Meeteetse, Wyoming, a hamlet of 300 souls, has three blocks of wooden plank sidewalks lining State Street and in front of the Oasis Motel, Outlaw Pizza, the Broken Spoke Café, Barling’s Garage, and the Elkhorn Bar. The bank, post office, fire department and an Exxon Convenience Store are around the corner. The cottonwood-attended Greybull River runs through this town in the foothills of heaven a few miles east of the celestially soaring Absarokas. “Meeteetse” is a Shoshone word roughly translated as “Meeting Place of the Chiefs.” This must be why politicians today show up on Labor Day in election years.
On that first Monday in September the town has a parade. Thirty miles to the north, Cody steals the show on the Fourth of July with its huge Stampede Parade and Rodeo, so Meeteetse puts on a must-go, end-of-summer party. The tourists are mostly gone, and the snow’s about to fly in the mountains. Hunting season is in the air. In a state of a hundred thousand square miles with fewer people (480,000) than live inside the Washington, D.C. Beltway, this makes for an intimate get-together of a few thousand locals who mostly know each other.
I timed it, and the parade lasted roughly twenty minutes this year. It’s nothing more than a formality to encourage drinking in the street. There’s a mounted Honor Guard, which momentarily stops while the hat-doffing “Star Spangled Banner” is played over loudspeakers, a float carrying kids who are members of the local chapter of Future Farmers of America (FFA), Park County State Legislative candidate Colin Simpson waving to the crowd from the backseat of an old Cadillac convertible, some Shriners in funny fezzes, oldtimers driving vintage cars and antique tractors, and local cowboys, outfitters and dude ranch owners dressed for the part and riding horses.
Bringing up the rear are the kilt-clad “Caledonian Pipers” from Billings, Montana. By then State Street is a minefield of horse poop. It’s amusing to watch the Pipers march through the mess, because when you’re playing a bagpipe you really can’t see where you’re going. The Shriners and FFA kids toss handfuls of candy to the crowd as they pass, and this causes a mad scramble of children into the street to retrieve the treats from amongst the equine plops. When a kid at the Meeteetse Labor Day Parade offers you a gift of a Tootsie Roll or miniature Baby Ruth always politely refuse. You don’t know where it’s been.
Meeteetse is home to the Belden Museum, housed in a space the size of a large home. Charles J. Belden (1886-1966) was a famous photographer of Western subjects, notably the ranch life of 1920s-'30s Wyoming. Belden had married into the Phelps family, then owners of the legendary and expansive Pitchfork Ranch (recently eyed by the noted land baron Ted Turner, a man who collects ranches like some people collect stamps) west of town. The Pitchfork has a long, colorful history that includes the fact that Butch Cassidy stole a horse there in 1894. Scores of Belden’s artfully grainy black and white framed photographs of the ranch (a herd of sheep covering a gray mountainside, the starkness of a line of cattle being driven through a blizzard, a cowboy leaning off his horse and scooping water out of a creek with his hat, another squatting on the ground while he eats his dinner off a tin plate, a rustic cabin with elk antlers above the door and shrouded with snow) grace the walls of rooms displaying period farm implements, saddles and other cowboy accouterments. And off in a corner popular with the kids stands “Little Wahb” in all his regal majesty.
Little Wahb is an eight-foot tall stuffed boar grizzly bear that was shot by Wyoming Game and Fish personnel on a ranch west of Meeteetse in October 2000. He weighed about 900 pounds and had a head the size of a basketball. He was quite old in grizzly years, and early in life had developed a taste for beef, always a bad sign. He cost local ranchers $20,000 in losses in the last summer of his life alone. So Little Wahb — biographical plaque and all — now stands on his hind legs with his teeth bared (could they be ursine dentures, a triumph of the taxidermist’s art when stuffing old bears?) and long claws outstretched. He was flamboyant in life, so maybe his current ornamental status would please him. After all, he could have ended his outlaw career by dying obscurely in a winter den in the snowy mountains. Now Little Wahb is the center of attention: the Bill Clinton or John McCain of bears. I think he would’ve wanted it that way. Boy, he’s got great teeth.
As does Eli Bebout on the street outside as he smiles and presses the flesh with a solid Wahb-like paw. Mr. Bebout is the Republican nominee in this year’s Wyoming gubernatorial race, which is another way of saying that Mr. Bebout will be the next governor of the Cowboy State. His opponents, Democrat Dave Freudenthal and Libertarian Dave Dawson have almost no chance to beat him. Dave #2 will chip away a bit of Bebout’s solid GOP base, but that will be of little help to Dave #1. To call the Republican Party in Wyoming dominant is an understatement. To observe an obverse political process at work you would have to consider New York, the District of Columbia, California or China.
Eli Bebout greets everybody. The 55-year-old former Wyoming House Speaker and veteran of seven legislative sessions has silver hair and a trimmed mustache, and in a bolo tie and black leather vest cuts a Western figure that reminds one of the actor Richard Farnsworth. He shows an oldtimer his lifetime NRA membership card. The guy’s obviously impressed as he tells the candidate that he has to renew his own membership yearly. Bebout turns and shakes hands with me. For some strange reason he asked me if I was going to participate in that afternoon’s rodeo. I found this an odd question in that I was dressed in a T-shirt, jeans, sneakers and a baseball cap, and didn’t look at all like a rodeo cowboy. It obviously had been a long day of campaign schmoozing for Eli Bebout.
But it was a great day for a parade, as they say. The sun was out and so were the politicians in the “Meeting Place of the Chiefs.” Who knows, maybe Dick and Lynne Cheney will drop in next year. It would be a coup for Meeteetse. The Vice Presidential motorcade would double the size of the parade. And being dead, the notorious Little Wahb would certainly pass his Secret Service security check.
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