CODY, Wy. — The blue mountains are mottled with cloud shadows. Cottonwoods stir in the breeze, and that sizzling sound mixes with the tinkling of distant windchimes. Birdsong also fills the ears. A clump of fragrant wild roses grows luxuriantly next to a dumpster. Yes, a dumpster.
I’ve been walking in the alleys lately. A century ago — at Buffalo Bill Cody’s behest — Cody, Wyoming was designed by a city planner, with a grid of wide, right-angled streets. The east-west running avenues are paralleled by alleys broad enough to drive through. If you want to know the true nature of a western town, ignore the Chamber of Commerce and the ugly billboards and the tourist traps on Main St., and check out life in the alleys.
In Cody — like elsewhere — they border backyards, places where people live their lives: play with their kids, work in the garden, or lounge in a hammock with a newspaper. Places where they observe some of life’s rituals: birthdays, family reunions, 4th of July barbecues, and receptions for weddings or after funerals. The life of the backyard is an American phenomenon, of course, but it seems to be more visible in the culturally informal West.
This time of year gardens are a big deal. The long winters of the Rockies drives some folks to an insatiable lust to make things green, though those too eager suffer the consequences of likely May frosts. But halfway through June it’s usually safe to plant such horticultural crapshoots as tomatoes and peppers. A walk down an alley in Cody shows you small square and rectangular brown plots gridded green, the lines headed by the tiny signs of used seed packets, the tsk-tsk of a sprinkler as a soundtrack.
Backyards are also the domain of the family dog, who may greet the alley passerby with a happy lolling tongue and wagging tail, or a ferocious snarl that makes the barrier of a chainlink fence a comforting thing. One is constantly reminded of the phrase “alley cat,” as feral felines guided by predatory instincts roam a dozen backyards in complete disinterested freedom, though wary of the attentions of the imprisoned and jealously barking dogs.
The alleys also exhibit the sort of detritus Westerners accumulate as they pursue their Western lives. The City of Cody is mostly tolerant of this, as long as the alleys remain passable by vehicles, especially the regularly visiting garbage trucks. So a stroll through the alleys may remind the thoughtful citizen of one of author Jim Harrison’s prescriptions for living the good life: “Surround yourself with the simple things that you love.”
ONE THING WESTERNERS LOVE is pickup trucks; rusty, gone-in-the-teeth, and whether they run or not. The alleys are lined with them, modernistically shiny or geriatrically tarnished. There’s also one or two ancient Volkswagen Buses sporting Grateful Dead decals and “Save the Wolves” bumper stickers. Also small travel trailers yearning to be hooked up to a truck for a weekend in the mountains. And old dented paint-peeled horse trailers tired of moving and storage duties and longing for the clip-clop of hooves being loaded.
There are drift boats and small river rafts on trailers and temporarily dry-docked canoes and kayaks. Mountain bikes chained to trees and fences. Piles of stacked cordwood young, fresh, and bright; or old, wormy, and gray. Bony-colored elk and deer antlers adorning the back outside walls of garages and sheds facing the alleys. And the periodically necessary brown dumpsters, of course.
You meet interesting people in the alleys, and most of them always seem to be fixing things, such as trucks and horsetrailers. Also City of Cody meter readers, dumpster divers (“You can’t believe what people throw away,” one familiar, colorful oldtimer told me), and the occasional anonymous shifty-looking type maybe up to no good. Red Lodge, Montana — Cody’s neighbor to the north, and closer to the mountains — has a problem with dumpster-diving black bears. Not yet in Cody. And I hope it never happens. It’ll only draw tourists, and then the alleys will be ruined for me.
Recently, a man I know was putting the finishing touches on raising up a tall, brightly painted teepee replete with multi-colored ribbons tied to the top poles in his backyard. His three young kids (a girl toddler and two early grade school boys) were understandably excited. He kept laughingly telling them to stay out of it until he was finished. His wife waved at me from their nearby backporch as she gigglingly took in the scene.
I waved back, and walked on. Down the alley were the cloud-mottled mountains that the tourists come to see, but for the alley habitué the views are for free.
If you don’t mind the dumpsters.
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