Day 26: Hippies & Hell’s Angels

June 24, 2018

 Border welcome signs into Montana and Wyoming

I was followed into my Cody motel by a biker gang. I eyed them with some apprehension. All had the regulation look - daunting headgear and goggles; black, leather jackets; substantial physiques; the swagger. I had noticed the bikers in the Black Hills usually had an, even more formidable-looking, female riding pillion. On closer inspection, this crowd seemed not to have got the memo about the Haight-Ashbury era being over.

There was image confusion between hippie and hell’s angel, with a touch of Easy Rider! Later, when they emerged from their rooms, the transformation was hilarious. The toughies had turned into paunchy older men, grey hair tied in bandanas, fantasies done. Evening, and a U-Haul truck parked next to my car. By breakfast, it had vanished, with the dew, and all the awesome Harleys transformed, like Cinderella’s coach, into mundane Toyotas and Fords. Yesterday’s Hell’s Angels had transmuted into ageing retirees, with wives - back to reality.

Moving North, curiously, I passed many fish hatcheries, including a ‘historic’ one. Historic fish hatchery? Interesting road signs gradually vanished - matching people’s sense of humour? The heavy overcast that had followed me from Billings, as I crossed from Montana into Wyoming, finally delivered the long-promised car wash by nature, cleansing miles of dust and insect splatter, just in time for my wife, flying into Cody tomorrow. The town is little, but has one priceless jewel, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Even if it was not the eastern gateway to Yellowstone National Park, this town would be worth visiting just for the fabulous, sprawling, five ‘museum’ complex that is the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Beautifully presented, chock-full of fascinating collections, it is no wonder their somewhat pricey admission is valid for two days, not one. Besides static exhibits, it has a large number of experiential areas that magnetically draw in even non-museum types. The sun-kissed dining facility, sadly, had run out of the Elk Brat that I wanted to try. Interestingly, the centre has even started a raptor rescue, taking in permanently injured, large raptors, to care for. The beady eyes of Annie, their huge bald eagle, casually assessed me for lunch.

The large Buffalo Bill museum is, as expected, full of fascinating memorabilia of William Cody, such as an original Deadwood-Cheyenne Stagecoach (which had actually been attacked by Apaches, as later staged in his shows), and documentary footage of his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows, such a craze across America and Europe, in the early 1900s, with even the redoubtable Queen Victoria unable to resist. Growing up in the West, Bill had played with native children; as a scout for the cavalry, he had feared them, even scalping one; but, later, as a showman, he had come to know, understand and love them, sparking his unlikely friendship with the legendary Sitting Bull. This split personality, between the Showman and the Frontiersman, eventually wearied him into retiring to the West.

Even more fascinating is their Museum of the Plains Indian, which, reflecting Buffalo Bill’s later attitude, presents the story of the Plains Nations with startling candour and honesty. The montages encourage you to step in, touch, experience. What must have appeared barbaric and savage to the simple-minded, Bible-thumping European migrants, is compellingly explained in all its mystery and majesty. This reflects the Cody who said, “The Indians have been badly used. They have their side of the story. For honesty and virtue, I think the Indians are far ahead of the whites… . They were here first, and have a better right to be here than we have.”

Concurrently, it pays tribute to the sheer undaunted courage, hardiness, enterprise and tenacity of the pioneers - the extraordinary ‘mountain men’ fur trappers, who frequently assimilated into local tribes; the gold miners, greedy saviors of the economy; the Chinese railroadmen, unsung heroes linking a continent; the homesteading families, defying all the odds, to turn millions of state-stolen acres productive. With the inevitability of grinding tectonic plates, two, vastly different, civilisations clashed here, ignited, and threw up the great and the ugly, but, ultimately, forged the greatest nation the world has ever known. Today, the question remains whether it can become a kinder, gentler, more embracing, humane home for its indigenes.

It would not reflect America if it did not, as everywhere, have a gallery devoted just to guns, fascinating women, it seems, as much as men. No others have invented a greater variety of instruments to kill people with. Even the sign, at the entrance to the centre, mildly advises checking weapons, carried in, have their safeties on! Oh, America!

A gallery I had especially wanted to see, contains their exceptional collection of the works of Frederic Remington, quintessential artist of the Old West. Many of his famous sculptures are here, as well as a mock-up of his studio, a strange, Wild West bubble, in the heart of New York. His signature, washed-out pastel landscape paintings are also exhibited. The hours flew by, unnoticed, till an ominous rumble from my stomach reminded me, lunch was considerably overdue!