When I’d picked up a rental car in Huntington Beach over a month earlier and just started driving, I’d only had a vague idea that I might drive through Indian reservations. By now the trip had become a crash course in the whole history of Western expansion, and I was still flying across the land with some of the most interesting lessons ahead of me. Fortune had mostly smiled on me the whole time, from the weather, to what was open, to the places I’d found to camp. If I’d started my trip needing to find hotel rooms right away, it would’ve been over within a week.
My plan that day was to drive from Dodge City to North Platte, Nebraska, and Ogalala, then on to Denver that evening. It was a lot for one day, possibly too much. I got up while it was still dark and loaded the car. When I was ready, I looked up North Platte on Google Maps and asked for directions, hesitating for a moment when I remembered how I’d yelled at Karen the day before. Would she even answer? That was ridiculous. We’d spent so much time together, and honestly, she’d saved my skin so many times, that I’d gotten oddly attached to her. I was relieved when her voice came through bright and clear, my angel of the morning, directing me to take the 400 west to the 23 north.
In a half hour, the sky opened up in bands above the highway, pink, pale blue, and a darker shelf of gray-blue above that. Talk about flat. You could have laid the foundation for a house on the horizon. I passed through Grinnell and Oberlin. A flock of wild turkeys strutted across the road. Later, I drove past huge pens of cattle, tens of thousands of them. The air reeked of sulfur.
I had a cousin in North Platte, but I’d be seeing her at my aunt’s in Ogalala after lunch. My destination was the home of Buffalo Bill, Scout’s Rest, as well as the trading post and tourist trap, Fort Cody, which had been a favorite childhood stop on our trips between my grandparents’ homes in Denver and Lincoln.
Buffalo Bill was showing up everywhere on my trip. His Wild West Show had gone on to define an era for most people, in the same way that certain movie actors define a generation. What was he like as a man? It depends on who you ask? He gave audiences what they wanted to see, white heroes restoring order to the universe. Was he a drinker and philanderer? By some accounts he had to be tied to his horse to keep from sliding off, and his relationship with his wife was barley civil.
Was he influential? Enormously so. His vision of the Wild West would go on to inform all the stereotypes about it that we’ve come to know by heart. If you grew up playing Cowboys and Indians, you already knew how the game should go.
When I reached the Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park Museum, there was a wedding party meeting up in the parking lot. On the other side of the road was a rodeo arena. Scout’s Rest, the home where Buffalo Bill rested up and entertained guests in between tours, was built in 1886. I did a quick tour on my own. There were pictures of him at various ages, one with his daughter, Irma, a couch he used to recline on, a buffalo robe, in one case comic books and action figures, a picture of Sitting Bull, and one of Pawnee Bill.
Out back in the barn, there were stables, riding gear, a covered wagon, artwork and posters from his different tours, and pictures of the cast members, many of them Native Americans who’d only recently been conquered and forced onto reservations. From what I understand, Buffalo Bill respected them and treated them well, even if they were expected to lose every fight. I read some of the names: Moses Flying Hawk, Amos Two Bulls, Bull Ghost, Amos Little, Mrs. Yellow Hair, Whirling Horse, Sam Surrounded, Crow Eagle, Charles and Julia American Horse, Mrs. Black Tail Deer, Iron White Man, Bad Bear, Chief Iron Tail, Joe Black Fox, Buffalo Fat. What names, what pride, what identity, what culture.
There was also a picture and poster that billed Annie Oakley, one of the top stars of the show, who could shoot a cigar out of her husband’s hand or hit a playing card at thirty paces. Outside was a tipi and small park, that was decorated for the upcoming fall holidays. When I left the home, I went and parked in front of the tipi, to gather my thoughts for a moment. It had become nearly impossible to stop and count my breaths for any length of time. If I didn’t get to it right then, it wouldn’t happen.
There was a pumpkin patch beside the tipi and a cold wind blowing through the trees. Some cattle and a few buffalo were standing inside a corral. Children were running around, playing and yelling. The whole property was the perfect playground. Off in the distance I could see a mule and a couple of goats. What was exciting the children was a zipline. I could see the movement of bodies flying through the air, but not where they started or stopped.
We made our own ziplines when I was growing up out of rope, we jumped out of trees and swings into bushes, we rode laundry baskets down flights of stairs, coming close to annihilation, yet somehow surviving. That had been the thrill of it all. The wind was rustling, and orange leaves were flying all around. An old man in a cowboy hat walked by carrying a gas can. My mind began racing like the wind.
Next up was good, old Fort Cody. As children, we’d had to beg and plead from a hundred miles away to get our father to stop at Fort Cody. He would’ve pulled over regardless. It was one of our most cherished traditions. Back then they’d had Indian dancers performing in the back court. It was an adventure just to be there.
As I pulled into the parking lot, I was flooded with the nostalgia. There was the sign, Buffalo Bill, in his fringed jacket and hat, cradling a rifle in his arms. Outside were a buffalo, grizzly bear, pony, and kachina doll. Along the fort walls were posted sentries from the Calvary. One was folded over with an arrow sticking out of his ass. Yellow flags were flying. A cannon stood ready.
Inside there was a miniature version of the Wild West Show and a two-headed calf. There were two mannequins standing in cases side by side, one an Indian in full regalia, the other Buffalo Bill. Overhead was the skin of a bobcat. There were drums, moccasins, pictures of Red Cloud, Kicking Bear, Sitting Bull, and Gall. In the backyard was a small jail, a rider on a bucking bronc, with a hole around his head for you to look through while someone took a picture, a big Indian, and another buffalo.
It was largely how I remembered it as a young child. It looked like they had removed the lewd merchandise that had infiltrated some of the shelves during my teen years. My brother and I always joked about a cup we’d seen when we got older that was a tit, where you were supposed to drink out of the nipple. We’d always considered that to be the end of the innocence.