The blue mountains are mottled with cloud shadows. Cottonwoods stir in the breeze, and that sizzling sound mixes with the tinkling of distant wind chimes. Birdsong also fills the ears. A clump of green grass 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, Wyo., 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 Street. Go 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, getting gardens ready is a big deal. The long winters of the Rockies drive some folks to an insatiable lust to make things green, though those too eager to plant suffer the consequences of late frosts.
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 chain link fence a comforting thing. I’m constantly reminded of the phrase “alley cat,” as feral felines roam a dozen backyards in complete freedom, though wary of the attentions of the imprisoned and jealous dogs.
The alleys also exhibit what some people (not me) might label junk. Cody is mostly tolerant of this, as long as the alleys remain passable by vehicles like 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 are 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. Elk and deer antlers adorning the back outside walls of garages and sheds facing the alleys. And the periodically necessary brown dumpsters.
You meet interesting people in the alleys, and most of them always seem to be fixing things, such as trucks and horse trailers. Also meter readers, dumpster divers (“You can’t believe what people throw away”, one old-timer told me), and the occasional anonymous shifty-looking type maybe up to no good. Red Lodge, Mont., 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 brightly painted teepee replete with multi-colored ribbons tied to the top poles in his backyard. His three young kids 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 back porch as she 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 habitue, the views include dumpsters.
Bill Croke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes mostly in Cody, Wyoming.
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