For four years in the 1980s, I lived in Vermont, and then left it for the West after tiring of the state’s busybody politics. But I certainly admired one aspect of life in the bucolic yet politically correct Green Mountain State: No billboards.
Back in 1968, the Vermont Legislature passed a law banning billboards. Since then, they aren’t to be found even along the state’s two busy interstates, much less along those picture-postcard back roads.
I live happily in Cody, Wyo., nowadays, for the most part having escaped the torments of liberalism. But unfortunately, the Cowboy State — while in line with my political tastes — sprouts billboards like skin cancer on the epidermis of its service economy. You see them wherever you go, 10 feet tall and 20 feet or 30 feet wide. Paradoxically, many times they’re selling Wyoming’s natural wonders, from Devils Tower to Yellowstone National Park. There are probably a hundred or more within Cody’s city limits.
No matter how a visitor enters Cody — even on the scenic highway to Yellowstone — he or she will run a gantlet of as many as 30 billboards. They proselytize the virtues of our motels, fast-food restaurants, and rubber tomahawk and T-shirt emporiums, not to mention the pleasures to be enjoyed in touring the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, or attending the summertime Cody Rodeo.
To me, billboards are the bane of all of Yellowstone Park’s "gateway communities." One would think that the average tourist finds all this commercial stimuli garish and ugly. One wonders if these folks — after a day spent admiring the splendors of Yellowstone — really want to be reminded of their lives in sprawling strip-mall suburbia.
The Cody boostocracy seems to think so. It’s willing to go to embarrassingly faux-Western lengths to separate tourists from their money, tempting them with food, drink, lodging and cowboy-culture entertainment, barraging drivers’ eyeballs with billboard ads as they roll into town.
Check into the Holiday Inn, the Comfort Inn, the Super 8, Buffalo Bill’s own Irma Hotel. Swim in the pool for free, use the luxurious spa for free, bring the kids for free. There’s HBO and 24-hour high-speed Internet access. Who needs all those dusty Remingtons and Russells hanging on the walls of the historical center when there’s cable TV and video games?
Come to think about it, who needs Yellowstone National Park? You can log onto the Old Faithful Web cam here and watch the geyser erupt more or less on schedule from the comfort of your home.
I wonder: In this high-tech world, have billboards finally outlived their commercial usefulness? They are a throwback to a time — the 1950s — when Western tourist towns like Cody hosted the classic American family on summer vacation. One can imagine Ward and June Cleaver insisting that they stop at the museum because it was "educational," while Wally and Beaver, clad in their coonskin caps and Davy Crockett T-shirts, were anxious to get on to Old Faithful and feed the bears.
But these days, says multimedia publisher Shelli Johnson in Lander, Wyo., travelers increasingly expect the Internet to tell them what they want to know. She says her Web site, Yellowstonepark.com, brings in 20 million hits a year. According to the Casper Star-Tribune, Johnson is an innovator who tries to contact tourists traveling across Wyoming via both cell phones and laptops, so she can provide up-to-date information about road conditions, weather and recreational opportunities.
The writer Edward Abbey said billboards deserved to be burned, cut down or shot full of holes. Johnson seems to believe that while Gateway communities to Yellowstone will always need to attract tourists in multiple ways, the mechanisms will tend more and more to be individualized and high-tech.
That means billboards may go the way of the buggy whip in a benign 21st century form of monkey-wrenching. Wyoming might never need the heavy hand of government to ban billboards. That time can’t come soon enough for me. I say: Good riddance to bad billboards. Maybe I have more in common with those Vermonters than I thought.
Bill Croke lives and writes in Cody, Wyoming.