Note: First published on Blogger on July 18, 2006
Unfolding the Map
Hey, guess what, Littourati? We have exited Nebraska, finally, and are now rolling with Sal Paradise into Cheyenne, Wyoming! Hit the image, get the map!
"As the truck reached the outskirts of Cheyenne, we saw the high red lights of the local radio station, and suddenly we were bucking through a great crowd of people that poured along both sidewalks. 'Hell's bells, it's Wild West Week,' said Slim. Big crowds of businessmen, fat businessmen in boots and ten-gallon hats, with their hefty wives in cowgirl attire, bustled and whooped on the wooden sidewalks of old Cheyenne; farther down were the long stringy boulevard lights of new downtown Cheyenne, but the celebration was focusing on Oldtown. Blank guns went off. The saloons were crowded to the sidewalk. I was amazed, and at the same time I felt it was ridiculous: in my first shot at the West I was seeing to what absurd devices it had fallen to keep its proud tradition."
On the Road: Chapter 4
Sal enters Cheyenne, sees tradition mingling with commercial at the annual Frontier Days (mistakenly called Wild West Week by Slim), and feels that common mixture of amazement and derision of the spectacle of it all.
On the one hand, I know this feeling. I had the feeling when I first saw the Disneyfication of Times Square. What was once an area renowned for its seediness, it's strip clubs and porn shops, and it's danger is now an area full of bright lights, Mickey and friends, and family friendly business that is way to expensive for most of us ordinary folk to shop there.
On the other hand, I regret that Sal has this feeling, because many communities, especially smaller ones (and I count Cheyenne with it's population of just over 50,000 as a small community) take great pride in their local celebrations. You don't just see this in smaller communities; San Antonio goes all out for Fiesta and New Orleans basically ceases to function each year during the run-up to Mardi Gras. But for smaller communities, a festival like Frontier Days in Wyoming puts them on the map and makes them feel proud. If it weren't for Frontier Days, according to Wikipedia the largest rodeo in the world, we would know a lot less about Cheyenne.
My hometown of Fort Bragg had basically one large festival when I was growing up. Because it was a lumber town, the festival was named Paul Bunyan Days, and it continues to occur each September over Labor Day weekend. Parades, contests (including logging skills), and dances characterized the festivities. Paul Bunyan Days gave the town a chance to get out, let its hair down, have fun, and come together as well as giving tourists the opportunity to see a different side of our town.
Other festivals have now been added to my hometown: The World's Largest Salmon Barbecue and Winesong, to name a couple. My hometown takes pride in these celebrations, and has fun with them. And they also echo the local traditions of logging, fishing and agriculture.
Mardi Gras is another example of a community rallying together around a tradition, handed down year by year. Each year, except for this last one which was the first post-Katrina celebration, Mardi Gras got bigger and bigger. Tourists came for the days of wild abandonment they could experience, but if you are a local, you enjoy the family friendly atmosphere away from the French Quarter, the parades, the food, and the costumes that magically appear each year. Without Mardi Gras, would New Orleans have put such a stamp on our consciousness?
So, if I were traveling with Sal in 1947, I would have told him to let Cheyenne have and enjoy its Frontier Days. It celebrates who the people of Cheyenne are, and in many cases, an idealized version of what they want to be. And for one or two weeks a year, that's just fine. America can go back to being "beat" after the fun is over.
If you are interested in learning more about Cheyenne or Frontier Days
Next up: Longmont, Colorado