On the Cowboy Trail - page five

from Encounters in the US Mountain West; A Sinner amongst the Latter Day Saints, by Ian R. Mitchell - to be published by NWP Publishing in September 2012

Photo: mountain range. By the time I got down to Surprise Lake from the Pinnacle I was the last man on the mountain, all the others having already descended, though I thought I could hear their footsteps crashing in the woods ahead. Just below Surprise Lake I got a real surprise. First a small black bear trundled through the woods and across the path about 20 yards in front of me. I knew what was coming by the noise. Momma Bear followed on closely behind Baby Bear. I quickly looked behind me, hoping that someone, anyone, was still at the Lake so I could shout for help if needed. When I turned back, mother and cub were gone. Should I run? Should I walk slowly? Should I be quiet? Should I make a lot of noise? I had read what to do in these situations, but had forgotten. I trod carefully and slowly for a while - and then, ran like hell as they say here. But this encounter was nothing to what was to come.

I had decided that two nights in my cabin - despite the view - was excessive at that price, so I started heading back south, where there appeared to be plenty of places marked on the map that I might stay. I also wanted to visit the Wind River Range, which had been recommended by a friend. A Cinderella of mountains lying in the shadow of the Tetons, they were a much wilder area, but, I was assured, equally worth visiting. Once you leave Jackson you enter, almost all the way to the Utah border, very arid country. But it is not arid and dramatic and arid and colourful like Utah, it is just arid. It presents itself to the eye as resembling huge mounds of dull-coloured chemical waste, which have been baked into solidity by the sun. If the tourists come this way they don't stop in any of the towns before the Tetons, I would imagine. Many of them looked like one-horse towns whose horse had long died. I was headed for Pinedale, which seemed the biggest and therefore would be most likely to have accommodation for a couple of nights' exploration of the Winds. In Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads, Richard Grant says, "I liked Pinedale, a small no-nonsense Wyoming town." He went there when it was hosting its annual Mountain Man Rezendevous, and the population (1181, and falling I was later thankful to find out) was swamped many times by the pretend week-end trappers. I suggest Grant tries the town another time.

Pinedale didn't look like a gastro-hub or a place with a cluster of boutique hotels as I drove into town, but I thought it would do. I drove around for a while, and then, down a set of dusty back streets with clapboard houses and wrecked cars, I found a Motel. It was midday, and no one was around. I rang the bell and eventually a - I have to say -rather slatternly and very fat woman appeared,
"Youwanna room? Sixty dollars a night, in advance. Idennification?"
I handed over a passport which visibly said on the front United Kingdom, in English. She flicked through it and noted my place of residence.
"Glasgow? That's in Germany, aint it?" adding,
"That room on the corner. Lock your door. Don't answer it at night."
In Pinedale possessing a British passport, living in Glasgow and talking in English apparently meant you were German.

I had most of the day left and decided to go and have a look at the Wind River Mountains. A road went up into the hills from Pinedale, past Fremont Lake where the country started to improve in visual quality and to a trailhead amongst the pines. I hiked from there about six miles to an overlook point, and looked down into the great bowl of the Wind Rivers Wilderness, lakes dotted in the forest beneath the granite peaks, chief of which was Gannet Peak in the distance. This was, as they say, awesome - serious wilderness country and seriously beautiful. But it wasn't day trip country so, hoping that one day I might be back I returned to Pinedale, having a plan for an adventure the next day in the southern part of the Winds range that looked day-manageable.

When I returned to the motel I had company. They had presumably been out working during the day, and they looked like migrant workers, Mexicans, or Hispanics anyway, possibly cattlemen, possibly labourers. They had a collection of beat up trucks parked at the motel. They were already making their meal, an open air barbecue, and hitting the crates of beer that they had bought to wash it down. The courtyard had been converted to an open air gambling school, where some threw dice in the dirt and others played cards whilst waiting for their meal. I am sure they clocked me but there was not the slightest sign of recognition given, nor was one invited from me by any body language on their part. It would have been good if I had shared a meal in the open air with happy cattlemen, singing Spanish love songs and playing their guitars...a story to tell, bringing colour to my travelogue. But I have another tale instead.

Photo: cowgirl grafton wyoming. I walked back to the main street and started looking for somewhere to eat. There appeared not to be a lot of choice so I stopped a passing local and asked where I could find a suitable place,
"Cattleman's Grill, the best in town. You wont go wrong there," he advised me, pointing the eatery's location out. I crossed the street and entered, and immediately was in my own movie again. Only, it was Brokeback Mountain. Maybe it was the jacket - friends in Utah later sagely said that was the problem. I have a light tweed jacket that has been much admired at home, and even praised in sartorially conscious Italy when I have worn it there. It is made of tweed material of a subdued orange colour, and possibly nothing like this had been seen in the Cattleman's Grill before. The joint was dimly lit, smokey (no cigarette ban in Man's Country Wyoming) and noisy -till I entered, and felt that every eye was on me in a brief silence, till they all turned away again as one. I moved further into the restaurant looking for a waitress; one emerged from the kitchen at the back, saw me, registered my presence, and disappeared back into the kitchen. I sat down, heads occasionally turning in my direction, and waited. No one came to serve me. This must have been how blacks felt in the 1960s when they sat at Southern cafe counters. And I knew what happened next in that scenario.

The people in the restaurant I had time to observe - and I trust I did so casually and discreetly. They were like something out of a Depression Era movie, the men and the woman dressed in jeans and shirts that appeared to have been long unwashed, kids beside them with hair uncombed staring at me -unlike their studiedly ignoring-me parents, one of two of whom I noticed were beginning to chuckle at my discomfiture as the waitress continued to ignore me. It was my move, and I've seen the cowboy movies - if I headed back out the door there would probably be a bullet coming my way. So, I got up, marched through into the kitchen, confronted the waitress, and politely but firmly, asked for service - and a beer. The beer came silently, as did the menu sullenly, none of this 'I'm Lucinda I'll be your server tonight. Let me know if I can help you in any way.' - stuff. I ordered and something came. Maybe they made it especially for me, but it was the most inedible lump of fat sugar salt and some kind of carbohydrate that I have ever eaten, or, not eaten. I drank my beer, nibbled at the edges of the gastronomic creation, ordered a box for it (which, filled and carried out, then disappeared into the first rubbish bin outside) and walked out like John Wayne, my head held high.

I was slightly relieved to get back to the motel without being pursued by a lynch-mob. Extensive deconstruction of this episode later with friends back in Utah produced their interpretive slant on it. I was clearly a) an intellectual/ environmentalist b) a homosexual (the jacket) c) had engaged in a deliberate provocation by going in there and d) was quite lucky not to have been challenged by a drunken, or even sober, cowboy (they explained to me that is what the guys in dirty clothes were). Back at the motel I though my anxieties had probably been exaggerated, but the next day, in a place called Boulder, came the confirmation that they had not been. However first I had to put up with the tail end of the Hispanics' party. I would like to say there were gunshots that night, but instead there was just shouting (no music) and the occasional crashing which I hoped was taking place far from my car. I locked the windows, pushed the wardrobe in front of the door, and got out the bear spray I had brought for the Wind Rivers - but having found out there were greater terrors in Pinedale than Bruin, I had it at the ready.

In times of stress we reach for the familiar. There was a phone in the hotel room, I thought I would call home, hear a reassuring voice. Phones are complicated things and I spent a while working out that local calls were free, but others had to be put through the operator service, for which, conveniently, there was a number and so I dialled it. I will leave out my own contribution to the conversation for brevity's sake.
"Good evening, sir? Which number? Is that an out of state number, and which state? An international call? I can't do that, sir, I have not provided that facility before, and I am not aware of how to do so. No-one has previously asked for that service."
I had a sudden pang of horror. Pinedale was disconnected from the outside world, whatever happened here would go unnoticed, like in a time-warp where people simply disappeared. This is little exaggeration. In these nowhere US towns the only sources of information are local radio stations, many of them of a religious, fundamentalist persuasion, and local newspapers which provide comment on stump and parish pump issues. There is a serious lack of interest in the world outside. That's why they think Glasgow is in Germany. (Or Scotland is in Russia).

Photo: present day cowboy ranch. In the morning, though having paid for two nights, I jumped in my car, and bade farewell to Pinedale. Fortified only by my remaining supply of biscuits, at 6am I headed for the Big Sandy trailhead. A friend of mine had recommended a trail from there into the Cirque of Towers in the southern Wind Rivers, a place he raved about as being equal to the Tetons. I didn't get to the Cirque of Towers. I didn't even get to Big Sandy trailhead. I did, though, get to Boulder. This was the first place after Pinedale, and I stopped to buy petrol at a filling station and to see if I could get some supplies. It was now 7am and I entered to pay for the "gas" and managed to acquire a couple of bottles of coke and some chocolate and biscuits to help me on my way. I had a problem, my road map showed two dirt roads into Big Sandy; which was the one I should take? I asked the gas station attendant.
"Dunno," she offered, and jerking a humb over her shoulder, "ask the guys back there."

I went "back there". Remember, it is only 7am. Through the fog of cigarette smoke I saw the group of maybe half a dozen guys sitting round a table. They were drinking from bottles, many others of which stood empty on the table. It was 7am, an early start I thought - or maybe they'd been at it all night. My instinct to turn on my heels was overcome and I pulled off another John Wayne moment, marching to the table.

"Mornin' guys" I tried breezily in my best local accent. (I should mention the tweed jacket was safely out of sight in the boot of the car by now). " I want to get to the Big Sandy Trailhead, which is the best way?"

Silence. It was as If I had not spoken, was not even there. No one even looked at me. The request for directions to the trailhead, I was informed later, had revealed me as an outdoors type, hated by the cattle ranching fraternity for their goddam hippy environmentalism. Friends subsequently told me my next move was a greater provocation than the red rag of the orange jacket was in the Cattleman's Grill, and that I was probably at that point in some serious danger of being assaulted, for having invaded sacred territorial space. I laid my map out on their bottle-cluttered cigarette-strewn table, pointed to the two roads going into Big Sandy, and asked, pointing to each in turn, with an attempt to put steel into my voice,
"Which road should I take?"
One guy turned his head towards me slowly, looked at me like I was a cockroach and, wordlessly, stubbed his thumb on the southerly of the two roads. I walked out, I admit, my throat dry. And I had fallen into a trap.

The more northerly road was partly paved and went through scattered farms to the turn off for the trailhead. (I know, for I came back that way). The southerly route was a dirt track that led to an electricity power sub-station, and then had no further directions when fissuring out in a maze of other dirt tracks. In addition tracked vehicles had rutted this road, and I could only judder along at a gass-guzzling shuddering snail's pace. I spent a long time driving around those dirt roads until I finally emerged at a farm, and saw a guy driving a trailer with bales of hay. He had no idea of where the Big Sandy trailhead was, but at least he knew where he was, and from that information and my map I could work out that I still had about 30 miles to go. I was furious. I saw those guys having a good laugh back in Boulder at their sorting out of that smart-ass out of town pinko-liberal commie pervert fella, had fantasy visions of myself walking into the back room, and blowing them all to bits with a magnum. Then I thought, maybe I've been in Wyoming too long - and I headed for Utah.

I drove non-stop through the "badlands" of south western Wyoming, an area that appeared to me to be even more unscenic than that around Pinedale - or maybe it was just my negative mood influencing my aesthetic appreciation - past Kemmerer and across the state line into Utah - and stopped. They couldn't get me now. I looked back at the Forever West Cowboy sign announcing Wyoming, and then forward at the glorious image of Delicate Arch on the Utah one, and thought - I'm safe, I am back with the Mormons. They may have their flaws, but I don't think they would lynch a man for the colour of his jacket.

from Encounters in the US Mountain West; A Sinner amongst the Latter Day Saints, by Ian R. Mitchell - to be published by NWP Publishing in September 2012

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