Rodeo-Rendezvous (June 27-July 3)
There’s Indian time, then there’s the-female-half-of-my-acquaintances-in-Lander time. On the other hand, the male half can sustain but a discrete amount of intellectual activity, so in some way their defects cancel out and we arrive for the 25th Eastern Shoshoni Stampede right on time. The rodeo begins with the traditional crisscross of women riders who carry flags of national, state and local importance and the introduction of dignitaries, including the Rodeo Queen and the stock contractor and his men, who ride out wearing aqua shirts, red vests, black hats and fancy red chaps.
“Protect our cowboys and cowgirls as they compete,” the invocation ends, followed by Whitney Houston’s version of the “Star Spangled Banner.” The proceedings are remarkably patriotic, considering the great and legitimate beef the locals have with the United States government.
“It’s a very important, intricate matter” insists the announcer. “Breaking the barrier adds ten seconds to a cowboy’s score in the calf roping competition.” The hands who help out and hang out above the pens wear dark hats and white straw hats, color-bright shirts and big silver buckles that flash against the blue sky. Dark hands and faces, occasional braids, and a higher, thicker waist say Indian to a white eye. The ropers themselves are older, full-bodied men with smooth, round faces behind dark glasses.
The wind, mysteriously absent for an hour, begins to blow. Hands go to hats, shirts whip, and dust blows away from the feet of a powerful bucking horse which hops up and into the air like a freestyle skier.
“Get hungry,” yells an Indian old guy at a man in a soft green shirt, whose long ponytail hangs below a white straw hat, his horse set to chase a fleeing steer. The cowboy drops the charging animal quickly, his black hair whipping loose in the arena dust. He rolls the steer onto its horns, then lets it go and strolls cowboy cool back to his partner. Back on his horse, the rump of which is guarded by a red hand, he puffs discreetly.
The clowns come out, cornpone deluxe, as American as Formica pie. The crowd actually laughs at the tired, vaudeville jokes. A man who wears moon rocket tits made from cardboard, who is introduced as Miss Rodeo South America, is invited by the other clowns to pose in front of an exploding camera. “Oh, you think this is funny, huh?” says a woman who sits above us in the stands, to her husband.
An Indian who sits next to me is missing two joints from the middle finger of his right hand. On his left middle finger is a heavy gold ring set with leaf-shaped rubies, emeralds and sapphires and a row of diamonds. He also wears a gold watch, pale blue, pearl-snap shirt, a straw hat and comfortable crepe-soled shoes. He keeps track of the scores of two daughters and a friend’s son, who asks, “Could you lend me fifty bucks?”
At last, contestants perform their pre-event rituals then slide onto the backs of alloted bulls. A gate swings wide and Bogeyman the Bull makes a big Indian today’s victim. Silver fringe on the man’s chaps sparkles as he flies, up-down, up-down. Another he-bull, called Powerpunch, squats on his haunches and won’t get up. The slightly built man stranded on his back jumps down and runs clean across the arena before he looks back. A big blond bull, with guacamole butt, dumps his rider – Now and is followed by a champagne-colored monster who receives his mail as Bad-to-the-Bone; he twirls, stops dead as lead and slides off his would-be rider real easy. The last contestant, who has been getting bounced off bulls for fifteen years, draws a longhorn striped like a tiger – Mr. Testosterone Poisoning executes a one, two twirl that leaves the cowboy standing on his feet with no idea how he got there.
The last and most beautiful event, the bareback relays, are difficult to see from where we stand inside the arena. Thin boys float above the backs of graceful, built-to-run horses then disappear and reappear from behind the stands, in a tantalizing vision of a time when man first met horse and made himself a Centaur.
My Lander acquaintances fish the Little Popoagie (Pohpohjuh.) I feel no urge to unpack my equipment so I follow Red Canyon road instead. A simple iron bridge “built by the Western Bridge & Construction Co. Omaha Nebraska” takes me across the creek. It’s a handsome piece of work, held together by big rivets and square-section tie rods with turnbuckles. On the other side is an abandoned clapboard house. Remnants of green asphalt shingles cling to older, split-cedar shakes and huge cottonwoods shade weeds in the drive. Two brands have been sketched in black paint on the much-abused, No Trespassing Fishing or Hunting sign wired to the gate.
The road edges a loopy side creek that becomes lost in fluffy-top grass and long reeds. Noises from the Little Popoagie, now hidden behind a rib of the red rock that names the canyon, are cut to pieces by the wind. The hillsides are packed with acid yellow flowers which join well with the bitter scent of sage and the maroon cliffs above. A twisted tree trunk recruited as a fence post, a bolt piercing the top and the surface orange with lichen, is full of holes the diameter of a pencil. A creature the size of a dried pea, encrusted with a shell of sand and clay, makes its way up the post like a free climber at Yosemite. Its front part, which protrudes from the homemade rock and does the hiking, looks to belong to an insect.
A black flying thing ducks into one of the holes and stays there. More of the same arrive and test the holes by sticking their heads in. When one looks or smells right they pop inside. Common flies land on the post but don’t enter the holes. Neither do the encrusted things.
Blue green slopes of sage meet bottle green fields of grass and deep red outcrops of rock. Boulders stained Kool-Aid orange and green by lichen, and dimmed by the black, subtle lacework of last year’s growth, have skidded unseen into position on the canyon slopes. Dinky royal blue and white Columbines hug them for shelter. A boulder four times the size of my truck lies in the path of a fence; a loosely drawn strand of barbed wire crosses its back fifteen feet above the ground.
I stand on a high spot where a fall of red sandstone has stacked itself into a natural wall. The air is ringing with birdsongs and I look down on a telephone wire where three tiny forms announce their existence with big voices. A wedge of rock looms above the road like a breaching whale. Hammered into its belly is a United States Geologic Survey marker. “Fine for disturbing this marker…dollars.” Part of it is busted off, and a red, clay-coated spider web fills the gap. The elevation, 5629 feet, is readable, and the initials RAF have been scratched into the gray metal. Not satisfied, RAF scribed another, larger set of initials into the rock itself. An intermittent falls marks the rock overhead with black, vertical streaks that glisten with faint moisture. Below, a gulley cuts the slope and debris fans out at its mouth.
A ranch blessed with a straight-shot view up one of the canyons into the Wind River Mountains displays its history in vehicles marooned by the road. A stripped Model T body, a thing that rolls out black hose, a rusted disker weighted down with stones as if the wind is apt to take it away, tractors, three pickups, a camper, two trailers and other devices beyond recognition are making their way, flake by flake, into the sediments bound for the Gulf of Mexico.
From the upper end things don’t look so bad. Apple green pastures disappear into canyons slashed deeply into the mountain flanks and rustic log barns and outbuildings block from view a newer, squat, metal barn and the junked equipment. Nearer the road, a white house is overgrown by elms and lilacs which grow in a pretty side yard. I smell cigar smoke as I walk past but see no one, only a hand that wipes the inside of a window with a cloth.
It must be kids’ night at Ft. Washakie Pow-Wow. Groups of boys circle the arbor, a donut-shaped roof held aloft by fat pine poles, under which dances and ceremonies take place. Urban magic makes good medicine on the reservation; Raiders, Bulls and other team logos writ large on satin jackets and caps, lend power to the fragile adolescent ego. But Charlie Brown shorts and clumsy black shoes a la Jake La Motta, which make all but the most perfect legs look like tree stumps, undo the spell. A young man, so attired, with the addition of impenetrable sunglasses, escorts a traditionally bedecked maiden (why are Indian girls called maidens, not girls or young women?) ‘round the arbor in a parade of their peers.
The-female-half-of-my-acquaintances and I find seats on wooden bleachers behind rows of aluminum lawn chairs labeled with the owners’ names: Blackhair, Crazy Thunder, St. Clair. An intertribal dance is called and many dancers move as if conserving energy. The children dance like colts and bunnies and a very senior man steps out a careful, practiced path. A woman in white shorts and a blue blouse gets up from her lawn chair to drop paper money at the feet of a shawl dancer who flings pink fringe, fabric and beads outward in a demonstration of centrifugal force. An old woman who walks hesitantly in white orthopedic shoes and is dressed in a flowered shift, purple head-scarf, eyeglasses with thick pink lenses and a gleaming silver necklace, picks up the money.
Our fractional Indian acquaintance arrives dressed as an Indian. He joins us in the bleachers and flirts with my friend, taking advantage of her husband’s absence. Using the coyote pelt that’s draped across his shoulder like a puppet, he moves its head and talks like Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent. He leaves in a hissy fit when I lean over and whisper, “Real Indians don’t play with their skins.” I would have made a good duenna, I think to myself. Spotlights come on as the natural light becomes faint. The people round dance, stepping sideways, stepping sideways, stepping sideways.
Cliffs above are the color of rusted iron and flowers which cover the slopes below are Van Gogh yellow. Lightning dissects the roof of heaven with brittle shocks and hidden flashes. The surface of the road, which runs with furious red rivulets, pops under hard-falling raindrops and fountains of red water plunge over every obstacle. The truck moves like I’m driving on a living thing. I descend to a creek which is stained red as if animals are being sacrificed upstream.
Lander is not an easy place to find work. I was offered a place to live, money for expenses and time to write in exchange for caretaking an elderly gentleman. In my excitement I drove up the mountain yesterday to preview what my free afternoons would soon be like. I met the storm and felt surpassingly lucky: the offer was withdrawn because the old coot had second thoughts about my two dogs. As I grieved I realized that what I’d lost was a state of mind. In fact, I instantly knew that what I call My Life is an ongoing conversation with my own imagination.
The oil pumpers of Winkelman Dome cover a rise off the road to the northeast and opposite lies an antelope transplant site. I’d love to poke around the wells of Winkleman but it’s posted closed to hunting, fishing, trapping and trespassing by Shoshoni and Arapaho Fish and Game, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Petroleum Industry Security Council.
Two RVs have a speed battle as the road descends to the river bottom. What’s ‘in between’ appears to be a nuisance to destination drivers. I could tell them that the country over which they race is as pretty as Yellowstone, but I’d probably join the prostrate nuclas on the pavement before they’d slow down. A sign at a rest area says that the world’s largest herd of Rocky Mountain Sheep winters in the mountains to the southwest, where the beloved wind sweeps the slopes free of snow and provides winter pasture. Twenty miles south of Dubois, at a point where red beds rest over black shale, a sapphire tributary tumbles into the boulder-filled Wind River. Hills that are banded like agate also take the plunge.
As I turn off the highway into the valley of the East Fork of the Wind River I fall into my old codger persona and talk to myself. “Wah, lookie here, missy. That’s about the most perfect ranch ah could find fer ya. Neat as a pin and plenty of rich pasture fer the mules. Wah, it’s got high, board fences and lace curtains in the house windows, which ah know sets you females a goin’.”
That, and the wide, looping curves of the riverbed and its tributary arroyos through which cubic tons of debris are dumped from the sagebrush flanks and fir shoulders of the mountains. Ahead, the snow-edged Absarokas poke above gullied badlands and the sky is more immense than all of these.
Noon brings clouds. I let the dogs run where the road tops out and follows a bench. The river runs far below us between purple and brown hills that might be a worn, striped blanket. I poke through coils of used-up barbed wire and busted fence posts in a ranch dump hoping to find something novel. The light is flat, but I photograph a mailbox wedded to a giant bakery mixer as a reflex more than from desire.
The ranch at the end of the road is buried in heaven, although in winter buried might be taken literally. A mare the color of gun metal, with the sheen of satin, shakes its head above two colts which doze at its feet. Black, silky cattle graze headless in the long grass. I turn the truck around on the narrow rutted road which enters the ranch house’s front yard. A cow takes up a sheet of flaming orange plastic in its mouth and shakes it as if to wave good-bye.
“Just one?” the cafe hostess asks. I hate this.
“Are you alone?” the waitress inquires. No. My three invisible alien children are staring up your skirt!
Six people at a table in the center of the room, who speak with southern accents, have an in-depth conversation about athletic team T-shirts. Beyond them posts of virus deformed pine, so popular in this area, which are varnished heavily like caramel corn, support booths built to look like Conestoga wagons. Deep Fat Fried Shrimp sounds disgusting and I search the menu for more casual food.
“Mah fayvrit part of luunch wuz the Co-ca Co-la. Furst ahv haad wun in ah beyut a muunth. It taysted soooo guhd.” The speaker has big teeth and a bulging forehead. Her lips do not touch her fork as she consumes a piece of pie.
One of her pals asks the waitress for the check and on receiving it says, “I T. Whut’s thet? Oh. Ahc – Tee. Who haad thet? It’s seventy-fahv cints. No. Wayt uh minit. It’s sixty-fahv cints. The coke is seventy-fahv. Donna? You hear thet?” Two other women take turns examining the check, ready to divvy lunch to the penny.
“Ah’ll pay-ut,” says one of the men, which, of course, is the response the women have been waiting for. He takes the check from a hand that holds it lightly and adds, though no one listens, “We kin split it six waays, laater.”
“We hayuv to stop sumwher so ah kin clean out mah purse. It’s gettin’ purty ratty,” one of the women says as the group passes my table.
“Have you decided?” the waitress asks me.
“I’ll have the ratty purse,” I tell her.