Postcard from Cheyenne
I have heard this city calling me for twenty years, a siren sounding like the hungry cry of a great blue heron I might’ve thought. But it’s too dry out here for a watery bird like that to make an honest living.
Still, the call.
West of the Mississippi, the country becomes different. After hundreds of miles, the long horizons of Kansas wheat and Nebraska corn finally give way to higher plateaus. As the land rises, the population falls. Above the Colorado Plateau, river beds widen into shallow concourses.
You can cross the North Platte without getting your feet wet in the winter before the snows melt.
If the God of the Testaments grants the promise of three score and ten years to a life, two have barely passed from the birth of Cheyenne in 1867 to now.
Third in a line of the Hell on Wheels boomtowns fathered by the building of the Union Pacific, Cheyenne might have been the wildest of all the Wild West towns in its early days. Bronco was spelled with an ‘h’ back then, broncho, and carpenters earned a decent salary hammering together prefabricated saloons. Eager innkeepers purchased the ready-made affairs, willing to take in stride occasional bullet holes in the walls, and less agreeably through the flesh of the customers, as an acceptable cost of doing business.
The two most important places in town, one story goes, were “the saloon and the cemetery.” Dance halls and the parlors of the women of generous virtue weren’t far behind on the list.
The Green Door Lounge offers the faintest of echoes to the era, with its 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. happy hour, drive through liquor lane, and topless dancers for the later crowd.
Crow Creek flooded the town one year, and fire threatened to engulf it another. Then the cattle barons came and the place grew out of its drinking and shooting phase into the self-bequeathed respectability of The Holy City of the Cow. The changes took a while. It wasn’t until the local constabulary hanged the range rider Tom Horn in 1903 that things could be said to have settled down. Even then, the Wyoming National Guard stood sentinel around the gallows as protection against a rumored escape plan said to be plotted by Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch.
The first passenger train from Denver arrived in 1910. There was a big celebration.
Many of those turn of the century buildings remain in use today, and dozens of sites and entire square blocks of the city carry designations as National Historic Landmarks.
The old black and white photographs of Cheyenne perform little favor for the rich and vibrant colors of the town. The weathered layers of paint on the brickwork in the depot district and the ornate calligraphy and green cornices of Bohemian Metals a couple blocks over bring the tintypes and collodions to life. So do the deep red facades of the Cowgirls of the West Museum and Emporium. Don’t laugh: women’s suffrage began in Wyoming, and don’t forget it. The motto of the state isn’t Equal Rights for nothing.
There’s a certain light, too, that slants into the passenger waiting rooms at the railroad station and describes a sudden shadow to a unicycle on West 15th just past sunrise.
About that siren. It is one week past the equinox, a few more miles west, and winter is still on the earth. The morning brings another frost, but this time, the scent of sage in the air. And in that moment, with the whisper of the spring, the sound of the western wind through ponderosa and bristlecone: a call as simple as that.
I am here memorizing that sound, with the sun setting through the windows of the tap room of Freedom’s Edge Brewing Company in the old Tivoli Building downtown. The Horizon Amber tastes as good as good as its name, and the price is right. I am taking my time with the glass and the flavor. I am never going back home.
Born in Chicago and currently a resident of Johns Creek, Georgia, Russell Streur’s poetry has been published widely in print, on line and in anthologies in the United States and Europe. He operates the world’s original on-line poetry bar, The Camel Saloon (http://thecamelsaloon.blogspot.com/), is the author of The Muse of Many Names (Poets Democracy, 2011) and Table of Discontents (Ten Pages Press, 2012). His photography has been featured in Written River and on line at The Blue Hour, Pacific Poetry and other publications. His works are regularly seen at Atlanta Artists Center and other area galleries. He is a member of the Atlanta Artists Center, the Georgia Poetry Society, and wilderness and conservation organizations.