Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Very Long Western Story, Part One: Approaching The Land of Rocky Raccoon

Somewhere in the black mountain hills of Dakota
There lived a young boy named Rocky Raccoon
--The Beatles, "Rocky Raccoon"

You may have wondered where I've been, since it's been over a week since my last post. Or, you may not even be concerned, since it is not unprecedented that I take a long lay off now and again, for sometimes good and sometimes not so good reasons. Be you the former or the latter, I will tell you that Monkey and I have been a-roaming the western section of South Dakota and the eastern section of Wyoming (and a little bit of western Nebraska, too), these past five days.

We set out before daybreak on Monday morning, finding ourselves a hundred miles to the west before the sun made its way into the eastern sky. Our first destination of the day was to be Chimney Rock National Monument, near Bayard, Nebraska. It is billed as the most famous landmark on the Oregon, California, and Mormon Pioneer Trails. Many early westerers marked the site as the beginning of the west. Others knew it as the "Elk's Penis." Still others knew it as "that place a couple days east of Scott's Bluff." At any rate, it is an important enough site to be represented on Nebraska's state quarter, making it somewhat as famous as New Jersey's side of the Delaware River, West Virginia's New River Gorge, Connecticut's Charter Oak, New Hampshire's late Old Man of the Mountain, California's Yosemite Valley, Missouri's Gateway Arch, Oregon's Crater Lake, and Wisconsin's Block o' Cheese. Using the same logic, Chimney Rock is thus as well known as the entire states of Pennsylvania, Georgia, Massachusetts, South Carolina, New York, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, Alabama, Michigan, Texas, Minnesota, and Idaho, all of whom put the outline of their state on their quarter. But, I digress.

As with most good road trips, a destination or two arises in the moment--a magical spot one is drawn to without premeditation, without even knowing the spot existed before driving upon it (or the sign post or bill board advertising it). Monkey and I were passing through Ogallala, Nebraska, when I spied a sign post for "Boot Hill." I just had to stop. As a child, I had as much of a love for the romantic idea of the west as any American boy of a certain age. For a long time, the only books I read were western adventures by the likes of Louis L'Amour (a decidedly un-western nom de plume) or biographies of western heroes. As a young child of the seventies, I was a kinder, gentler consumer of the western myth: I had a certain empathy for the American Indian. I understood (as much as any nine-year-old can) the unattractive aspects of the western legacy. However, I still feel that innocent, gullible, romantic joy, sometimes, when I think of the legends of the west. And, as a former devotee of such legends, I knew Boot Hill meant wild western history (some of which actually might be based on some semblance of facts).

Boot Hill, of course, is the name of many cemeteries in the west. Some are more famous than others. I didn't know that Ogallala had one, but I was excited to find it. So, on a chilly Monday morning, I maneuvered The Penguin through a residential area of tiny Ogallala, Nebraska, climbed a set of forty or so stone stairs, and there, on a hill in the west, I gazed upon the empty, but marked graves of some of the former residents of Ogallala, all presided over by a larger-than life (of course) bronze cowboy, meditatively, one leg hooked over his saddle horn, gazing off to the horizon. It was awesome (in an unabashedly nine-year-old-boy-enamored-with-cowboys way). But, we could not tarry for long....

We arrived at Chimney Rock in the early afternoon, and spent about a half an hour at the State Historical Society's Visitor Center. It was okay...not great. We did learn about the "Elk's Penis" there, so it wasn't a total waste. Alas, there are no trails, and no way to approach the site except upon the road that leads to the little visitor's center. I'm not sure if the monument is on private land, but I am relatively certain that it is surrounded by private land. So, no getting near it.

Rumors of wagon ruts from the Conestoga wagons of yore were not confirmed. I was bummed. I really wanted to see some wagon ruts.

We proceeded north, looking to find Carhenge. Unfortunately, due to one of the following, we were unable to find it:
a) the sun was in our eyes
b) a train was blocking our view
c) absolute, temporary blindness
d) it just wasn't meant to be.

At any rate, after we realized that we had totally missed it somehow, we drove on with tears in our eyes, saddened by missing Carhenge, but excited by the prospect of South Dakota, just a hundred miles or so, ahead.


comoprozac said...

Ohio's more famous than any phallic rock. Hell, we're #1!

La Fashionista said...

OMG, I had no idea that the Old Man in the Mountain collapsed. This was one of my favorite sites during family trips to New Hampshire during my childhood. I am saddened by this news, though I was somewhat comforted in reading the wiki article documenting efforts to memorialize OMM. I think I had some of the childhood awe for OMM like you had of the west back in the day.

Anyway, back to you. I was eagerly awaiting your post! I'm glad to hear about the adventures in the early part of your trip. Way to feature such glorious sites on your blog. And of course no post is complete without some reference to a phallic something or other.

Speaking of, at a construction site near our home there is a crane with the name "William Steele Erection" printed on it. Not quite an elk's penis, but decent for this here urban jungle.