Saturday, September 6, 2008

Once Upon a Time in the West

"I've never slept out underneath the stars,
The closest that I came to that was one time my car
Broke down for an hour in the suburbs at night
I lied about being the outdoor type."
--The Lemonheads, "The Outdoor Type"

In summer, the town of Cody, Wyoming -- about an hour east of Yellowstone -- smells vaguely of sulfur from extinct geysers and frequently fills with dust and orange haze emanating from wildfires in the nearby Shoshone National Forest. It's an appropriate setting for a place named for William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody, the cowboy and showman who did more than anyone to popularize the myth of the Wild West. Cody is a haven for bikers and a museum to outlaws of an earlier era, a place where history and kitsch comfortably co-exist.

Before arriving at our hotel, we passed Bork's Guns (Sale!) and a giant statue of a cowboy, surrounded by tumbleweeds, that towered over an ice cream stand. I love stuff like that. It reminded of when I lived in Bangor, Maine, and for three years passed a colossus of Paul Bunyon on my way to work.

We stayed at the historic Irma Hotel, opened in 1902 and named for Buffalo Bill's daughter. The room boasted ancient patriotic wallpaper, classic corner sinks and antique wardrobes and light fittings. There was taxidermy everywhere in the hotel, and I mean everywhere: all manner of mounted heads of deer, elk, bison, and big-horn sheep. It's just the cool thing over there, I guess. Its a facet of decor all over Cody, from hotels and restaurants to museums and even the local visitor center.

I have to admit, it creeped me out a bit. I have nothing against those who hunt for food and obviously, I had little problem eating the results (delicious!), but after passing the 20th mounted animal head, I began to think of that scene in "Planet of the Apes" where Charlton Heston discovers the stuffed human display outside the office of Dr. Zaius.

Cody is primarily a tourist town, but still retains the feel of a rural Western settlement. Like most of the state, it is very conservative. You can usually get a sense of the political mainstream in any given town by perusing the opinion pages of the local paper; this one had a regular column by Ann Coulter -- enough said. Just outside the hotel, next to a sign advertising "Col. Cody's Wild West Emporium," two young born-again Christians stood on a box, bibles in hand, preaching the power of redemption to bikers and other assorted visitors.

The larger-than-life figure of Buffalo Bill is perhaps an ideal prism through which to view the contradictions of the American West. A Union soldier in the Civil War, the youngest rider on the Pony Express and a scout during the Indian Wars, Cody is known primarily for his skill in hunting buffalo (he once bragged that he killed over 4,200 bison in 18 months) and his world famous Wild West Show that traveled the world with the likes of Sitting Bull and Annie Oakley. At the turn of the century in 1900, Cody may have been the most recognizable celebrity on the planet. But toward the end of his life, the bison were nearly extinct and the once-fearsome Indian tribes were almost completely confined to reservations. Before he died nearly penniless due to bad investments, he urged the government to respect all Native American treaties and put an and to the wanton slaughter of buffalo and other game.

These various strands of history come together in Cody's intriguing Buffalo Bill Historical Center. The center is actually five museums in one: the memorabilia-filled Buffalo Bill Museum, the Plains Indian Museum, the Whitney Gallery of Western Art, the Draper Museum of Natural History and the Cody Firearms Museum. My Dad and I spent the bulk of our time in the atmospheric and affecting Indian Museum. Many of the ceremonial garments on display, dating back more than a hundred years, are in stunning condition. The art was placed in historical context, something the Cody museum does much more effectively than the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian here in DC.

More poignant were the displays bearing witness to our government's broken treaties, the concerted efforts to erase Native American culture and the wanton slaughter of Indians in shameful episodes such as the massacre at Wounded Knee.

There was a quote on the wall from Sitting Bull. I wish I had written it down, but the gist is that the Indians had been forced to give concession after concession on territory, laws and customs, but that "the White Man would not be satisfied 'til every last one of us has perished from the earth."

The Holocaust of World War II was still fresh in my mind, having several months ago visited the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Though it had occurred to me before, the Cody museum really drove home how little we as a nation have come to terms with this period. We fought a war over slavery, revisited in the civil rights marches of the 1960s. But we are largely silent about the treatment of the Indian. In school, we talked much more of the plight of the Jews in Europe than the condition of Native Americans here at home.

Where once they were plentiful in this part of the world, I can't recall seeing a single one during my visit. We can split hairs over whether the actions of our government constituted genocide. But surely we can do a better job in our schools of portraying, without propaganda or whitewash,the details of this ugly chapter in our history.

The next day, we visited a complimentary, but entirely different, take on this era called the Historic Trail Town. It's a bit random, but somehow they've taken log cabins, wagons, firearms and other relics and re-assembled them as a one-stop tribute to frontier life. While it's a hodgepodge, the place is very tactile. That's the way I like to see history -- buildings you can walk into and relics displayed the way they were rather than locked beyond glass cases. The 25 buildings, dating from 1879 to 1901, include a schoolhouse, trapper's cabin, general store and saloon. The latter, by the way, is the Rivers Saloon, once frequented by the likes of the Sundance Kid; there are bullet holes in the wooden door from the many gun battles started there. We also saw the hideout of the Hole in the Wall Gang, which included Sundance and other outlaws, as well as the cabin of Curley, the Crow Indian scout of General Custer who survived the battle of Little Big Horn. The western end of the Trail Town includes a number of graves. Among them is the grave of the notorious John Jeremiah "Liver Eating" Johnston, who is believed to have earned his nickname by killing, scalping and eating the livers of the Indians who killed his wife.

From there, we began our way back to Yellowstone. This time, however, we made a detour to the northeast in order to enter the park via the breathtaking Beartooth Highway. I'd read that Charles Kuralt called it "the most beautiful drive in America," and it didn't disappoint.

I've taken roads that go under the mountains or alongside them. But this was my first time on a road that trailed through a mountain's highest elevation. The highway reaches heights of 10,947 feet and is the highest road in the Northern Rockies. The Beartooth traces a series of steep zigzags and switchbacks, rising from 5,200 to 8,000 feet in a matter of 12 miles, all in the most daring landscapes, with glaciers and patches of snow along the way.

Our destination for the day was a hike into the wildlife-rich Lamar Valley, which is rightfully dubbed "America's Serengeti." At this time, I should point out that while I like to hike, I am by no means an expert. I have never taken an overnight hike, for example, nor have I been anyplace so wild that it required a bushwhack. This hike was labeled "moderate" -- good for our speed -- and once again, it was a gorgeous day, sunny with a cool breeze.

Now, I know that markers consisting of a pile of stones are important in hiking. They even have a name, which I don't remember. In addition to not knowing the name, more importantly, I don't know what they signify. Thus, when my father and I reached a fork in the road, and I saw the stone pile on the path leading to our left, I assumed that meant the left path was the way to go.

I was wrong.

About an hour later, after coming to a dead end, we were back to the fork. (Note to self: Next time you see that pile of stones on a hike, don't go that way.) Now confident that we were heading in the right direction, we soon came upon a sight that gave us pause. In the tall grass lay an animal skeleton. Picked clean to the bone and gleaming in hot sun, it was probably the remains of a young calf. Did I mention that there was not a single other hiker in sight?

It is interesting how quickly we become instant experts when we travel, fooled by a few tidbits gleaned from guides and tour books into thinking we really know what we're doing. Thus, my father and I became Cliff Clavins of the veldt. When we passed a lone buffalo grazing high on a bluff, I said to my father, "Must be a male." We were certain that the bird circling above us was an osprey, even though we'd both seen our first just days before. And if a bear came upon us, we were prepared: Talk loud, don't run, don't make eye contact and don't crouch down under any circumstances. Would it work? Who knew, but we were ready.

Or so we thought. Thankfully, the up-close-and-personal encounter that ensued was not with a bear, but a buffalo. As the trail led upwards, a creek gurgling below us, we quickly realized that the bison we spotted on the bluff earlier was stalking us from afar. The creek to our right, we looked up to our left to find our friend staring down at us.

"Must be a male," my Dad said.

The buffalo walked down slowly, and we moved forward. When he reached our path at the bottom of the hill, the buffalo faced a critical moment of decision -- critical for us, that is. He looked at us, looked away, looked at us again , looked away again...and finally wandered off in the other direction toward a grazing herd.

We moved on. The hill leveled off to reveal a vast, grassy plain. We came within 15 feet of a beautiful pronghorn antelope that was, like most of the animals we encountered, grazing alone ("Male?" we both wondered).

About 2 miles in from the start of our walking path, we spotted a foreboding sight in the distance. As we got closer, it came into focus: a huge lone buffalo -- yes, male -- resting regally right in the center of the hiking trail. It was like he was guarding the pass. And he showed no signs whatsoever of wanting to move.

We entertained the idea of heading back, but there were also bison behind us, and there was no guarantee that we wouldn't get the same treatment from them. We decided to stand still and wait it out. The brief clash of wills between Brownstein and bison is captured in the video below. Initially, we thought we were in Very Big Trouble. The buffalo got up and made his way right for us. As he got closer, and we stayed still, the animal, for whatever reason, balked. It headed up the hill and off the path, leaving us to continue onward.

All told, we made it about 4 miles into a 9 mile trail before heading back. On our return, we finally ran into fellow travelers, a group of four middle-aged Germans.

"Have you seen any beers?" one of them asked. From the accent, it wasn't clear if he was talking about wildlife or the nearest Hoffbrauhaus.

Back on the main road, we saw a huge herd of bison bathing in the river. As I snapped some photos, I overhead people talking about another grizzly siting. It was the same story as before: A grizzly, a bison kill, the bear resting on top of the carcass. Actually, the ranger back in Hayden had mentioned something about this sighting several days before. It was supposed to be much closer to the road than the one we saw previously.

So we drove 12 miles or so, where we were slowed down by a caravan of parked vehicles and looky-loos at the side of the road. And there it was, a huge grizzly, this time in plain view. But I barely got a good look before a group of young onlookers -- read "morons" -- decided to move up a hill closer to the bear to get a better view. Mind you, the rangers were at this point so concerned about the proximity of the bear to the crowd that they were carrying rifles.

"Get back!" the ranger yelled. "Get down from there!"

Within moments, the bear dramatically rose up from its quarry and began moving at a quick clip closer to the crowd.

This was too much for the rangers, who sounded the alarm. "Everyone, back in your vehicles! Immediately. Now. Get back in your vehicles and head out!"

It took a while for the crowd to disperse. It wasn't until well after we'd made our way west to Mammoth Hot Springs that I realized that, in all the excitement, I had not gotten a single clear photo of the bear. But there is one, which serves only to prove I was there. Blown up to about 15 times its normal size, you can definitely make out the grizzly.

There are times, of course, when it's better to use your imagination.

More to come.


Brian said...

I was hoping you'd run into Dick Cheney or something (sans his pellet gun, of course).

Nevertheless, another entertaining installment. It's good to know when the oil crisis makes us become an agrarian society again, I'll have you to be my wilderness guide.

Mr. Odney said...

When we become an agrarian society again, I'm making "Jimmy Cracked Corn" our national anthem.

Seriously, I doubt you'd last long with me as your guide.