Monday, 18 June 2012

Wyoming and the Black Hills

We’ve already written about how driving across the country gives one a renewed appreciation for the reality of this country as one broad land, stretched from sea to sea, a unified fabric or quilt in which each section blurs into and blends with the next. The changes are so gradual that it is often difficult to detect in the course of a single drive. One day you’ll be driving and suddenly realize, “Hey, I guess we’re on the plains.” That major benefit of ground travel—noticing those gradual transitions, appreciating the reality of living in a diverse but unified country—is completely absent from air travel, where you are more like Dorothy floating over the rainbow and into munchkin-land, lost and senseless as if in a dream.

Brahna boarding the plane in Jackson, Wyoming.
During the brief time we were home for Grandpa’s funeral, Brahna and I couldn’t stop pointing out the many contrasts between New York and Wyoming, between the east and the west. As with the fabled frog in boiling water, our culture shock upon suddenly returning to New York was much more acute than it was when we were gradually driving through much more foreign territory in the South and the West. Brahna had a hard time getting a cab outside Penn Station, and was reduced to tears at having to participate in the same classic New York hustle-and-bustle that she basically became an expert in after growing up on the Upper West Side. Though I grew up in the suburban jungle of North Jersey, I was still surprised to see, from the window of the plane landing in Newark, the amazing vastness of Northeast megalopolitan development reaching around to every horizon—highways, houses, and high school football fields obscuring any evidence that at one point there was actual green earth. Unless one knew better, it would be difficult to identify spacious Wyoming and overdeveloped New Jersey as belonging to the same planet, much less the same country.

This dichotomy was made even more apparent to us when, not 15 minutes after disembarking in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, we were looking at a young bull moose. It was on the road towards the Grand Teton National Park visitors’ center, where we wanted to pick up the prized cancellation stamp we’d missed last time since we drove through the park after dusk. It was closed this time too—the plan landed at 5 p.m.—but the moose, our first on this trip, was a good consolation. Later, as we drove through Yellowstone toward our destination for the night, Cody, Wyoming, we “collected” another first sighting of a local animal—the elusive bighorn sheep. They eek out a living on mountain slopes so steep your more responsible (and predatory) mammals wouldn’t dare to enter, and are generally pretty averse to human beings. As soon as we stopped the car, they took off down a cliff so steep I would have bet money no animal could survive the descent.

Young bull moose in the Tetons.
Bighorn sheep in Yellowstone.
We were pleasantly surprised by Cody, a town founded by and named after William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the famous military scout and shameless promoter of the “Wild West” myth. After touring his Wild West Show around the world, performing in front of kings and queens and even Pope Leo XIII, Cody started building a town at the eastern entrance to Yellowstone National Park. When it was incorporated in 1901, it was probably the only town in America created specifically with an eye toward commemorating the fabled American West which was elsewhere still not entirely dead—to the extent it had ever really existed at all. Now, with fake “Western” street facades a reliable fixture of any tourist town between the Mississippi River and the Sierra Nevadas—and even much further afield than that—Cody has had to make itself stand out in other ways. These days, one of the most prominent attractions in town is the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, a grouping of five distinct museums that, if it doesn’t quite avoid the trappings of classic Old West mythology propagated by Buffalo Bill and his many co-conspirators, nonetheless manages to bring the story somewhat closer to historical reality and more politically-correct storytelling. I particularly enjoyed the art museum, with its focus on both presenting and undermining the traditional interpretation of the West presented by the likes of Frederic Remington and N.C. Wyeth. There were also lots of great paintings of bison—including some grisly hunting scenes—that, a true and loyal Kreitner, I found myself returning to again and again. We didn’t have enough time to explore all the museums, but we did run through the one devoted to firearms, which houses the largest such collection in the world. Though we might have benefited from having the least bit working knowledge of guns going into the exhibit, and frankly didn’t really “get it,” there was still some strange, simple, primal amazement to be had at seeing so many deadly weapons in one place, and seeing how people through the ages have created them not only to perform those grisly functions but also as works of art in their own right. If life was longer maybe I could manage to become interested in the craftsmanship and variety of deadly weapons, but as it turns out, there seem to be better things one can do with one’s time.

Speaking of time, we had to be getting back east. The whole first part of this trip was all about moseying—we took three weeks to get to New Orleans, a drive that could be done in as little as two days. We were in the Southwest and in California for a month each. Since the beginning of the trip I have traced our exact route, road by road, on a AAA map of the country, circling and numbering each overnight location. Especially for the first part of the trip, the route shows a lot of twists and turns, detours, and even full circles in places like Mississippi, California, and the Pacific Northwest. Our original plan for the month of May had been to continue in Canada after Vancouver, to explore the mountains of British Columbia and Banff National Park, then to cut south back into the U.S. through Glacier National Park. After that we’d do Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Chicago and the Midwest, and then maybe even a dip down into Appalachia through Kentucky and Tennessee. It wasn’t long before we realized those plans had to be scrapped almost entirely. It was about time to start putting some serious miles behind us, if we were ever going to get home.
The drive across flat Wyoming—a state my mother still brags about hitting 101 mph in—was mostly uneventful, except for the super-intense hailstorm we hit while crossing the Bighorn Mountains. While I slowed my speed to around 3 mph, Brahna took a video of the scene: dozens of golf balls slamming against the car every second, the sound like an invading army, me shutting the cloth insulator of the sunroof in case the glass should suddenly crack. The clip will be part of the epic DVD we hope to make from the trip.

 After a night at some nameless motel in the town of Gillette, we went to Devil’s Tower in the far northeast corner of the state. Rising 1,300 feet above the sprawling prairie-dog colonies of the surrounding landscape, Devil’s Tower has often been compared to a massive stone tree trunk. There are a variety of competing theories about how it was formed, none of which I understand. We walked around the base of the tower, a trail of less than two miles, ogling at the few rock-climbers we saw progressing—or, in the case of one apparent novice, not quite progressing—up the deep hexagonal striations that together constitute the tower’s most puzzling feature. The Plains Indians of the area, who object to the intrusion of the rock climbers on what they consider sacred space, believe the striations were caused by the claws of a giant bear climbing up the tower after some naughty children. Or something like that.

Brahna looking for climbers on Devil's Tower.
A prairie dog in the colony near Devil's Tower.
 Next we stopped in Deadwood, South Dakota, an interesting old Western town that had an HBO series made about it a few years ago and which loves more than anything else to be called an interesting old Western town. If Cody, Wyoming was the first town to artificially market itself as the last outpost of the real American West, the town of Deadwood raises that template to an art form. It is not that Deadwood doesn’t have a real frontier past to commemorate—the excellent Adams Museum in town proved that it does. But more than anyplace else Brahna and I have visited on this trip—including the historic antebellum plantations in the South—the town of Deadwood literally survives only by feeding on its past: a few years ago, the state legislature allowed Deadwood to legalize gambling in order to raise revenues for preservation of its historic sites. The golden era of Deadwood’s past was the late 19th century, around the time that the Black Hills gold rush created a general atmosphere of vice and lawlessness in the town. Now the town capitalizes on present-day greed and avarice in order to preserve the sites where past greed and avarice flourished. That exquisite irony seems at once to undermine the historical preservation efforts—as Faulkner famously put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”—and to perfect them.

Wild Bill was shot in the back of the head. The hand he was holding -- pairs of aces and eights -- is now called the "dead man's hand."
Bust of Wild Bill in the Mount Moriah Cemetery.
The next stop on our itinerary was another strange effort at historical commemoration, a memorial whose strangeness is not mitigated by the fact that it is perhaps one of the most recognizable images in the world. Gutzon Borglum’s purpose in creating Mount Rushmore was not simply to make the faces really, really big and to make the Black Hills the worldwide epicenter of shameless roadside kitsch and self-defeating, nature-obliterating hyper-commercialism. The Black Hills, actually, were by the 1920s already a major tourist destination—many in the area, not just Indians, objected to the sculpture as “a desecration to God’s own creation.” Borglum, however, with his characteristic grandiosity, boasted about how his creation would outlast human civilization itself. The placement of Mount Rushmore alongside other Americans icons like the Statue of Liberty and the Stars and Stripes tends to obscure this curious distinction. Just as someone once said that the thing about prison is that there are bars on the windows and they won’t let you out, the thing about Mount Rushmore is that some guy used dynamite to carve the faces of four other guys on a massive mountain, that millions of people go really far out of there way every year to look at it, and that those faces will together represent one of the last reminders after we are all gone that we were ever here at all.

Travel is interesting when you encounter the unknown, but it is also interesting when you encounter the already-known. Seeing the Grand Canyon directly in front of you is so comically more exciting than seeing a picture of it that one wonders why people bother to continue photographing it at all. Other things are hardly more interesting to see in person. Often it depends on your mood. Sometimes you feel it, sometimes you don’t. Anyway, I was surprised to find myself actually appreciating Mount Rushmore as both an interesting social memorial and an amazing feat of engineering, rather than ridiculing it as a boring tourist trap or a shameless waste of money.

At Mount Rushmore.
We retired that night to the Shady Rest Motel outside the town of Custer. Not expecting much, and perennially fed up with fleabag motels, we were surprised the find ourselves in a cozy little cabin for the night, complete with access to a hot tub, a porch swing, and a little kitchenette. We decided to stay for a second night, and mostly lounged around the next day after a brief drive through Custer State Park. 

Shady Rest Motel in Custer, South Dakota. Highly recommended.
Breakfast getting cold.
 The next day we drove out of the Black Hills to Badlands National Park, thus completing what for the past week had been a re-enactment, in reverse, of a vacation my family took in August 2000, driving westbound through the Black Hills and Wyoming and ending up at Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Besides many photographs of me feeding cheerios to donkeys with an oversized Yankee shirt on and an army-style crew cut, and many good memories, there is one other souvenir I have from that trip: an 80 year old pen pal named Carl Love.

1 comment:

  1. one of your best blog posts -