Ten days into my big road trip and I was still flying like a bird, not knowing where I’d land next. The blue Kia I’d rented, the Mountain Bluebird, was running like a champ, and had almost become a part of me, like the lower half of a Centaur. Although I’d temporarily lost contact with Karen from Google Maps, I wouldn’t be thriving without her assistance either. T-Mobile needs better allies in Wyoming, however. I can tell you that.
Right now, I could make it with just a road map, but come evening I’d need more help than I was getting if I didn’t want to spend another night sleeping in the car. Maybe it was finally time to break down and get my first hotel anyway. I could stand a shower and the chance to clean out and organize the car.
I’d seen something about an ancient Medicine Wheel in the northeast of the state but decided to head up to Cody first and have a look around. It was about three hours from Fort Washakie. I took the 287 to the 789, which became the 26 at Riverton. Along the way I passed a statue of an Indian and frontiersman sharing a peace pipe, and the site of an early stage stop called the Halfway House. When I got to Cody, I parked in front of the Chamber of Commerce, and got out to explore the town on foot.
William F. Cody, or Buffalo Bill, is one of most famous characters to come out of the Old West, and as the creator of the hugely popular Wild West show, practically invented the popular stereotype of cowboys and Indians. Growing up in the Kansas territory, he is said to have ridden for the Pony Express as a teenager, fought for the Union Army in the Civil War, and gone on to work as a scout, guide, and Indian fighter. The fact that he became the subject of a popular western serial, Buffalo Bill, King of the Bordermen, while still in his early twenties, and then became an actor, meant that the line between truth and fiction in his biography would always remain hazy.
Do people want the truth, or do they want to be entertained? Buffalo Bill knew the answer to that better than anyone, and established Cody, primarily because of its proximity to Yellowstone, as a place where visitors could have their own Wild West experience. Even today, guests can stay on a dude ranch, go on pack-horse outings, attend rodeos, and hunt and fish. The town is full of museums, gift shops, and variety shows.
From the Chamber of Commerce, I walked over to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Outside were many statues; young Cody riding for the Pony Express, an older Indian woman, a brave, a maiden, a wolf howling at the moon, two tipis, a moose, two cowboys on horseback meeting up. I walked into the Center. A guy in a wheelchair who was the spitting image of Buffalo Bill was greeting visitors. It was twenty dollars to get in. I passed on that, as I was already seeing plenty for free.
By then I was so exhausted, I considered looking for a campground in Cody, but it was only afternoon and too hot to be setting up a tent. The Bighorn Medicine Wheel didn’t look far. It irritated me to no end that my phone service still wasn’t working. I’d have to hope that there were enough signs beside the road to find it.
I hopped in the Mountain Bluebird and took the 14 north and then east, crossing Bighorn Lake at one point. When I got to Bighorn Basin it was all uphill for miles. The road switched back and forth up an enormous wall, with such a rapid increase in elevation that I feared for the engine of my sturdy little companion. Fortunately, the way to Medicine Mountain was clearly marked. I got off on a dirt road and followed it until I came to a parking lot. Even though a small road continued up the mountain, a sign prohibited cars from going any further.
It was treeless at that height, with nothing to block the cold wind. Looking at a map, it appeared to be a few miles to the summit, all uphill. I started walking briskly, then turned around after about a hundred yards, to make sure I’d locked the car. There was only one other car in the lot. I considered the fact that someone could break a window and get at my stuff while I was walking but tried to put that out of my mind. It was bright and the sun was out, but it couldn’t have been windier. I was walking as fast as I could, lights exploding in my mind, breathing hard, just manic.
When I was about halfway to the top, a car pulled up behind me, some suburban couple, blatantly breaking the rules. At the same time, a young hippie was coming down, a beneficent smile on his face. I asked if cars were allowed to the top, and he assured me they weren’t. Five minutes later, and the same car was on its way back down again, the driver oblivious to the stink-eye I was casting.
There was a young couple and older woman at the Medicine Wheel when I reached it. With a diameter of over eighty feet, made up of twenty-eight spokes, radiating out from the center, it was hard to get the big picture standing next to it. Although allegedly dating back to Pre-Colombian times, it didn’t seem like it would’ve taken long to assemble the mid-size white stones that give it its shape. It was protected by a fence, from which people had strung bandanas, messages, prayers, and medicine pouches.
Like many sacred places, what makes them sacred is partly the journey and the effort that it takes to reach them. There are visions, like dreams, that come at you aggressively, that capture you and take you hostage on a wild ride. Then there are those you faintly remember, yet linger, perhaps just one or two images that stick with you, like a circle on the top of a barren peak. Whoever constructed it, did it in the belief that life is infinite, and that healing comes with time, just as the wildflowers reappear every spring.
I kept this in mind as I hurried back to the car, happy to see that no one had broken into it. It was two more hours to get to the Little Bighorn Battlefield. It felt like there wasn’t a moment to lose.