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Driving Wyoming’s North Plains

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

When I asked Pee Wee, a Shoshone at the Twin Creek Ranch, whether he knew anything about a nearby Arapaho powwow, he said simply, "You eat dog?" Meant as a taunt, this was more of a joke than anything, since it later transpired that a niece of his, whom he himself had taught to dance in the "fancy style," was participating in the powwow. The event was an intimate version of the much larger Plains Indian Museum Powwow we saw a few days later in Cody, at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center—a procession of costumes, generations, and dancing styles. A costume for girls involves fringes made of ascending and descending rows of tin cigar tubes that make a tinkling sound when the dancer moves. One elder wore the head and skin of a wolf on his own head; another had a tall traditional feather headdress, worn with reflecting sunglasses that made the whole somehow seem less like a costume. The older women in finely beaded dresses were the most striking, especially one in a white conical beaded hat.

If you want to bathe in reproach, go to Old Trail Town just outside Cody: in this extraordinary reconstruction of original buildings salvaged from the area, you’ll feel the emotion all around. Inside, there are displays of letters and photographs and objects; it feels like a cross between a museum and a film set and is the brain child of a local man named Bob Edgar. The history comes out rather even, favoring neither the Indians nor the whites, not setting out to apologize or compensate for past actions. Edgar is on no one’s side, or rather, is squarely on both, a perfectly amalgamated white-Indian soul—this is the story the land itself might tell if it could. He has gathered as much documentation as possible, and by the time you emerge you have a fairly vivid sense of what happened in Wyoming, who the main Indian chiefs were, how they lived, and what they tried to do. The white buffalo hunter’s cabin, with its photographs of an expanse of dead animals darkening the ground, is the grisliest exhibit.

Another such treasure house of American memory is the Meeteetse Museum, founded in part by a pal of Bob Edgar’s, Jack Turnell, whose wife, Lili, inherited a share of the legendary Pitchfork Ranch, where Jack has been the rancher for 40 years. It is one of the most beautiful ranches in Wyoming and the original location for the "Marlboro Man" campaign. Precisely because these collections and displays are not decided by committee, there are many odd things and shifts in the scale and the nature of what you are seeing that keep you awake and looking. Something about the "fairness" and equilibrium of more institutional museums is soporific. Here, you feel one person speaking to you, showing you what they know and what they have found and collected. The most riveting display is the darkroom and archive of the photographer Charles Belden, who grew up on the ranch and spent most of his life there recording the day-to-day world of cowboys, ranchers, and sheepherders.

Also on view is Little Wahb, a vicious 800-pound grizzly who slaughtered a great many head of cattle and sheep, and a black-footed ferret, whose long slim body, thin neck, and delicate black-rimmed eyes are the closest animal equivalent to Audrey Hepburn. Thought to be extinct, the black-footed ferret was discovered in 1981 at Pitchfork and bred back into existence, thanks to Turnell, who spoke to me for almost 12 hours about his experience at Pitchfork. He and Lili told me what it’s like to go on a packhorse trip—and showed me photographs of their most recent one—sleeping in tents and cooking on a portable stove. (Jack likes to substitute the word puppy for thing, and I highly recommend the practice: "How do you cook a steak?" "I say, fry that puppy.") Another revelation was listening to retired cow foreman Ray Hammond and his wife, Deanna, both caretakers at the Pitchfork. They first met at a party at the ranch where her parents were living and working. Deanna gave me a copy of a poem Ray wrote about a medicine man he got to know while working on a ranch on the Crow reservation—along with her recipe for strawberry-rhubarb pie. She told me of the time, up in the mountains, when Ray had gone off to work and she was sitting outside her cabin and a black bear appeared. She signaled to the dog to be still, held her baby to her breast, and the bear just walked by. More recently, Ray was chased by a grizzly bear.

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