The state bird
We arrive at the Green River campground and as I disembark from the truck I'm surprised by the humidity in the air that hits me in the face like a warm wet rag. Previously, while touring all these months through the wonderful mountain states I had completely forgotten that humidity exists at all. It's been a long time, probably a year, since I've felt the yucky, sticky feeling of that energy-depleting thickness. Although the arid high-desert and thin mountain air had made my skin tight and dry and my face appear five years older, at least it brought a comfortable, pleasant heat with a constant breeze. Now I wince at what's to come in the approaching states farther east. As we register at the desk inside the air-conditioned campground office I notice a sign overhead with a huge cartoon illustration of a vicious mosquito with devilish eyes and blood dripping from its mouth, the words underneath the image read: THE STATE BIRD. I shudder. Oh, those blood-sucking mosquitoes! How could I have forgotten them? I look back in regret now, visualizing all those months when I took for granted going outside at night looking at moonlit, star-studded skies, without ever swatting a single fly, mosquito or other insect. Now I'm angry with myself for not noticing and relishing the absence of bugs, and not fully appreciating the true experience of a beautiful, bug-free night. We park Harvey in our new site, and squeeze into a very tight fit as this campground efficiently economizes any plot of dirt and packs trailers in quite snugly. Luckily we have a corner lot, where the corner is decorated in a small garden of shrubs and flowers, so there's a bit more room, a bit more privacy, and an intoxicating fragrance of baby's breath flowers surrounding our tiny space.
The major and the miner
Today we tour Expedition Island in Green River City. This is the place where in 1869 Major John Wesley Powell launched his four boats to begin exploring the Colorado River all the way to the Grand Canyon, the first white man to do so. It's a lovely park with a nature trail of wildflowers. Along the trail historic markers tell stories of other people, besides Powell, who launched expeditions here to prove one point or another. It's a small park, but really quite enjoyable on this fresh, dewy morning. As we walk the trail and read the markers, I notice an old man sitting on a park bench staring at us with a steady gaze. With some difficulty he manages to get himself off the bench and strolls over to greet us, telling us about the area, and more about himself. He had been a coal minor back east. Had worked the mines for 60 years and now at the age of 83 is retired and can at last enjoy the light of day. He first worked in Ohio, then in the 1950s came out west where the work was more plentiful and the weather more temperate. "It's a good thing I left when I did," he says sadly his head bent in reverence, "there was a big accident the day after and 60 men were killed, some of my best friends gone." He composes himself from the sad memory and reaches out to shake our hands. "The name's Lyle," he says cheerily. "What brings you here?" We tell him of our 50-state adventure and he nods approvingly. "You're smart to travel now while you're young," he says. "I had a stroke a while back, so I can't do much anymore. I come here to the park everyday and do some walking. Keep my strength up." We had noticed his difficulty walking and his painful speech, now we know why. But his eyes are keen and his mind is sharp. He tells us of the hardships he's faced during the Depression, and as a coal miner, the dark, dreary work, day in and day out, fraught with daily dangers. Many miners died young, not only due to accidents, and cave-ins, but to the general poor health of working in such sunless, airless, cramped quarters. "You know, we had a lot of problems back then. A lot of troubles. But no one took a gun and shot his family when things got tough, like that guy in Georgia did yesterday, killing 12 innocent people." Ken and I weren't sure we heard correctly. We hadn't heard of any recent mass murders since the Columbine high school incident. "What! Yesterday? What are you talking about?" We quiz him on the details and learn that some guy had lost money in the stock market and killed his wife, children and others whom he had blamed for his downfall. "I just don't understand it," Lyle laments, shaking his head mournfully. "Why, we had much tougher problems than that. We dealt with them and moved on," the old minor continues, genuinely puzzled by the current generation's lack of inner strength. "That's life. You can't escape it." He pauses. Shakes his head sadly. "Had a beautiful wife,too. And beautiful children. I just don't understand it." Nor do we. Lyle says these are signs that the world is coming to an end. "It's all in the Bible," he warns. "Just read your Bible."
Wild thing, you make my heart sing
They say that Wyoming has more wildlife than people. I don't know if that's true, but I've never seen so many wild things all at once. It's almost commonplace to us. We've seen Elk, mule deer and birds of prey, but my all-time favorite are the wild horses of the open plains. Out of nowhere against a backdrop of immense flat plains I'll see a cloud of dust from afar until I squint my eyes and can make out the shape of these magnificent creatures in coats of licorice, chocolate and caramel. But to me, the most beautiful is the white mustang. He cuts a very dashing figure across the brownish green plains, his white mane flowing, his white tail sailing in the the wind of his furious gallop. I could watch him forever.
We're driving across Wyoming from Green River to Cheyenne, about 200 miles of pretty much the same scenery. No more mountains, no big rock formations, no red earth, table rocks, buttes or towering stones. I feel as though we're leaving the west and entering the east, and I mourn the mountains, the high altitudes, the dry air, the zephyrs, and the bug-less, pest-free life of nights without buzzing and limbs unscarred by red, swelling insect bites. Oh well, back to the east, back to the bugs and humidity. The road is straight and flat. Greenery all around. Nothing in particular stands out except the vast emptiness. Flat, endless plains beneath a limitless blue sky. Passively I stare out the window. Not a living thing in sight. Not a single house. Nothing. Up ahead I see a patch of blue. A small lake in the middle of the green land. I take a mild interest in this slight diversion and what do I see? A flock of plastic pink flamingos surrounding the lake. Someone, although no living soul appears anywhere near here, purchased these pink flamingos and decorated the lake for fun. The effect is hilarious. I bolt upright. "Ken! Look! Flamingos in Wyoming."
Chuting the bull
As luck would have it we happen to stumble upon Cheyenne during the final wrap-up of the 103rd annual Frontier Days, the "Daddy of "em al," they call it. This big-time, national event brings hundreds of thousands of cowboy fans to this small town of 50,000 normal people. Wyoming is a big cowboy state, and to the best of my knowledge, the only state with a cowboy depicted on it's license plate. At the daily rodeo there's bull wrestling, calf-roping, bronc riding and chuck wagon racing. The heavy-breathing bulls are enclosed in a chute until show time and one of the events includes a behind-the-scenes tour of these chutes. The tour is free, but we're not curious enough to see them chuting the bull. Instead we go to a staged gunfight put on by "professional" gunslingers. These are accountants, lawyers, dentists and people from all walks of life who volunteer their free time to study gunslinging and to travel around at their own expense, on their own time, to perform gunslinging history re-enactments. They do a wonderful job at the high-noon shoot-out we go to see. The pouring rain doesn't dampen the spirits of these professional gunslingers. At the end of the show, they picked some guy from the audience who looked the "least like a cowboy." Some unfortunate tourist in shorts, tee shirt, white socks and sneakers was chosen. He was brought out center-stage, his apparel ridiculed. It was decided to hang 'em for his offensive dress. No one was happier about this than me. "Hang 'em!" I screamed with the other onlookers. Since I've been on the road, I've been sick to death of tee-shirts, shorts and sneakers. I long for the "traveling clothes" outfits of the 1940s. If not that, then I definitely prefer the cowboy outfit over cotton tops and rubber soles. No. Give me the boots, the hat, the jeans, and I just love those long cotton dusters those cowboys wear! I'd love to see the cowboy rage unseat the sneaker & tees look in the fashion world. Even if wannabe cowboys are derided here, too. Here's what I learned about real cowboys versus what's disparagingly called, "drugstore cowboys." Real cowboys crease their own hats. "Creasing" a hat means buying the hat shapeless, getting it wet and styling it your own way, then letting it set. Real cowboys don't carry guns. And real cowboys don't abuse animals or the land; They love 'em both too much. I learned this through an interview with a real cowboy who's been cow punching for 50 years. He said he walks into a bar sometimes and sees these cowboy wannabes who "the closest they ever came to a cow was eating a T-bone steak." The old-time cowboy said he's glad cowboys are getting so much attention lately, but wishes people knew fact from fiction.