Continued (June 13-22)
Performance horses need high heels, the ferrier tells me. “The ones that need to break n’ go n’ get in the ground. That’s barrel racers, calf ropers, you know.” My Lander acquaintances keep their horses on a ranch outside town. Her paint threw a shoe, so we’re up here in the cool sunshine watching the man make a good job of it.
“This angle should match the shoulder angle,” he says as he uses a brass tool to measure the slant of the hoof as it meets the ground, then draws a line with his hand down and forward across the shoulder of the horse. He trims and files the hoof then removes translucent, squeezable material from the underside. “That’s the frog,” he says. “Damage that and the horse is in trouble.”
“Why?” I ask.
“When the horse steps, it pushes the frog up and the pressure pumps blood out of the leg. If a horse stands in a stall too long it can get thrush. The frog shrivels up and it loses circulation.”
“Then what?” I ask.
“Well, you soak the foot in Chlorox, caulk the shriveled area with silicone to make an artificial frog and put a pad on the bottom to protect it. It’ll come back fine.”
“Ho son,” the ferrier says as he starts on the other horse, which balks at having it’s hind leg pulled up at what looks to be an undignified, if not uncomfortable angle.
I decide, for some reason, to get a mule someday. “Mules, the pickup trucks of critters.”
“Say what?” he says.
A crowd of people mill around long rows of picnic tables under the cottonwood trees at a park in Lander. A silent auction for twenty-five pounds of buffalo meat has been announced. Other than that, there are hot dogs, Cokes, root beer, cold cans of Bud and ice cream to eat. Costumes worn by some of the mountain men participants are pretty half-baked, too.
The silent auction is followed by an out-loud auction which commences with an offering of stones painted to look like owls. I wander away. One of the mountain men, whose teepee is in camp set aside across the stream, works for the town newspaper. He’s amiable, talkative about anything of interest to him and bald as an eagle under his fox pelt cap. He made his deerskin shirt and leggings himself and his feet are tucked into beaded moccasins. He smokes an “all natural mix” in his antler pipe, which smells nice. Tobacco is considered unnatural, he tells me.
A section of cottonwood tree has been set up so that the face, which has been painted with target circles, is about three feet off the ground. Men, boys and a couple of women throw hatchets at a three by five card held in place by thumb tacks. As the game of tomahawks or just ‘hawks’ proceeds, it’s easy to forget the lawn chairs, the aluminum table covered by a cheap blanket, the mix of costumes and street wear and the lack of skilled contestants, because everyone is having great fun. Three members of a fractional Indian family hurl insults in English, Spanish and Shoshoni at the throwers, hitting their marks because they know them well. One man, who has a harelip, wears a Tom Mix hat, a beaded vest and pretty, blue-beaded moccasins, finds the concentration to ignore their jibes. He throws insults back at the trio in a high, whining voice then splits the card in three places, three times. He looks pleased that he’s won.
Two men dressed as cowboys display the clean angular features that belonged to men of the Old West, at least in illustrations. The younger is blessed with smooth, perpetually blushed cheeks, the elder with leather worn skin deeply creased at the corners of his eyes; his mustache is like a palomino’s mane. They stand with arms crossed and look along their straight noses at the fractional Indians who, since the hawk game has ceased, act out, step by cult joke, the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
“The only part of my white heritage I acknowledge is the Scotch and Irish,” the young man says. His face is wide and flat with a pointed nose and chin, like a badger’s, with amber eyes like the black dog’s. Two Japanese swords stuck through his belt, a tobacco bag, powder horn, and ball bag hang from it, make it difficult for him to sit in a chair.
“The Celts? Why not the Welsh?” I ask.
“Oh, they’re farther away,” he says vaguely.
“OK,” I say. “Why the Scots?”
“It’s the kilt then,” he says with a burr.
“So, who was the Indian in the family?” I ask.
“Me mother’s one-eighth you know,” he claims, now speaking as an Irishman. “That makes me one-sixteenth.” When he sees the look on my face he insists, “Indianin’ is a way of life – and I live it.” He chomps on his cheeseburger, dips it in the ketchup and mustard that cover his french fries, and chomps again.
“And your father?
“The bastard’s in South Dakota,” he says sounding now like any kid. “A short guy, you know the kind. He pushed me to go out for sports in high school when I didn’t want to. Wrestling, track, football,” he pauses, “basketball.” He’s short like his father, but his chest is wide and his shoulders slope like a wrestler’s. His thick arms end in thick hands. I’d say he’s eighteen or twenty, but at first I thought he was older because he has a gut and tries hard to please people.
“Is it just swords?” I ask. “Or do you like other weapons?”
“I love airplanes and guns and knives and tanks, WW II stuff, but swords the best.”
“I see. Indian stuff.”
He frowns. “Stop it.”
Monumental blocks of sandstone that rest in the bed of the Wind River are seemingly supported by the fragile water. On the opposite bank, embedded in the shale debris which lies at the bottom of a steep skirt of grass, far below the thick beds from where it has fallen, is a single boulder as big as the proverbial motorhome.
The dogs and I descend to a section where a sandbar divides the river’s flow into two glassy sheets. The banks are tangled with bushes and grasses which have gone to seed and with tiny bluebells that grow between rocks. The black dog wades into the slowly moving green water then paddles upstream as he is drawn out into faster, deeper currents. He climbs out, returns downstream and repeats the exercise three times before looking for another alcove to test. I’m supposed to meet my Lander acquaintances at a horse sale above Cody, so I call the dogs and we reluctantly climb to the truck.
The highway, courtesy of the canyon, cuts through successive rock sections named Amsden, Tensleep, Phosphoria and Dinwoody by geologists. Like famous people one has only read about, I meet the Who’s Who of Wyoming stratigraphy. Then the Wind River itself, for no good reason, becomes the Bighorn where it emerges from the canyon into the beautiful red rock of the Chugwater formation.
A highway worker drags a device along the shoulder which rips up sagebrush by the roots to expose the tan earth and its scents. A string of anvil-headed clouds forms on the northeast horizon and massive, violet mountains with a dressing of snow peek over the hills ahead. A hawk glides to the Gipsy music that plays on my tape deck. The spicy-sweet perfume of pervasive yellow flowers sweeps through the truck cab, replaced briefly by the smell of gas wells. The town of Metseetse comes and goes and the highway follows a fertile valley between Tensleep mesas. A solitary grave hugs a fence along a field where horses wade yellow-blush fields of grass and sage.
The horse sale is most likely over by the time I reach Cody at 4 p.m. so I turn west toward Yellowstone instead. On both sides of the valley where I camp, and on to the west, the mountains have flat tops. Snow, which clings to ledges and less-steep slopes, reveals the layered structure of the Absaroka volcanics that form them. A storm rumbles to the north and black clouds expand toward us over the feedlot-brown cliffs, the sky becoming so dark that the mountain face disappears. Thunder echos down the valley. The black dog raises his ears, stares at the sky and is distracted by a fly.
For two hours I disappear to the other world, to the place where the heart sleeps. I return to the sounds of the trailer breathing and laughter, which I attribute at first to the old dog who wanders somewhere nearby. I wake, roll over and doze. The black dog presses my shoulders with his back and we breathe as one.
Outside, the blustery blue world I left is quiet and the sun is golden hot. Two girls wash their hair at a water pump near the concrete outhouses then rinse their arms and legs in the gush of cold water. One stands straight as a statue, her arm raised and curved behind her head, and shaves an armpit. I put on make-up in the rearview mirror and go to town.
It’s Father’s Day and my dad is far away. I’m in downtown Cody and as hungry as a hog, so I enter the Irma, formerly Buffalo Bill’s hotel. The sign outside is Art Deco but the dining room is wide and warm and Edwardian. On a richly carved, cherry wood back bar doing service as a food counter, a serene buffalo head stares from the apex of a double scroll. Big, gilt-framed paintings hang high above creaky booths, eclipsing chicory blue wallpaper dizzy with pink flowers.
I’m so hungry that even if there was someone with me I couldn’t talk to them. As it is, the dark room and tiny nightlight in my booth tempt me to doze. Through the front windows I can see a sliver of the buildings across the street, one of which is constructed from the beautiful Chugwater sandstone.
A German tourist translates the menu for two companions.
“Are you folks ready?” the waitress asks. A bit of discussion in German ensues and the man with English skills orders, “The corn beef and sauerkraut sandwiches.”
“No, no, turkey,” the other man says and madam waves that she is undecided. She’ll have to decide without me. I’m gone.
“When did you start running?” He was handsome with his black hat pulled low on his forehead, his Spanish nose bent a little and curls that edged his face. Startled, I answered that I’d been traveling since March. I noticed that his blue shirt was gathered into jeans that fit like a younger man’s and that his black vest stretched over well-set shoulders.
“Hah!” he mocked as he slid an arm around my shoulders. “You gonna stand there and look good, or help us?” I watched his gunslinging partner loaded saddles, bits, bridles, spurs and cowboy miscellany into a thoroughly creased, white pickup carrying New Mexico plates.
“Stand here,” I said.
He removed his hat and rubbed his hair, which was not dense black, but dusty, and perhaps thinning. He handed me a silver spider. “Keep this,” he said. I pinned it on a pocket flap.
“He’s a con man,” someone said. A man with a round woeful face, patchy pink cheeks, and pretty gray eyes, responsible for the show and sale of Western relics that had just ended, seemed to think I’d never met the type before. He was being nice, so I said something benign and smiled. He too wore a black hat but was shorter and bowlegged. I decided that he was more interesting from the back than the front as I watched him walk away.
The insistent beauty of Wyoming waits as my mind looks at other things, at questions that cannot be answered by the rush of the river, by Venus high in the western sky, or the midsummer twilight. I think about all the country between me and Arizona tonight, about my friends who are mostly secure, well-fed and preoccupied. And about myself, safely, if temporarily, outside it all. My memories are constellations of light, tastes in the dark, smells of dog and plant both wet and dry, clouds of experience in no order, discontinuous. Tears stick to my face. I wipe one away and another comes. I let go of what I can’t sustain, let memory empty itself to make room for the new. The black dog barks sharply. I try to follow his senses with my own, but see nothing. High above us, the Big Dipper floats with handle high, ready to pour starlight on us as we sleep.
Crows breakfast on last night’s road kill. I stop at a simple cafe where a mix of tourists and working people read newspapers, feed kids and begin the week.
“How many minutes in an hour?” a dad asks his boy, who kicks his leg back and forth, rubs under his chin with his hand and shifts his eyes to look at a wall clock.
“Fifteen,” he concludes. “Can I have a watch?”
“Maybe for Christmas,” his mom says.
“I want to tell time now,” he insists.
“You’ll get it soon enough,” his dad says softly. “C’mon now, your waffles are here.”
“Can I do the syrup myself?” the boy asks.
“I’ll do it.”
“Are you writing a song or the Gettysburg Address?” a man who wears a champagne color toupe, hush puppies and a shirt with his name on it, asks me.
“It’s a secret,” I tell him. He goes back to reading a Montana newspaper.
A boy who dines with his mom and three other kids finishes his plate and excuses himself to go outside. He comes back and says, “There’s a dog out there.”
“My dog,” I announce. Six kids follow me out and watch as I open the tailgate and shoo the black dog in. Why can’t I remember to close the topper windows?
North of Cody, through an oil field and beyond a refinery, is a trailer home. Four rough pine guest cabins, with green shingle roofs that overhang to form porches, line a ridge behind it. A sheep wagon, a rusty horse trailer, a jeep and a pickup truck have strayed across the hillside and stuck there. There’s a horse and a mule in the corral and a fat brown and white dog on the front porch, where a cowboy singer plays requests for guests who sit in white plastic porch chairs that are screwed down to the deck.
“Too many people was fallin’ off,” someone says as I try to pull up a chair.
“You could build a rail,” I say.
“This here song is about an artist with no canvas who used a cow’s back,” the giant-hatted singer, who also wrote the song, says.
Being ignorant of ranch work I have to say, “I don’t get it.”
“A thief used a runnun’ ‘arn to draw a brand on a cow,” someone says.
“What’s a runnun’ arn?” I want to know.
“Mostly they used a hot cinch ring,” (a circular piece of metal from a saddle that allows one to set the correct snugness around the horse’s chest) a gray-blond man in a tall hat who sits next to me says. “Thieves liked it because they could slip it in a boot.”
“Yip-e-ti-yi-yay, ti-yi-yippy-yippy-yay,” busts from the singer. His wife, who sits in a turquoise naugahyde chair under the trailer’s porchlight, exhibits a rigid posture and a vacant stare like she’s had one too many – songs that is.
“What’s a dogie, anyway?” I ask when he finishes. A cascade of information pours from the men, which I’m inclined to chew on, but not swallow.
“Well, it’s a motherless calf that got a pot belly and the Spanish called it something that sounded like dogie,” the singer says.
“And ya know the ten gallon hat?” another volunteers. “A ‘gallone’ was a band of gold braid on a Mexican’s hat so ten ‘gallones’ was a fancy hat. Someone just told me that here the other day.”
Their talk removes to a gang of new acquaintances who invited themselves to stay for the weekend, one of whom had the personality of a “soil sample,” and whose wife had a face “like a bouquet of elbows.”
“Hey, didja hear how Custer sold his Crow scouts on goin’ with him?” The grey-blond man waves his hand toward the horizon and answers himself, “When we wipe out this village all these horses will be yers.” Everybody thinks this is pretty funny and the group, enlarged by arrivees from town, starts on Montana jokes such as, the three R’s: Readin’, Writin’ and the Road to Wyoming. When sheep, icon of the lonesome (Montana) cowboy appear, I slip off for a much-appreciated shower and return to the deck a grateful traveler.
The lights of Cody look like they emanate from a toy town. Enormous clouds, like those in romantic paintings from an earlier time, pile pink and dreamy above us. In the dim light the people take on the personality of their voices, their shapes are like quiet figures in paintings.
“It’s kinda fun,” he says, when all but three of us have gone to bed, “being an unwed father at forty-seven.” The voices have changed, the laughter has stopped. The darkness in hearts is revealed under the hats, the boots, the talk of trades and money, the jokes.
“My boy committed suicide. He was only seventeen. Now this baby boy comes along. She doesn’t want me to have anything to do with him. ‘My biological clock was ticking and I wanted a kid’ she said. I went over there anyway after she brought him home from the hospital and when I saw him I decided that I’m gonna be his dad no matter what she says. I didn’t do so good the first time.”
A million stars blaze over our heads, scattered to distances we cannot imagine. We journey even greater distances in our minds, as if suspended fin time.