leave the area for the trenches in Europe betrayed strain and their eyes were alight with sadness. One man’s hair was pressed flat along the sides. His face, from the bridge of his nose down was burnt by the sun, his forehead white: a cowboy.
Photos of the Parco Hotel, showplace of downtown Sinclair, show it as it was in the twenties, with a lobby that invited the traveler with cool shelter, broad Mexican tiles and Mission Style leather couches beside a big fireplace. Posters on the walls advertised Saturday night dances. Balconies outside the convent-like rooms must have dripped with flowers and icicles. A glance out the museum windows reveals a For Sale sign on the locked door today.
A drugstore-type display case contains an array of objects presented in the American way, that is, without distinction as to category or hierarchy: spurs, dentures, a cowbell, ration books, a 1944 letter home from a soldier, clamp-on ice skates, a copy of the Constitution and By-Laws of the International Association of Oil Field, Gas Well and Refinery Workers of America 1934, a straight razor, a slide rule, cigarette cases, a razor blade sharpener, a croup lamp for people and animals, a roller skate with wooden wheels, a sheep-branding iron, a .30-30 bullet mold, several pipe cutters and wrenches, a set of pocket billiard balls, a Sinclair Pennant brand glass from a gas pump, a Colt .45 Peacemaker replica, a .22 Winchester, and a Parco Motor Trails highway map, the cover of which illustrates Columbus claiming the sands of Salvador for the queen, who couldn’t be there.
Coincidental to this morning’s conversation at the RV park, I overhear a man whose car is stranded thirty miles away as he talks on the pay phone at The Virginian Hotel in Medicine Bow. A rock poked a hole in the oil filter and the oil leaked out.
“I’m lucky,” he tells a person on the other end who expects him in Denver tonight. “The mechanic here was going to Rawlins today, anyway. He’ll bring an oil filter back with him. Yeah, all I have to do is hitchhike back out there with it and five quarts of oil. Sure, and fix it.”
I smile at the man: “Too bad about your car.”
“It’s fine, it’s gonna be fine. The mechanic will bring the filter and I’ll be on my way,” he insists.
Gary Cooper: The Virginian, 1929. A gazillion movies and TV shows have been made from Owen Wister’s novel, but they mostly stink.
Across the street in the railroad station, the town museum houses the weapons that won the West; enamel pans, wood stoves, egg beaters, butter churns, typewriters, telegraph keys. And one that didn’t. Photographs of a 400-foot-tall wind turbine south of town, which cost four million dollars to build, won’t tell you that the beast broke down and that an engineer who worked on the project bought it for twenty thousand dollars. But the volunteer at the museum will. “That’s four million tax dollars,” she says, pointing at my notebook. “Write that down.”
In the back room I find a jewel in the junk, a galvanized tin object that looks like a mail box with a drawer in the bottom. “It’s a lamb heater invented by Judson Gibbs over in Rock River about 1915,” the volunteer says. She opens a drawer where charcoal was burned then points out the box’s double-walled construction “so the charcoal gas don’t kill the little thing.” A “scare-away” for coyotes that the same man designed looks like a three-foot tall rocket packed solid with sulphur. Firecrackers were inserted wick end first through holes in the cylinder, which ignited in rounds as the sulphur burned. The devices were used locally until the 1940s.
“The noise didn’t bother the sheep. And probably not the coyotes either. But it must have been entertaining all the same,” the volunteer comments.
I point to a log gnawed to a point by a beaver, which hangs by a twisted willow handle. “Oh. That’s a beaver basket,” she says. “People made them and sold them along the highway during the depression.”
“Basket? There’s no hole in it. It’s just a log with a handle,” I say. She examines the object like she’s never seen it before. “You’re right. I don’t see a hole. But they called them baskets and sold them, just the same.”
A framed 1926 Cheyenne Frontier Days program cover features photographs of the top cowboys from 1897 to 1925. In addition, the owner of the program penciled in: 1926 Mike Stewart, Casa Grande, Arizona; 1927 Earl Thode, South Dakota; 1928 Sharky Irwin, Cheyenne.
Contrary to the tradition that real cowboys didn’t dress like movie cowboys, many were dressed like movie cowboys. Exceptions were Elton Perry, of LaGrange, Wyoming, who in 1902 wore a thick-braided, conical sombrero and Hugh Clark, with a blunt nose and a straight-across mouth, could be one of today’s young cowboys. The 1901 champ, Otto Plaga from Sybille, Wyoming, and the horse he rode in on, faced away from the camera.
Great blown-out thunderheads rise over the badlands to the north of Medicine Bow. Floods of grape purple spikes and yellow flowers line the road. Thirty-three miles out and an hour to sundown, about a quarter of a mile down the dirt road which heads to the North Platte river, is the car that waits for an oil filter.