Behind Cowboys and Soldiers

So I’ve spent the last three nights camped out near Bozeman, MT. Montana was the American end of the old cattle trails up from Texas, and those routes have been the basis for my northward drive over the past week. Along the way I’ve been diving into the past backwards, reading accounts written by the men themselves of life along the trail.

There’s a cowboy diary in Oklahoma City I picked up in the first week of the trip. Jack Bailey trailed a herd from Texas to Kansas in 1868, journaling in a battered notebook along the way. The cover is half worn away, but the pages still bear his strong, angled handwriting in brown ink that is still clear to read. I imagine him writing as the cattle are bedded down, or in odd spots along the trail (he records writing by a lakeshore at night, or under a tree ahead of the herd, or at the counter of the drugstore in Emporia, KS.)

I had read the diary twice through in a printed edition before seeing the original in the flesh, but the seeing the handwriting is like hearing someone talking. There is now a voice to the words. Jack dates each entry and includes the day of the week as well – sometimes he draws little curlicues and dots around the Ts on Tuesdays and Thursdays. No print edition could have told me that.

In Cody, WY I leafed through the old photos and papers at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center on the hunt for William Levi “Buck” Taylor. Taylor had been a star performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (the British Prime Minister dropped by to say hello during the show’s 1887 tour stop in London) and he had an international reputation as “the King of the Cowboys.”

Despite the fame, the long intervening years have caused his trail to go cold. Newspaper reports after he left the show suggest that all was not well. There were stories of an elopement with a young lady from Baltimore, assaults, a Buck Taylor impersonator. Letters home from another Wild West performer fail to mention Taylor’s name. His story is a hazy one, half-wrapped in legend and sensationalism. I found little that could be definitively traced to him, aside from period photographs and Wild West Show programs. Nothing that he had touched.

That night, I moved back to the present to watch rodeo cowboys. The Cody Nite Rodeo happens every evening throughout June, July, and August and gives a slice of Americana so thick it seems almost caricatured. After the opening prayer and national anthem, Bill Idol’s “White Wedding” kicked on over the speakers. I watched as men rode and roped and bucked steers and tied calves. Women and girls did barrel-racing and a few brave ladies did give the calf roping a try. Part of this trip was undertaken to find my limits, and I found some at the Cody Nite Rodeo. There’s no way I could do what they do.

Cowboys aren’t the only archetypes out here. Driving south and east out of Montana today I stopped by the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. On June 25, 1876 George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Calvary were decimated by an alliance of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. To my disappointment, the battle site was crowded. I had hoped to walk alone and collect my thoughts on what this clash had meant then and why we are still drawn to it today. It seemed a hopeless mess from the start: the officers of the frontier Army could not coordinate their attack, the Cheyennes and Sioux were fighting with everything they had, and neither side was willing to accept a partial victory. It was all or nothing.

From my vantage point of the 21st century, there is no glory in America’s decision to purchase the success of one civilization through the death of others. Custer had it coming.

And although I pass judgment on his actions, I feel sympathy for his fate. Standing on the ridge, facing the small hilltop where Custer and a handful of soldiers made their famous Last Stand, there is a shallow ravine to the right. The ravine is filled with clusters of white gravestones. They mark where the soldiers fell, some in groups, a few cut down alone. Those headstones march up along to the hilltop in a white trail, completing the run these men did not make in life.

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Hurricanes and Other Hazards

005 (2)The atmospheric drizzle of last Thursday evening turned into a fullscale torrent by Friday afternoon courtesy of Hurricane Alex. Not enough to stop intrepid adventurers from bravely exploring Austin’s downtown and venturing across Lady Bird Lake. Once on the other side, the rain hit full tilt and I ended up spending half an hour huddled under an overpass with some stranded joggers. Strangely, it was the most relaxed moment of the trip to date. There was nothing to do, no place to be except right there, watching the rain.

That evening, Circe and I headed to the Broken Spoke, one of Texas’ oldest, old-school honkytonks. Its the kind of place where the floor tilts and if you stand close enough to the dance floor, you can feel the vibrations of peoples’ feet hitting the boards coming up through the soles of your shoes. During one turn around the floor my partner asked where I was from, and when I replied “Washington, DC” he said, “The last time my people been up there, they was ridin’ with the Confederates. Ain’t been back since and don’t mean to go back.” I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to laugh or not but I did anyway.

Today I dropped Circe off at the Denver airport and picked up my father. The Rockies beckoned. We drove to Estes Park and soaked up a few fleeting hours of sunshine. While hiking a trail called the Devil’s Backbone, we came across a chubby snake sprawled out in the middle of the path. We looked at each other, trying to assess its’ species and debating on whether to shoo it away or just try to get a running start and jump over it. After some very long seconds, the snake inched its way into the grass and away from us. As it slid by, we saw a two and a half inch rattle at the end of its’ tail.

The sunshine and warm temperatures disappeared the second my father and I crossed the Wyoming border. It is 51 degrees here and threatening to drop even further. I’m not terribly afraid of snakes, but I’m not too keen on sleeping out the next several nights in the cold. I suppose it wouldn’t be true West if it didn’t give me a little kick from time to time.

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Love, Texas-Style

039Ahhh, Texas. I hit the northern plains Wednesday afternoon and knew immediately that something was different. The skies seemed to open up a little bit, the land got a little bit wider. Sure the sides of the highway are built up with motels and gas stations and fast food joints, but I can’t help but wonder how the land struck those early pioneers who’d grown up in the New England woods or Southern pine forests.

The first thing I did when I got to Texas, crosseyed from having driven from Oklahoma City that morning and the air hot and muggy enough that my shirt is sticking to my back within 2 seconds of stepping out of the car, was to dive into the Baylor University library. I was digging around their manuscript collection looking at papers of ranching families from the late 1800s. Maybe it sounds dull, but it was actually fascinating to unravel parts of life stories from the paper trail they had left behind. And that’s how I stumbled across the love story between Clitus Jones and Lily Sutton.

In the middle of a thick folder of papers a little note pops up, written on faded blue-lined paper.

Miss Lily Sutton,
Can I have the pleasure of your company for a drive this evening?
Your friend,
E.C. Jones

I turn over the note, and to my delight and surprise, there is Lily’s reply.

Mr. Jones, I accept your invitation for a drive this afternoon with pleasure.
Your friend,
Lily Sutton.
Cuevo, Texas. May 8th, 1881.

The formality of the language and the quaintness of it all is, frankly, adorable. I read on breathlessly as their courtship unfolds. The pair progresses from “Mr. Jones” and “Miss Sutton” to exchanges of “I never wanted to see any body as badly in my life” and “An intire [sic] week passed away before I heard one thing of you for your letter only came today. It is needless to say how much pleasure it afforded me to hear from you.” They ditched the platonic “your friend” for “ever yours” or “ever your own loving Lily.”

I wonder when Clitus is going to ante up and finally seal the deal. The pair swaps letters for nearly a year and a half, writing to each other at odd hours, promising to keep the missives short but somehow, can’t seem to stop themselves from writing on and on.

At last, the wedding invitation. It is a plain white rectangle of paper, simply announcing the marriage of E. Clitus Jones and Lily Sutton at the Episcopal Church in Cuevo, Texas on January 17th, 1883. As far as I can tell, they did live pretty happily. After nearly a decade of marriage, Clitus was still sending Lily letters from his business trips, addressed to “My Dear Little Girl.”

That evening, I was ready to emerge from Victorian-era romance to the 21st century by way of downtown Austin. After almost a week of traveling solo, I connect with my good friend Circe and we proceed to get knee deep in what the city can offer.

We start with dinner. One of the tattooed guys hanging out in front of one of the endless places to get inked in this town recommended Stubb’s Bar-B-Que . It was all we had hoped it would be – large plates of meat upstairs, a band downstairs, cool exposed brick mixing happily with neon signage. From there, we roll to a bar called The Library because my curiousity was piqued by a place that has floor to ceiling bookshelves and also serves booze. Turns out its a Texas chain, but still a fun place for drinks and people-watching. There is live music everywhere. Seems you can’t throw a rock without hitting a guy with a guitar, and that is just the way we like it.

We end the night at Maggie Mae’s. Yelpers are all over this place, and justifiably so. The staff are friendly and the crowd this Thursday evening seems relaxed and readu to have a good time. We listen to Jeremy Steding and his band (tagline: “A Damn Good Ride”) and they do crowd-pleasing covers of Johnny Cash and Tom Petty. While on break, Jeremy stops by at every table to distribute smiles and business cards. The kicker of the evening, though, is an amazing guitarist (also a pretty good dancer) named Adam Rogers who gets onstage and makes that thing wail. His acoustic rendition of the notorious “Thong Song” stunningly enough actually sounded good.

Yes, this is a long, long way from 1881.

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Lewis and Clark Slept Here

I have been on the road three days and have covered 1,337 miles, or almost a third of the total trip distance. I have been waiting for the landscape to change, but the variations have been subtle. On Saturday I rolled through hour after hour of Ohio and Illinois farmland. Today I covered Missouri and a good bit of Oklahoma. The Missouri bluffs were pretty and greener than I expected. The other surprise: roadkill armadillos.

Picture of empty highway.
Highway leading across the American West.

Yesterday I knocked around St. Louis with my sister. We ditched the Arch and explored the Delmar Loop, rubbing elbows with Midwestern hipsters and trawling vintage clothing shops. In late afternoon we climbed the Indian bluffs outside of the city, about the oldest and most mysterious thing the area has to offer.

Clark recorded seeing the Cahokia Mounds while the expedition was camped out on the eastern side of the Mississippi River during the winter of 1803/1804. It was a freezing day in January, the cold bitter enough that his wet feet froze to his shoes so that they had to be carefully extracted from the leather. Quite a change from the sweltering heat of midsummer I felt yesterday, a field of rolled haybales visible just to the left and the city limits of Collinsville, IL hardly a stone’s throw away.

Beyond St. Louis I hit Interstate 44, built to bypass historic Route 66. There was a earlier route that predated both of these roads, a universe away from joyriding Americans reveling in the freedom of the highway. This same ground had been traveled over by Cherokees marching westward on the Trail of Tears. This is the dark side of the American dream and the pioneer spirit, the part that kills or dislocates whatever gets in its way.

Tomorrow, I’m off to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum to look at some old cattle trail maps and other relics. This seemed the place to start digging into the West, to see it in its distilled museum form.

Tonight, I’m camping out with the sounds of cicadas surrounding my tent. I chatted with a couple folks who were impressed and maybe a little surprised to see a woman traveling alone. Turns out they spent a stint in northern Virginia. It’s a small world.

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Gone, Baby, Gone

Map of United States showing travel route.
My travel route.

Here it is – the map of my route. It’s a big trip.

The idea is to cover as much ground as possible, maybe get a little road-weary, but definitely get a sense of the space and atmosphere of the Far West.

I’m traveling from DC to St. Louis, then heading south to Oklahoma and Texas. After cooling my heels in Austin for a couple days, I swing north into Kansas and Colorado, and then up into Wyoming to explore Cody and Yellowstone. Bozeman, MT is the end of the trail before driving home, just like it was back in the heyday of the cattledrives.

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48 Hours

Picture of mountains.
Bugaboo Range in the Canadian Rockies.

This morning my thoughts are jumpy enough that I probably don’t need the second cup of coffee I am drinking. Its not yet 9 o’clock in the morning and already the heavy heat of DC summer is seeping in around the windows.

Yesterday I wrote a bit about the mindset of early pioneers and explorers, and wondered what their thoughts may have been on the eve of their adventures. Its a mindset that is probably completely lost to us today: the contours of the globe are too well known, our coordinates easily programmed in GPS devices, and SATphones keeping us connected from virtually anywhere on earth.

So if not danger and discovery, what am I seeking? I can think of many answers to that question, all of them true but none of them complete.

I am going for the search. Sure, this territory is well-canvassed and well-traveled. But it is new to me, and I am new to it. It is the newness that captivates me, and the sense of being lost in something much bigger than myself.

Sometimes the past surges forward and crashes over us like a wave. A few years ago I spent some time in England and studied in Canterbury, where I made many visits to Canterbury Cathedral. This ancient edifice of English Christianity still hangs timelessly over the city, its stones as cool and quiet as they were a millennium ago. I remember kneeling in one of the side chapels in the crypt, alone, the patter of tourists’ feet echoing in the main passage, and being swept away by the feeling that someone else might have been praying in that very spot 500, 600, 800, or 1,000 years ago. Separated in time, we became united in geography. It was a moment I wanted to sit still for.

The photo in this post is of the Bugaboo Mountains in British Columbia, Canada. They run roughly parallel to the Rockies and are breathtakingly beautiful, the weather fickle as it is at high altitudes, and their silent immensity giving the impression that the world is nothing but mountains. It is this sense of immersion that stops me in my tracks. In Washington, I am part of many things – work, friendships, professional networks, volunteerism – but there is no single experience that defines my day to day life.

Out in bigger spaces, with bigger vistas, maybe there is the possibility of being overwhelmed in the best possible sense.

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72 Hours

Amy Arden
Amy Arden in Cody, Wyoming, 2010.

Roadtrips are as American as apple pie. There comes a point-probably many points-where we have to go through the rite of passage to pack up the car, top off the gas tank, pile in the CDs, and drive off in search of adventure.

In less than 72 hours I’m diving deep into this fantasyland myself. For the past 10 years I have daydreamed about exploring the reaches of the Far West. Maybe it was the result of growing up with too much Little House on the Prairie. Maybe it’s because as an East Coaster, I was (and continue to be) fascinated by any place where the horizon goes on unbroken. Or perhaps I am finally getting around to taking Horace Greeley’s advice, issued to disaffected DC denizens almost a century and a half ago, to “Go West!”

I’m not sure what Lewis and Clark were thinking as they rode West and into the unknown, or what went through the mind of kids trying their luck as Pony Express riders, or immigrants who packed their bags and their hopes and traveled towards the setting sun. My trip is going to be an easy one in comparison, my route neatly laid out in Google maps, my car stocked with snacks and air conditioning, and my gear designed with all the technological advancements of the past two centuries. No canvas tents or itchy wool or nasty hardtack biscuits. I’m only a temporary pioneer.

The places I intend to see are iconic. Texas, larger than life and as John Steinbeck once said “a state of mind.” Dodge City, KS. Cody, WY, which has had a summertime rodeo going strong since the 1930s and performers who reenact frontier gunfights every evening. Bozeman, MT, which people say is beautiful as God’s own country. And finally, Deadwood, SD made famous by the TV miniseries and where the hotel owned by the town’s former sheriff still stands and is reportedly haunted by his ghost.

This is where I’m headed, into the dust and memories, where past and present and future overlap. Once upon a time…and off into the sunset.

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