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April 2017, vol 13 no 1

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Jeff Streeby

Watering Hole

Trail head.
Fugitive winds, their riffles of silver on the cottonwoods.

Out west in a little mountain town there’s this famous cowboy bar. Famous, yes, but it’s mostly like any other place of that kind anywhere. For me, what sets it apart from the rest, at least a little bit, is that I used to work there part-time as a bouncer and that whenever I wasn’t working or off somewhere on a horse, I spent some considerable time there at a favorite table in the back. Just watching, you know. Night after night there are still the cowboy bands nobody from out of state has ever heard of, the same expensive beer, the same knobbled pine décor with its leather accents, the pair of Bohlin silver saddles in the showcase by the bar, the same stuffed bear at the edge of the dance floor.

Sweetgrass, juniper,
sage and pine, black cottonwood –
spring’s fragrant resins.

From June to August, there is the summer crowd. There are the corporate suits and the harried celebrities. Out front, there are the troupes of conspicuous tourists tramping up and down the boardwalks all day long. There are the dayshifts and nightshifts of fawning seasonal help. There are a few old locals hanging on out of pride or spite. In the fall, there are the guides and outfitters, their unwashed clients who come and go at odd hours. In winter, there are the skiers and the trekkers-around on snowmobiles.

Old silvertip.
May blackberry, currant, honeycomb be her portion.

In here, of course, there are always the drunks, the coarse remarks you can’t help but overhear, sometimes a wisecrack or a tired pick-up line from some middle-aged guy who’s trying to hit on a waitress. For me, there was well whiskey – whatever was on the bar – neat. Maybe once in a while a two-step with a soccer mom from Orange County who was trying to hook up with a cowboy.

Mountain rain.
Drops big as wren’s eggs splash my slicker –
a sound like popcorn.

Up on the pass, there is frost above the tree line. There is that slow muddle of groaning motor homes from Texas and Michigan and California. There is morning fog hugging the switchbacks all the way down. There is that thin stinking film of smog from wood fires and oil stoves and jet exhaust sitting over the airport out on Antelope Flats.

My hobbled packhorse shivers and steams.
On the Great Divide,
rain and stone.

Tonight there will be no moon says the Almanac and I believe it. Not that it matters much. Inside the town’s neon twilight I have always had enough light to pick out from where I sit my pickup parked across the street, the shed elkhorns stacked as a gate in the town square, and on the corner under the traffic light that little log shack where they sell tickets for the stagecoach ride, all the essential Western trappings set up in a quaint tableau.

Making camp
back in the Palisades
white goats watch from the pinnacles.

This used to be a little backwater cowtown, but you know, everything changes. Now in high season, 60,000 people travel through here every day on their way to someplace else. Movie stars and lawyers and over-paid athletes own the mountaintops but they’re never around. Down in town, millionaires bought out the locals then the billionaires bought the millionaires’ mansions right out from under them and drove them all over the hill to Victor. There are a two or three dozen high-dollar art galleries and maybe two hardware stores. A bus boy or a dishwasher at a fancy hotel can make $20 an hour but can’t afford to rent a sleeping room anywhere closer than 70 miles away. Nobody pulls the wagons out, not even the last big outfit. I heard all those old Studebakers are in a museum somewhere. These days the ranches jingle dudes and cattle are a rich man’s hobby. All summer long, the Snake, the Salt, the Greys, the Gros Ventre, the Hoback, they are full of rubber rafts. The Park and the Refuge are just big government zoos that cater to urban tourists.

Fourth watch
and these mountains light up like church.
My staked horses graze the aisles.

If it weren’t for the silhouette of the Tetons, John Colter wouldn’t even recognize the place. It doesn’t take much to remind me why I moved back east. And I expect I won’t be coming back this way again any time soon.

White water cutting away a rock shelf.

In deep pools, trout,

            trout shadows.