Continued (July 4-9)
“What are we parking for?” I ask a man whose orange vest whips about in today’s gale.
“For the South Park Festival. This is where women first got to vote. You should know that,” says the man, whose hat must be glued to his head.
I park the truck tail-in to a snow fence and step into a school bus with cooler-, lawn chair- and child-laden folks. The driver downshifts and we descend a putty colored road to the historic site and debark into a stiff, ever-revolving blow at the end of a street of restored cabins and missing buildings indicated by logs cut flat on one side and carved with: Richard Sherlock’s Bath House 1869, and the like. Existing cabins are constructed of logs bleached to the same color as the pale earth, chinked with sparkling white cement. White sash-hung windows and Victorian panel doors make them even more appealing. I step out of the blazing sun and punishing wind into a former store to find that five tiny and exquisite old ladies have been baking pies all morning. Rhubarb and cherry, rhubarb and strawberry, rhubarb and peach, rhubarb and pineapple…stop, that’s it.
My boot heels make a satisfying sound as I tread the boardwalk that links the various buildings. A little sign in front of a two-story building says that since hotels were often an extension of someone’s house it was proper for a woman to run one, so a Mrs. Sherlock, upon the death of her husband, took over the South Pass Hotel. None of the upstairs rooms had heat, save one, and guests had to share beds. The room I’m inspecting is just big enough for a three-quarter-size iron bed that sags in the middle. The deluxe room down the hall has a woodstove and a closet and a raised block in the middle of the floor that deforms the rug.
It’s a slow descent to the kitchen and dining room because the man ahead of me has difficulty with his spurs on the narrow stairs. He must point his toes out like a duck and balance on his heels: the rowels jangle as they catch one on the other.
Down the street inside a livery stable that has been converted into a theater, a man in a white shirt, black vest and bowler hat plays a jazzy, upbeat, waltzy selection of songs on an electronic keyboard. In a single row along each side wall, separated by a gulf of wood flooring, visitors sit in old-time theater seats. A crowd gathers outside. People actually applaud.
From the boardwalk across the way I count passersby: Mom, dad, four kids. Mom, two kids. Mom, one kid. Mom, dad, two kids. Old guy, solo. Couple, two dogs. Two men, two boys, one videocamera. Two old guys, one old gal. Man, four girls, one dog. Man, three toddlers. Woman in prairie dress, bonnet and hiking boots; walks like a trucker. Man in tight jeans, tight T-shirt and baseball cap. Ditto, add snuff can, rear pocket. Large man, cowboy hat, no butt, jeans falling off. Woman in prairie dress, white apron and authentic lace-up shoes: walks like feet hurt. Man, woman and five children hold hands like paper dolls. One man, one dog, one stick. And – one woman, one notebook, two cameras.
Bad weather held off until the afternoon. Thick clouds join with the wind to add that Wyoming touch to my meal of a lukewarm, bunless hot dog, icy canned beans and sour, sour coleslaw. I anchor my paper plate with a camera and bite into the wind.
A stone marker in front of the last cabin on the street says that this was the home and office of Esther Hobart Morris who became, in 1870, the first female Justice of the Peace in the world and the co-author of the United States’ first equal suffrage law which passed 10 December 1869, giving Wyoming women the vote. This latter claim has since been discredited, an additional sign notes. They might have added that Esther served nine months as the J.O.P. then quit, stating that the suffragette movement was better left to men, but then everyone would be confused like I am.
A young man says to me, “This isn’t really her house. But her real house has been found and it’s going be moved to this spot.” This house, whoever it belonged to, consists of two rooms with back to back woodstoves, the rear room being the kitchen. The front room is either a parlor with a bed in it or a bedroom with a sofa in it. Take your pick.
No sign says, Seat Yourself, or Please Wait to be Seated, so I seat myself at a table in the window.
“We’re saving that table,” a woman who sits with a man at the next table says.
I migrate to the only other table which is both unoccupied and not a scene of wreckage and try to draw service my way. A man at the cash register looks straight at me, then away. The bus girl spots me (I am waving frantically), charges down the aisle, grabs a wet, filthy rag and launches it toward me. “Thwop!” It lands before me. That does it. I levitate the rag back to its table of origin, which is stacked with half-eaten pancakes and half-full coffee cups, where it hangs on a water glass. No one notices.
I hiss at the man behind the cash register knowing it will do no good then drive to the only other restaurant open for Sunday breakfast.
The motel cafe is cavernous and brown. Sections of wall are covered with harvest wheat burlap textured wallpaper. A plaster fox that shares a perch with three vases of fabric flowers and three jars filled with dried beans stares at the air from the top of a mobile salad bar. The room is crammed with noisy people, but the hostess seats me right away and brings a pot of dreadful, lukewarm coffee. I ask for two pancakes and settle in to wait, thinking how the Ugly American came home and became an interior decorator.
A gray-haired Indian woman dressed in slacks and a blue cardigan seems oddly paired with a tall white woman in culottes and sandals. They discuss the wallpaper.
“Looks like a gunny sack,” the tall one says.
The pancakes are fluffy, plate-sized and layered with walnuts and come with two small packets of syrup. I tell the waitress that I need more. She gathers extra packets from every table in my vicinity and stacks them in front of me like Legos.
“Thanks,” I say.
“I can’t say they’re lying,” the tall woman at the next table says. “But I do think the elder Shoshonis invent alot of what they recall.”
The Indian woman “Uh-huhs” in a way that neither agrees nor disagrees.
“I mean, I’ve interviewed several people who lived on the reservation back then and their stories just don’t agree.”
The Indian woman repeats her noncommital, “Uh-huh,” and thoughtfully chews a piece of cauliflower.
As I lie in the trailer, which is parked outside of Riverton on the site of the 1838 Rendezvous of fur trappers, adventurers, eccentrics and camp followers I decide to contemplate the meaning of it all, since it’s too hot to nap. Was it as weedy and buggy then? Just outside the rail fence that encloses the ninety-some acres set aside to commemorate the skin-clad, party-hearty boys who gathered here are conical piles of gravel stored by the Wyoming Highway Department. While unappealing, they hide the junkyards, parts supply stores, body shops, oil field equipment and other industrial debris between here and downtown.
The countryside bubbles and fries; where is the wind when you need it? The color of the dirt is tan and the cottonwoods are just plain green, as if I cared. The dogs hug the holes they have dug in the dirt and something large, with more than four legs, crawls the front wall. I feel like a traveler stranded at an airport where the planes don’t fly on Sunday so I initiate my stock response to boredom. I take a walk.
The Wind River, which borders the site, is wide and muddy and meanders around gravel bars which are choked with driftwood and brush. The black dog takes a ritual swim then rolls in the khaki sand. He becomes thoroughly coated with it except for rings around his eyes: Devil Dog. We stand where a dry wash joins the river across from a cobble-topped island. The bluff beyond is where the supply train for the rendezvous appeared, a kind of K-Mart-on-the-go for the trappers, who, however, had to wait three days for high water to fall so that the goodies could be brought across.
A handbill posted at the entrance to this year’s 1838 Rendezvous camp says, “Come to the Popoagie on the Wind River. Plenty of Trade Whiskey and White Women.” What delivery system was used to post the original notice across the inner continent is unknown to me, but I’d bet from the number of itchy red welts on my white body that today’s mosquito is literate. I follow a trail mowed through the waist-high grass which covers much of the site. Information on the original attendees, including pictures if available, are posted on pine poles along the way.
“One of four missionary wives who visited the rendezvous in 1838 on their way to Oregon, Myra Fairbanks Eells was shocked at the antics of the trappers and traders.” The two accidental attendees at the party of the century (her husband is pictured also) appear to have been a couple of hatchet-faced, no-fun types. One shouldn’t judge by appearances, I caution myself.
“Sarah White Smith, a twenty-five year-old red head and the youngest of the missionary wives, asked to be sent to Siam,” but she and her husband were drafted to annoy Oregonians instead.
Chris ‘Kit’ Carson, famous resident of Taos, New Mexico, is shown as a balding man in a shiny suit, obviously depicting him later and elsewhere. Jim Beckworth, a negro adopted into the Crow tribe because they thought he was a long lost brother burned black by the sun, dropped by, as well as Jim Baker who “followed Jim Bridger to the end of the shining times in the Rocky Mountains.” How romantic.
Sir William Drummond Stewart cut a dashing figure, as men used to do, but no more. Of course, it helped that he brought Alfred Jacob Miller with him as his personal artist. Lord Drummond was having a high old time hunting in the American West when his brother died and he was yanked home to England to become the reluctant Lord of Murthly Castle.
The American Fur Company, founded by John Jacob Astor in 1808, deserves a commemorative post too, dominating as it did the Missouri River trade after 1822 using “political connections and massive capital to secure a monopoly.”
Joseph Meek, called the Merry Mountain Man (by whom?), moved on to Oregon with Doc Newell in 1840. He reportedly “enjoyed his time in the mountains with his friends.” Osborn Russell ran away at sixteen from the family farm in Maine. Remarkably, he could read and write and kept a diary between 1834 and 1843. I must read it. And on July 5th, Jim Bridger and his party of one hundred and sixty squaws, kids and friends arrived, bringing a much appreciated supply of buffalo chips and dip.
“C’mon in here. You don’t have to be a stranger,” our Booshway, or rendezvous leader, calls to me. I finish taking pictures of a big fiberglass canoe which is painted to look like it’s made of birchbark.
“What’s that canoe for?” I ask no one in particular as I approach the cook area, a canvas canopy which shelters food supples, iron cookware, a wood burning grill the size of a water trough and four tables.
“It’s been down the river to St. Louis,” an old codger tells me. Rendezvous seems a particularly suitable place for old codgers, I note. The cook offers me the pick of the odds and ends from dinner. I drink a Pepsi and nibble on sour dough fry bread.
“You come by tomorrow and we’ll shoot muskets,” says an intense Californian who lives in long red underwear and deerskin pants that he made himself, frontier style, with long fringe down the leg, tasteful beading and careful cross stitches in the seams. He points out the “concealed fly – in deference to the ladies.” I ponder the possibility that there was once a society that did things in deference to women, but the reality is too remote from my experience.
Back at the trailer I reflect on the many chats I had with buck skinners today, but one sticks in my mind. “Did you know that Indians, before white men came, ranked bead colors in the order of the superiority of the races? That’s red, white, yellow then black,” he said touching four fingers in succession as a mnemonic device. I stared at his cap made from a skunk skin, and wondered at the products of the human mind.
Hoping to avoid deeper issues I asserted, “Indians didn’t have beads before white trade.”
“Don’t matter. How’d they know there was white people before they’d ever seen one?”
This was going to be a battle of the giga bigots, so I jumped right in with, “Let me guess…the Vikings were here?” A chorus, evidently of Nordic descent, jumped in with sightings of Vikings all the way into Oklahoma.
“Well, what would you say if I could prove to you that the Indians were taught their beliefs by King David?” and without waiting for a reproach he launched into what he had to sell: a migraine-inducing argument meant to justify the notion that Indians are lost Jews and that the Mountain Men were a kind of elect to whom the red men were “honored to marry” their wives and daughters. Through these “mystical unions” the white men rose to the status of red Jews.
I squirmed like some poor squaw sold into perpetual drudgery and sexual service to a thoroughly repellent white geezer and for a hand-full of trinkets or a jug of whiskey, at that. Grabbing the nearest kid I yelped, “Want to throw some ‘hawks?” and dragged him toward the throwing area, where we set to hurling the things at a stump painted with red, yellow, black and white circles. Hey. Didn’t someone get the order of the colors wrong?
The city dog pound lies on the other side of the gravel pit. Dogs howl from the usual causes: hunger, loneliness and imminent death. My two are mountains on the floor. Because the day was hot, they are exhausted. I light a candle against the bugs.
Brzz… a sound that won’t go away. I knock open the door for the dogs and the sound becomes louder then fades as I doze. Red truck, green hoses, stuff poofing into the air. A dim memory says, ‘mosquito abatement.’
I drive into Riverton past dreary trailers, junkyards, machine shops and tool suppliers situated east of town, stop at McDonald’s for breakfast, locate myself on the map printed on my place mat and decide on a drive out Gas Hills Road.
“On this day in 1917, T. E. Lawrence took Aqaba from the Turks,” an announcer reads over the radio. Except for the Red Sea, I bet Aqaba doesn’t look a whole lot different than this part of Wyoming where small, dark buttes poke up in a sea of badlands. Clouds shaped like squashed marshmallows, and the faint smell of sulphur hang in the air.
The reshaped, reclaimed hills at the uranium mines are covered with pocks like those on a golf ball and grass grows in the depressions. Strange. I did some work for a man who designed golf courses. His hair transplants looked the same.
At noon exactly, a road grader that has been scraping the tops off hard ruts pulls off the road. The driver gives me the Wyoming Wave as he opens a lunchbox. The wind blows yellow earth into a haze and an empty plastic water jug, which is tied to a sign pole, swings noiselessly. I shut the truck windows against the dust.
Back at the rendezvouz, dinner is served, if you bring your own plate and utensils, which I forgot to do, so Booshway slaps a steak on a paper plate and hands me a plastic fork. It splinters on the first jab so I eat with my hands. A codger couple tells gross stories about their wind-up dog, which chase diners from our table. I take advantage of the exodus to round up scraps and return to the trailer with dinner deluxe. The pooches are gracias.
Etta James me outta town. A wagon pulled by horses is stopped by the side of the road. A banner on the side says: Sheepherder for Christ. It’s a blond, cruisin’ day once I pass Thermopolis. A Conoco oil field is designated by a fancy stone marker, and not to be outdone, a neighboring Texaco field is marked by a metal cutout of a pumper. I catch myself tisk-tisking over a broken-down place that consists of a mobile home, a corral and lots of junked machinery, then realize that it represents someone’s fulfillment. The last few miles to Cody, I feel like I’m dragging the continent behind me.
The dogs roll blissfully on lush, long grass and young cottonwoods give up a beautiful rushing sound. The wind booms out of the north and blows over my neighbor’s umbrella tent. Moms are busy nailing down table cloths with coolers and pots while they shout at kids to retrieve towels and swimsuits that have attached to poles or shrubs yards away.
A white canvas tent inhabited by two graybeard males is shaped like the hood of a klansman with the point folded over. Next to it a fully-enclosed, screened, nine by twelve foot room has been erected over a picnic table. As I walk the campground I leer at new motor homes, trying to peek inside, until I confront a pair of hideous troll dolls about eighteen inches tall fixed to the dash of one.
A busload of adolescents stands around while their chaperones put up green canvas tents and unload a rental truck full of provisions. “…Cody Night Rodeo… America’s first original sport. Tonight.” An El Camino, painted red and white like a firetruck, with gold letters that spell Rodeo on its flank, cruises for tourists with a bullhorn.
While I was walking, my neighborhood changed. A shiny red and gray pickup with Alaska plates is parked in front of a blue tent just big enough to sleep one. The truck bed is empty. A jacket hangs in the cab. A soccer ball lies on the ground: no junk, no supplies. My guess is it’s driven by a single male who camps to save money, but likes to eat out. Such a being arrives wearing a baseball cap, plaid shirt, jeans and hiking boots. He climbs into the truck cab, reads something (a restaurant guide?) and drives away.
The camp spaces are so narrow that the driver of an incoming white van must park it in the old dog’s lap who. He refuses to move while as mom, dad and five kids emerge, confab, open a freestanding tent, then shuffle it from place to place. Using the tent, the picnic table and a noisy blue tarp they build a wall between us.
I came to Cody to visit the man with the sad gray eyes.
“Come back and visit,” he said when I left.
I called ahead. “I’m coming to visit,” I said.
“Swell,” he said.
“You came to see me?” he asked when I popped into his store.
“Of course. Why else would I have called and said I was coming?”
“Oh. I thought you were coming for some other reason,” he said.
“No, and I’m here, so how ‘bout lunch?”
“I couldn’t do that. I’m too busy.” I glared at him and wondered what to say. Instead, I walked out.
My face turns toward a new horizon and the land will be with me all the way. Ten miles out of Cody we hit road construction and the vision of half-naked men in orange vests and hard hats mingles with the smell of asphalt. Meanwhile, my soul is trying to leave my body and stay in Wyoming. Half-naked men wearing bandanas and gloves weed beets and take long drinks from a cooler. It’s no use. My sense of humor has gone down in the dry dust of inventing futures wholly fictional. Hot tears draw a map on my dusty face and at the junction where I intended to turn east toward Midwestern memories, the truck continues south along a farm road flanked by irrigation ditches and an occasional oil field supply yard. It’s hot, and I finally remember that the truck has air conditioning.
“How d’ya want yer steak done?” our cook, the Oklahoma reincarnation of Lord Drummond calls while I’m yet fifty feet away.
“Medium rare,” I yell. It doesn’t matter that the plate is paper, the fork and knife ridiculously inadequate plastic, the lettuce rusty and the potato half-baked. I take my food and sit down with people in all states of dress between 1838 and the present. One is a boy, maybe twelve, with sad blue eyes, wheat-like hair, and a high voice.
“Do you want to throw tomahawks after supper?” he asks. His grandma loans me her weapon and we walk to the targets where an hour passes merrily. We’re two kids having fun, only one kid is big and had a lousy day.
“Take this,” he says, handing me a blue ribbon that he won in a black powder shooting contest.
“Don’t you want to keep it?” I ask.
“It’s O.K. I only won it ‘cause I was the only one in my age group,” he says.
“Where’s your husband?”
“I’m not married,” I say.
“Oh good. I mean, we’re having a party tonight. You should come.”
“Hmm. Where is it?” I ask to be polite.
“It’s over, well, it’s not where everybody knows. What do you drink?” I lift my can of Diet Coke. “That’s it?” He seems amazed that a cool babe like me doesn’t drink alcohol. “I don’t drink either,” he says quickly. “I just go to watch the guys get stupid. Ow!” He swats a mosquito that bites the back of his hand. “My buddy did this. Cool, huh?” He shows me a torturous tattoo of the famous mouse in blue, on the back of his hand.
“Cool,” I say.
JAKE’S BEAVER STEW FOR 100
7 Beavers (About 60 lbs) Remove fat, cut into cubes
5-6 lbs onions
10 lbs potatos
10 lbs carrots
3 qts tomatoes (any kind)
20 gal black kettle
Build a big fire
Marinate cubes of beaver in 1 cup vinegar, 3 tbsps soda, ½ cup salt and water to cover.
Pour off liquid, add water to cover and boil 20 minutes.
Pour off liquid, wash in clear water.
Add water to cover, boil and add the remaining ingredients.8
“Where are you going to get the beaver for your stew, dear?” Mrs. Jake, who has been helping her husband recall the recipe, asks me.
She actually thinks I’m going to cook this? “I’m writing it down for posterity.”
“Oh, I see,” she says primly. She wears blue-beaded moccasins, a long gingham dress, an apron and a sunbonnet. Jake, the only real trapper I’m likely to meet at the sincere, but historically casual rendezvous, is decked out in deerskin.
“I pretty much stay within fifty miles of home these days,” he says. “I am seventy-eight, you know.” His face and hands show the seventy-one years he’s been on the traplines, but he moves like a cat. “On low, flat country I can check my traps from the pickup. Above 7,000 feet I can get fifteen to twenty miles off the road with chains on a four-wheel drive. From there, I might use a horse, but I like to walk on snowshoes.” He smiles. “And you have to check your traps every seventy-two hours so’s the animals don’t suffer. That’s the law. I’d turn in anybody I found didn’t.”
“You mean the animal is alive?” I ask.
“Oh yeah. It might live a week in normal winter weather.”
“Where’d you come from originally Jake?”
“I was raised in Lincoln, Nebraska. Later I moved out to Laramie. I brought my wife up here in 1936.”
“We broke out two hundred and forty acres of sagebrush and built an adobe house,” she says.
“We had Mexican neighbors who showed us how. They had eleven kids that was always hungry. I poached antelope for ‘em,” Jake recalls. “I think Game and Fish knew, but they never said a word.” He pauses, then whispers, “Back then we had game wardens with sense. Now we got hard-nosed little bastards who go by the book.”
“Now, when we had money we reformed some and bought things at the store,” Mrs Jake adds.
“Well, we weren’t goin’ to starve when we didn’t have money,” he snaps. Jake, as much as he talks, is a man of action and he runs through his repertoire of animal calls for me. “This here’s the bull elk call. It’s a challenge to other bulls.” An anaemic “blap” fails to move the bull elk in me. His cottontail rabbit call is astounding, like the wail of a baby being strangled (I imagine) and the jackrabbit call is worse, but the object is to fool a hungry coyote, not me. “And this is what I pull my women in with,” he winks. Out comes a shrill “blap.” Mrs Jake stirs slightly.
“How much fer the horse’s tail?” A man twitches one in the air as he looks at the pelts and skins Jake has for sale.
“Oh. Ten bucks,” Jake decides.
“Where do you get horse’s tails?” I ask. I can’t imagine him hanging out at a slaughterhouse.
“I find a mustang the coyotes have killed and set traps around it for ‘em. I pick up the tails ‘cause I use anything I can. A good trapper is the best conservationist there is. He lives with the animals, knows how many babies live and if they’re healthy or sick. I always leave seed and
“These environmentalists watched too much Walt Disney as kids,” Mrs Jake adds.
“That’s right. They got a flaw in their thinking,” Jake bores through me with his blue eyes. They attribute human personalities to animals and it just ain’t so.” I confine my error in this matter to the dogs, I decide. “These city people come runnin’ out here to tell us what nature is like and they don’t know nothin’ they ain’t got outta some book.” Jakes agoin’ now. “I never turn down a school that asks me to come and talk. Hell, I go preach to the kids, tell ‘em, ‘Don’t you dare grow up to be one of them environmentalists.’” He chuckles good naturedly as I scribble, pinned as I am to the ground in his tent. “Did I tell ya about the 110-pound turkey I had to shoot in self-defense?”
I listen to stories, wait and finally ask, “So if the animals are trapped live, how do they die?”
He is quiet, then stands. “This is how I kill a coyote,” he says. “I hit it on the nose to stun it so it don’t know what’s comin’. Then I pull it’s head up and hit it across the neck with an iron.”
“An iron? What do you mean?”
“An iron,” he yells and grabs a fire poker. He pretends to yank a coyote’s head back and across his knee so that its neck is exposed. “Like this,” and he strikes. “Crushes the windpipe. It never breathes again.”
There is awe in our silence, on my part for our kinship with the coyote, and on his part, I’m not sure. It’s obvious that he doesn’t take the killing lightly.
“That’s what you got to accept. Everything dies. It takes three to four weeks for a deer to starve. Or there’s a bullet. Man can show mercy. Nature don’t.” My heart feels crushed like the coyote’s windpipe, yet I find no fault in what he says.
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