September 30, 2005

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Seeking the ridge where the West commences

Every few years, we get this yearning to go out West. Maybe we’ve seen too many Westerns at the movies and on television. Maybe Hopalong Cassidy and John Wayne are in our blood, I don’t know. But there’s a definite urge in us to gaze again at the vast, uniquely American scene we associate with personal freedom.

When our kids were young, we took them on three-week vacations, sometimes going as far as California and back. Those were the days when eight of us would drive a week to get out there, visit relatives and sights for a week, and then take a week to return. Makes me tired to think of it.

History was big on our agenda, and we saw more forts, pioneer villages and obscure ruts in the road than anyone needs to know about or can remember. But some western things, places and people remain fondly in our memories.

Buffalo, Wyo., is a small town at the base of the Big Horn Mountains. Years ago, the town had a wonderful municipal swimming pool lined with rocks and a gravel bottom, which was fed by mountain waters. Next to it was a tree-lined park beside a stream, where families could camp for free.

Cowboys are everywhere there, including the famous bar of the old Occidental Hotel, immortalized by Owen Wister in The Virginian. Once, while shopping for our camp supper in a grocery, I stood next to a pole-thin, extremely tall fellow in spurs and a 10-gallon hat. I was totally charmed when he drawled, “Pardon me, Maaam,” as he leaned across to pick up a package of meat.

Broken Bow, Neb., is another of our western favorites. There they have a pretty town square right out of a Norman Rockwell calendar, with a bandstand in a park surrounded by thriving stores, restaurants and businesses. They also have a museum featuring photographs of the sod houses formerly prevalent in the area.

On one corner, there’s the Arrow Hotel, where every guest is assigned a two-room suite with bedroom, living area and kitchenette. It was built in the 1920s with an elegant mahogany-paneled lobby, and it also offers an excellent restaurant serving steaks cooked to perfection. This is beef country, after all.

On the mesa above Fort Robinson, Neb., lies the site of the former Red Cloud Indian Agency. Here, at twilight, the setting sun sends down golden shafts and colors the surrounding buttes with crimsons and blues. There’s always a breeze whispering in the eerie silence, and you expect a party of Indians to ride up from the hill below at any moment.

Our latest western trip was a search for Lewis and Clark locations, but as usual we were entertained with more than just a dose of history. We witnessed the “casual wave,” which folks exchange even with strangers when passing by in cars or on horseback.

People actually say stuff like, “Howdy,” and spontaneously offer to show you where to find good food or interesting historical artifacts or the best places to picnic. And the names! There’s not only a “Bill,” Wyo., but also beer in Montana called Moose Drool, Trout Slayer and Fat Tire. Ours not to reason why.

We’re forever grateful that, on our western jaunts as in all things, we find God in the details.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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