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.