Pages Navigation Menu

Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Wheedle in My Headlights, October 2015 (Part 3)

Jeez, enough chitchat. Take me to the photos.

Day07_005

Day 7: Wed, Oct 28, 2015

Cody, WY

On the seventh day, I rested. Or at least, I stayed in and around Cody, WY, primarily at Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Let me just acknowledge right here that the name Buffalo Bill Center of the West is problematic and that some of my friends and relatives, specifically my wife, wondered why I would visit such a place. Well, she’s not wrong. But here’s the thing – BBCotW is actually five museums (and one library), only one of which is devoted to the life of Buffalo Bill:

Buffalo Bill Museum
Whitney Western Art Museum
Cody Firearms Museum
Plains Indian Museum
Draper Natural History Museum
McCracken Research Library

I walked through all six sections, but the Draper Natural History Museum and the Plains Indian Museum were the two that left me most impressed.

The Draper Natural History Museum is full of the kind of meticulous, large-scale dioramas and elaborate displays in darkened rooms that I love, all centered on the wildlife and ecology of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Several times a day, they have a Raptor Experience out in the courtyard, and that was my favorite part. If you’ve read my exploring posts, you may remember this trip, when our lunch in an abandoned tuberculosis hospital was observed by a menacing black bird with a massive wingspan. I had assumed that the bird was trying to establish its dominance, or telling us that we were in her territory, but I was completely wrong. That bird was, I learned, a turkey vulture, and during the Raptor Experience, I got to meet a turkey vulture (sometimes called a buzzard, turkey buzzard, john crow or carrion crow) up close. Her wingspan was close to six feet. According to her handler, turkey vultures often perch in a high place and fully extend their wings to maximize the surface area for absorbing heat from the sun. They are consummate scavengers, “cleaning up the countryside one bite of their sharply hooked bill at a time,” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. An exceedingly acidic stomach and a highly-developed immune system protect them from contracting diseases lurking in rotting carcasses; they have been known to gobble down anthrax-infected meat with lip-smacking glee, despite not having lips. And now you know more than you did before you started reading this post. (“IT’S ED-U-KAY-SHUN-ALL!” – Pixies.)

The Plains Indian Museum is magnificent, instructive, and deeply upsetting, filled with historic dioramas and photos and documents and artifacts and videos, but also modern art by Native artists. In addition to the exhibits, they have opened the center and the surrounding grounds for pow-wows and other Native gatherings and events. I’m only basing this on what I saw and what I’ve read since, but it appears that they are making a sincere effort to work with local tribes/nations and to let them set the agenda for the museum. The most powerful exhibit was a long wall covered in pictures and quotes from both Native survivors and Western settlers, all describing the resettlement, abuse, rape and genocide of Plains Indians, the endless broken treaties:

I heard (Black Kettle) call to the people not to be afraid, that the soldiers would not hurt them. Then the troops opened fire.

– George Bent, Southern Cheyenne, 1906

I’m ashamed to admit that I couldn’t make it to the end of the wall. I – like most white people, I assume – know intellectually what happened, in a general way. There is moral outrage, but it’s abstract and remote. I made it about halfway down that wall before the magnitude, the monstrosity made me heartsick and physically ill. The woman at the oil change garage – I tried to imagine what it would be like for her to stand here and read this. What would it be like to live your whole life knowing this had been done to your ancestors in the not-so-distant past? What would it be like to know all of this and for it to only be acknowledged in a museum, the indisputable fact of genocide packaged neatly for the education of people like me? I had to sit down and take some deep breaths before continuing.

After lunch, I walked through downtown Cody. Ahead of me on the street, a woman lay prone on the sidewalk. In retrospect, this is horrible, but my first thought was something like, “ah, well… she’s just a homeless person taking a nap.” As if that was an acceptable explanation, and I could therefore wash my hands of any responsibility. As I stepped carefully over her, I saw that her hair was done and she was wearing clean clothes. I could also see that she was still breathing, but there was an angry abrasion on her cheek, her eyes were rolled back in her head, and she was drooling on the sidewalk. It looked like she had fallen down head first, and recently. It took me a few seconds to process this, and to absorb the fact that I actually had to do something. I took out my phone as I knelt down, but before I could make a call or do anything useful, five men – all dressed head-to-toe in camouflage-patterned hunting gear – bustled over and went all field medic on the situation, making it clear that my amateur Good Samaritan services were not required. Four of the men were already down on the sidewalk, checking her pulse and breathing, loosening her collar. The fifth was barking into his phone:

“WE HAVE AN ADULT FEMALE DOWN, AT MAIN STREET AND 23RD! WE NEED ASSISTANCE STAT! STANLEY, HOW’S HER PULSE?”

“WEAK, BUT SHE’S HOLDING ON!”

“THE WOMAN’S PULSE IS WEAK, I REPEAT, PULSE IS WEAK! BREATHING IS IRREGULAR!”

I asked what I could do, but nobody heard me. The poor woman on the sidewalk seemed to be in good hands, so I got out of the way.

A few hours later, I walked past the same spot. There were still stains on the sidewalk. In the nearest store, I asked a woman behind the counter if she knew what had happened. Everyone was still buzzing about the incident, but all they could tell me was that the ambulance had arrived quickly to take the woman away. It seemed that we all felt the same unsettled lack of resolution, the same nagging feeling that we should be doing something… but what?

In an antique mall, I purchased a CD of Neil Young’s Harvest and a coffee mug from the Cody chapter of the V.F.W. The owner was sweet, and we talked about living in a small town v. living in a big city. She and her husband had moved away once, years ago – tired of everybody knowing everybody else’s business, the incestuous gossipy drama. But when she got pregnant, they moved back to Cody without hesitation. “I realized that I missed that feeling of community, no matter how dysfunctional it sometimes is,” she told me, and I nodded. “Good luck in Seattle!”

I had planned on seeing the Mormon murals in Cody, but found that it had closed for the season a month earlier. With an afternoon free, I drove out to the Buffalo Bill Dam, and found it also closed for the season, but still photogenic. On the way back into Cody, I stopped at Colter’s Hell.

John Colter was a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, but he bailed before the dramatic conclusion and instead became the first white man to explore the areas now known as Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. From Wikipedia: “Not only had Colter traveled hundreds of miles, much of the time unguided, he did so in the dead of winter, in a region in which nighttime temperatures in January are routinely −30 °F” He spent some time near Cody, and later described the geysers, mudpots, and sulfurous fumaroles along a stretch of the Stinkingwater (or Shoshone) River. Few believed his outlandish tales. “Tell us another one about Colter’s Hell!” his critics would shout drunkenly, their beards clotted with bits of corn muffin and hardtack. “I suppose you also saw Bilzy-bub and his hellish imps down there, did ye? Did ye spy Wiley Harpe down thar, pricked and roasted fer his murderin’ ways? Har, har!” This would continue until Colter, furious and deeply wounded, wiping away hot tears, would stomp out of the saloon and into the frozen night, the whooping and cackling gradually receding behind him as he hiked alone into the silent snow-blanketed cathedral of the mountains.

Or so I imagine. Anyway, that’s why it’s called Colter’s Hell.

Day08_003a

Day 8: Thur, Oct 29, 2015

Cody, WY to Missoula, MT
~ 423 miles

For a coffee lover, traveling across the middle part of our country is generally a litany of disappointment. I had an excellent Americano in Chicago, but it had been a coffee wasteland ever since. I broke my losing streak at The Beta in Cody, devouring some kind of huevos rancheros breakfast burrito with green chiles and cilantro; a Mexican cocoa scone with cinnamon and cayenne; a crisp, cold apple; and – most importantly – delicious, flavorful coffee, hot enough to blister my tongue, praise Jesus.

My plan was to spend the night at my friend’s house, in Missoula, MT. But I had all day to get there, so I stopped in small towns to poke around, take pictures, and to urinate as needed. I also stopped in Bozeman, MT to visit the Museum of the Rockies.

The Museum of the Rockies is affiliated with Montana State University, and is the home base of rock star paleontologist Jack Horner, technical advisor for the Jurassic Park films. They have thirteen almost-complete T. Rex skeletons, the largest collection in the world. If you are looking to see dino skeletons, MoR should be on your itinerary.

Weirdly, at the time I visited, they were also hosting a traveling exhibit of Warner Brothers / Looney Tunes artwork. There were original sketches of Foghorn Leghorn and Wile E. Coyote, all the characters you would expect to see, but also artwork from some of the Censored Eleven: cartoons that are rarely shown today because they contain problematic… or maybe I should say dated… well, because they are straight-up racist. I’m not sure how that exhibit fit within the mission of MoR, and I’m not sure how I felt about the inclusion of storyboard art from the Snow White parody, Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs.

I stopped at a gas station in Montana somewhere, for reasons that I probably don’t need to explicate at this point. A sign on the door said: “No Dogs! German Shepherds On Patrol.” Sure enough, the second I entered the store, two German Shepherds padded up, circled me, sniffed me intently and thoroughly, and then, apparently satisfied, returned silently to their owner behind the counter. I’m sure they were well-trained and I was probably in no real danger, but I peed in my pants a little bit nonetheless.

In Missoula, I found my beloved friend Deb at her Mom’s house, and then followed her past wheat fields and grain silos and under railroad trestles, many miles outside of town. She’s got a beautiful piece of property on the Lower Flathead River – a main house filled with books and spare beds and cats, a couple of small cabins for guests, a yard full of chickens and metal sculptures and a gurgling stream, all under the watchful eye of her dog, Carlos. Deb had just returned from India, and was inspired to make us some curry, which was delicious. Deb’s brother Randy, who also lives on the property, joined us for dinner. Deb is a licensed therapist, so I exploited our friendship to get some advice on my reluctant move to Seattle, my grief about leaving friends behind in Massachusetts, my lingering anger at my parents, my general state of melancholy. And then I collapsed in bed, too tired to think about any of it for a second longer.

Within 24 hours, I would be back in Seattle.

Day09_001

Day 9: Fri, Oct 30, 2015

Missoula, MT to Seattle, WA
~ 477 miles

After finding my way back to I-90, I raced through the Idaho Panhandle and on to Spokane. Flashing signs told me that a snowstorm had closed the freeway at Snoqualmie Pass, so I took surface roads on a southerly detour. That landed me in a sandstorm, something I had never experienced in Washington. While trying to decide on the best route to Seattle, I received a call from the moving company.

“I am looking at your house on Google Maps.”

“Yes?”

“We cannot deliver to that house.”

“Excuse me?”

“Our truck. It is too big to drive down your street.”

“That’s ridiculous. I saw the truck you’re driving, remember? I was right there when you loaded it. There is no reason you can’t drive that truck down our street.”

“We are no longer driving that truck. We transferred your belongings into a much larger truck, and that truck is too large to drive down your street.”

“I don’t know what to tell you. This sounds like your problem, not mine. Do I need to speak with someone in your office?”

“If you like. We can hold your belongings until you decide what to do. But we will charge you for the storage.”

“Jesus. Have you people not ripped us off enough? What the fuck?”

“If you swear at me, I will hang up.”

“Grrrrr. Okay, what are our options?”

“We can rent a smaller truck, and then my men can transfer the belongings into that truck, and then make the delivery. When we deliver, you can pay us for the rental and the labor.”

“There is no way I’m paying you for this. You’ve already increased your ‘guaranteed’ price by several thousand dollars.”

“Then we will keep your belongings and sue you for the storage fees. Believe me when I tell you: In the end, you will pay.”

I’ll spare you the rest of the conversation. I felt so impotently furious, so utterly defeated, that I pulled over and pounded on the steering wheel and shouted until I felt sick, but slightly calmer.

A few hours later, I was in Seattle, and my trip was over. Robin talked me off the freeway, down 85th, right on Aurora, left on 100th… and she was waiting for me on the porch of our new home. I had to pee pretty badly, but after that, Robin held me tight, and neither of us could completely believe that – after a year apart – we were beginning the next chapter together. I called Max to tell him that Pops had arrived, and then I sat on the couch and fell silent while the world spun around me. The momentum of the long drive had not faded yet, and I couldn’t quite get grounded. I felt like Dustin Hoffman at the end of The Graduate: Okay, I made this brave/stupid life-altering decision, and… what now?

Viewing the Gallery

Click on any thumbnail to see the larger image and the caption (if any).

When viewing the larger image, click the right/left arrows on the image (or on your keyboard!) to move through the gallery. Click on the X in the upper right corner to return to the list of thumbnails.

2 Comments

  1. Hey Jason,
    Just finished reading all three parts of “Wheedle in my headlights” — and I thoroughly enjoyed your cross-country adventure. (Admittedly, I couldn’t get through all three parts without peeing a couple of times,but otherwise the peeing-reading process went uninterrupted.) I really do appreciate your travel writing, Jason. I enjoy the warmth, curiosity, humor, and intelligence in your writing as a delightful blend of Charles Kuralt (ever heard of that guy?), Bill Bryson, and Jason Toews. Thanks for sharing the experience.
    Bill

    • Thanks, Bill! Your kind words are much appreciated. I’m just glad to hear that *someone* read it, after the absurd time I took to write it.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.