hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

November 1, 2012

An America often taken for granted

By Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — When I was growing up, there was nothing more exciting than an old-fashioned, rip-rousing Western. The sight of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry corralling outlaws and restoring order made me proud.

In later years, I sat glued to my chair as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday shot the bad guys at the OK Corral. And the Lone Ranger with Tonto galloped to Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.”

More than once, I dreamed of what it would be like living in the Wild West and enjoying a life of log cabins, covered wagons and wide open canyons.

After traveling the world over, it was time to discover the USA, so we booked a tour of the National Parks that took us across six states and reintroduced us to both the Badlands and Goodlands.

In some ways, it was a history lesson I don’t recall learning in school. Our first stop was Mount Rushmore. I did not know that the carvings of the four presidents are scaled to men who would stand 465 feet tall.

I was unaware that all 60-foot-high heads would fit inside Chief Crazy Horse’s head — a monument that’s being dedicated to Native Americans.

It caught me by surprise that John Wayne’s first speaking part was in “The Big Trail” filmed in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 1932. It was the first time Wayne rode a horse. That area was on our itinerary.

I found it fascinating to learn that another icon named William Cody gained his nickname by killing 4,280 buffalo in 18 months to feed a number of laborers on the Kansas-Pacific Railway.

People also knew him for his Wild West Show, which included such characters as Annie Oakley, Chief Sitting Bull, Wild Bill Hickok and Pawnee Bill. A visit to his museum in Cody, Wyoming, revealed an interesting anecdote that hit home.

His traveling entourage was involved in a train wreck in Lowell in 1911. They tell us it was the most spectacular railroading mishap to ever hit the east, as elephants and buffalo stampeded, running wild as if Noah’s Ark suddenly went out of control on Mount Ararat after the Great Flood.

The show did go on. Cowboys lassoed the free-wheeling animals over the roads and fields and got them back into the strangest caravan that ever met mortal eyes.

In a place called Deadwood, South Dakota, I discovered that a prospector could find $25 worth of gold in one day, only to lose it in the saloons and brothels. Signs bore words like: “Horse-stealing is OK here but stealing a parking place will get you hung.”

I was fascinated to learn that Yellowstone was the world’s first national park, created in 1872 — 18 years before Wyoming became a state. As for the Old Faithful geyser, it erupts every 77 minutes, give or take a few.

Over the course of a day and a half, I encountered such big game as elk, moose, bison, deer antelope, bald eagles, owls, osprey and a host of other rare birds. Bison have the right of way and you were told to keep your distance or else answer to a $125 fine imposed by the rangers.

We learned a smallpox epidemic hit the Black Hills in 1878. Among the brave people treating the afflicted was Calamity Jane.

Our journey also took us through the Grand Tetons, Bryce, Zion and the Grand Canyon. We explored these territories by van once the bus tour ended in Salt Lake City, eventually coming to a close in Las Vegas.

Strolling along the Rim Trail at Bryce with my wife and another couple while gazing across the canyon left me overwhelmed with peace and wonder. Compared to the real thing, pictures don’t do it justice. Fiery colors and endless vistas give way to a dreamy landscape with its castle-like rock formations known as Hoodoos.

At Zion, we were met by more grandeur — cliffs with biblical names that evoke a sense of awe. We made the approach at dusk as the moon settled over the peaks. I preferred this more to the morning ride we took through the canyon. Much more spiritual with less traffic and congestion.

To tour the Grand Canyon, we chose the North Rim over the South, given our time constraints. The combination of various geological processes spanning time, color and dazzling forms of erosion made this a sight to behold, particularly Roosevelt Point, one of 18 vantage points.

Our 26th president loved it there and did his best to keep nature properly preserved. His 1903 quote remains indelible and timeless:

“Leave it as it is. You cannot improve upon it. The ages have been at work on it … and man can only mar it. Keep it for your children and children’s children as the one great sight every American should see.”

Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.