by Martin Murie
(Swans - October 8, 2007) At the Cheyenne airport my fellow passengers quickly picked up luggage, found parked cars and drove off. No cabs, no shuttle, no bus. I dropped my overloaded-with-books carryall and my two small backpacks, also loaded with books, and contemplated walking. A couple with two small boys appeared. I started to ask the distance to the Plains Hotel, but the woman, with a quick look at her husband, said, "Oh, we'll give you a lift." They took me to the center of town, at least two miles was my guess, dropped me at the Plains main entrance. I opened the carryall, tugged at tape-wrapped packs of books. The husband, ex-military, but now in another line of work, offered a big pocket knife. I found a Red Tree Mouse Chronicles for the boys and my latest, Lester and Me, a novel set in Wyoming. They wanted them autographed and I did that, and they drove away and I felt truly welcomed back to my home state, where people without much fuss help each other, and smile, and laugh.
The Plains Hotel
In front of the main entrance of the hotel is a sidewalk mosaic of Chief Little Shield. The lobby is huge, the floor tiled, ceiling high, restaurant on the right, an adjoining coffee shop, walls hung with historic photos and paintings, two very wide corridors leading to parts unknown, a balcony, an elevator and stairs. The Plains was, and is, no cramped Super 8 or Motel 6. It opened in 1904 and stands there today as a reminder of old times, when theatres and movie houses and department stores were palaces for the people. Here's a small sampling of the hotel's wall memorabilia: a photo of Chief Little Shield; a tribute to Nellie Tayloe Ross, woman governor of Wyoming; a big photo of big men dressed in heavy black suits; leaders of the livestock industry in the open range era. One of them became governor. They all look grim.
Windy and cool, huge tents on wide lawns near the capitol. Inside each tent kids packed cheek by jowl, busy socializing, sizing each other up. The readers of children's books had to speak against the constant murmur of human creatures and a sigh of wind. My guess was that about a third of the kids were actually listening to the readings. Outside, a thin scatter of parents and teachers looking in.
At one tent John Washakie, great grandson of the Shoshone Chief Washakie, was not reading, he was speaking, telling the kids, a slightly older bunch, that he was writing down ancient stories so that they wouldn't become lost. Then he told them a little story about working in a library. One day two of his co-workers, excited about a well-written detective book, teased him. "Bet you couldn't write a detective novel." He took it as a challenge, worked at it, succeeded. I assume that later he read, or told, stories to the school kids, from the long history of his people.
There is a real question here: when we try to get children interested in reading should we read, or tell? Or might we present stories written for a general readership, like Will James' Smoky the Cowhorse or E.T. Seton's Wahb the Grizzly? In Jackson our third grade teacher read from the Wahb book, among others, and in fifth grade we were totally entranced by Smoky. (1)
I realize that engaging with more than 100 kids crowded into a tent is a very different proposition from twenty or twenty-five in a quiet grade school room.
Yellow school buses from Goshen and Laramie counties were parked here and there on distant streets. They were being inspected by dogs led by handlers, each handler making sure their dog got a good whiff at undersides and behind tires. I asked what was going on, received a non-committal reply. I found another handler, asked if they were looking for drugs. "No," he said. "These are bomb dogs."
That evening two panels were held in the Old Depot, a magnificent building from out of the past: lots of space, at the edge of a huge switching yard. The overpass crossing the yard must have been close to half a mile long. I went back next evening to walk it again and watch a U.P.B.N. freight roll slowly in, towing cars bearing insignia from the four corners of the nation. Memories of trains and trainmen, freight-hopping days. In good weather there is no better way to see the country. Reclining on the roof of a boxcar or sitting on the open doorway of your own personal "sidedoor pullman," or leaning on the rim of an empty coal/gravel car, you are leaving the driving to the Hoghead as you rumble through backsides of towns and watch the slow passing of farmlands, mountains, rivers, clouds, animals. And then there are the bad days, condensation drips striking like bullets from inner surfaces of endless-seeming tunnels, cold nights on a boxcar, encounters with pistol-packin' yard bulls and town bulls. I remember a particularly bad night, the freight rushing across cold sagebrush plains of Wyoming ... whoa, some other time, let's get back to Cheyenne.
First panel, "How to Get Published." Carl Schreier was there with sound advice: it's not always easy; you have to train yourself to step back and look at your work with a severe eye, and other realistic counsels. I am forever grateful to Carl for taking a gamble on my first two novels. Fiction is a hard sell.
The West In Fact And Fiction panel featured two historians from the University of Wyoming, Pete Simpson and Phil Robertson, our moderator, novelist Kathleen O'Neal Gear, an archaeologist who writes novels about "pre-historic" America; Candy Moulton, a Wyoming historian with a keen appreciation of how fact and fiction reinforce each other; William Ross, grandson of Nellie Tayloe Ross, Wyoming's governor, first woman governor of any of the United States; Sam Western, who grounds his writing in the conviction that "humans, people, make history; events don't make history"; and myself, a writer determined, somehow or other, to get that Greek genius, Homer, into the conversation.
It was only natural for us to spend some time on the Wyoming quarter, a US Mint coin bearing the cowboy on the bucking horse and "The Equality State" slogan. Pete Simpson reminded us that many decades ago Wyoming had a woman governor, but it's time for us to pay attention to the present. We all agreed on equality, but that is an abstraction; pride in past victories does seem to trump making real moves to deal with horrific racial, gender, and illegal-worker inequalities in our nation today. Nor did we get into the darker side of Wyoming's past, extra-judicial hanging of a woman rancher by a small group of influential cattlemen, white Union Pacific coal mine workers killing Chinese workers, the Johnson County war fiasco, and so on.
I finally found a gap to wedge in Homer's Iliad, suggesting that Homer, back in the seventh or eighth centuries BCE, portrayed dissension in the ranks, created each warrior as an individual; dared to say that sometimes heroes were deathly afraid; dared to give space for outspoken individuals in the ranks of both Trojans and besiegers, expressing in those long, leaping lines the diversity and layerings of his culture. I used the word resonance for that. There wasn't time for elaboration, but I want to add here that the challenge for today is to not shrink from any facet of fact, to push films and fictions to the utmost, making words and acts and camera work ring true. We have a way to go on those pathways, but a fine example was given at the panel by Kathleen Gear, from one of her writings. An alert reporter picked it up for next day's Wyoming Tribune-Eagle. (2)
It's dead winter out there. If you fight you will almost certainly die. If you run you're not going to run very far because the snow is too deep. You will lose everything you consider precious.
Sunny and warm. I knew there were poets and fiction writers and historians voicing their work. Much to my regret I missed most of those appearances, didn't hear poetry spoken aloud until that night while waiting for dinner at the Plains Hotel, Dick Morton introduced himself. He spoke of early days in Wyoming, he and another young man working on highways in the Afton and Alpine regions of Wyoming. He and his wife -- she too is a performance poet -- now spend half-years in Mesa, Arizona. We exchanged cards; his identifies him as "Cowboy Poetry Reciter." In a low voice he recited a poem, the refrain was "My enemy, my enemy." At the end he and "my enemy" are friends. There was something straightforward, unpretentious and hypnotic, about Dick's voice. I told him he had given me the shivers. We talked on. One of his stories: two highway workers deciding one night to go out on the town. They got to town all right, but had trouble getting back to work next day. Deciding they needed a car they found a man offering a Model T Ford for $15.00. They turned it down. "Too expensive."
I met again Nancy Curtis of High Plains Press, Glendo, Wyoming. Nancy is one of the stalwart trio of women -- the other two are Linda M. Hasselstrom and Gaydell Collier -- who have collected a massive array of memories and adventures written by western women. I bought what I believe is the third volume in the series, Crazy Woman Creek. These books are must read for anyone wanting a deeper look into the settlement of the west and the modern west; the tough times and the good times. (3)
They are Susan Vittitow and Jaimie Markus at the State Library, Beth Miller at the State Museum and Archives, Tina Lackey, and Lesley Lipska They not only organized in an always changing scene, but paid meticulous attention to detail. It must have been, in Jim Hightower's simile, like carrying frogs in a wheelbarrow.
2. Michelle Dynes, "More Truth In Fictional Stories Than Meets Eye. A Wyoming Book Festival Discussion Focused On How Facts And Fiction Work Together," Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, September 25, 2007. (back)
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