North America

4th of July in the Wild West

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I was recently invited to spend the 4th of July weekend in Lander, a town of 7,000 in central Wyoming. Friends live there, a seven hour drive north of Denver, literally in the middle of nowhere. A tiny unknown dot on the vast map of America’s interior.

This would be an opportunity to experience the USA as never before. To see the “Wild West”, a place of isolated towns, big skies and wide open spaces, cowboys, pick-up trucks and rodeos. And as a bonus I’d be there for Independence Day, bathing my All-American experience in Red White ‘n Blue.

How could I possibly resist? Here are my five highlights.

One: The Wild West Saloon

In the American West as I know it (i.e. a cinema screen patrolled by Clint Eastwood) every town has a saloon. A drinking den for cowboys and gunslingers, with swinging wooden doors and a floor covered in spit and sawdust. Where a brawl might erupt at any moment, and where the proprietor keeps a loaded shotgun beneath the counter.

The equivalent in Lander is the rather unimaginatively named Lander Bar. It has been there since 1908, and prior to its present incarnation as a bar was variously the town’s saloon, hotel, brothel and boarding house. So hanging out in the Lander Bar seemed like it would be an interesting thing to do. Not to mention the only thing to do at night in Lander.

It was packed, standing room only. Beer and whiskey flowed like water. A bizarre concoction of beer and tomato juice, called Red Beer, is the house signature. I was overjoyed to see lots of real life cowboys – big burly men in plaid shirts and boots and Stetson hats. Although to my surprise, they were comfortably outnumbered by hipsters. It seems that proximity to spectacular rock-climbing and some of the most awe-inspiring natural scenery I have ever seen has made Lander a magnet for a younger, trendier crowd.

Disappointingly, the door was not a swinging wooden one, and there was no bar-room brawl. But our friend, who works as a bartender there, was indeed packing a piece of sorts. Namely, a baseball bat, kept under the bar. “It can get pretty rowdy in here sometimes,” she said, waving it about menacingly, but with a sweet as apple-pie smile on her face. They sure do breed them tough out West.

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Two: A Parade on Main Street

The highlight of Lander’s 4th of July celebration is a parade down Main Street. From the day before people had claimed viewing spots, leaving camping chairs out on the sidewalk overnight. In the morning a crowd far larger than the population of Lander gathered to watch the spectacle, lining Main Street three deep.

Almost everyone, from babies in prams to doddering retirees on Zimmer frames, was decked out in some variant of red, white and blue. Flags were attached to every lamp pole and traffic light, with colored bunting on every building. For good measure a gigantic Stars and Stripes flew high in the air across Main Street, dangled off the tower of a tall crane.

The parade was led by Lander Queen 2015, a glitzy cowgirl with perfectly curled hair, riding a regal horse in jeans, boots and Stetson. She was flanked by three similarly attired Lander Princesses on horses, and they were followed by a motley assortment of over eighty parade groups. Like the high school band, a group of Native Americans from a nearby reservation in full tribal regalia, and a unit of retired soldiers, marching together in uniform. There were lots of horses, cowboys, cowgirls and ultra-cute cow-children. There were also lots of vehicles, of every shape and size: wagons, semi-trailers, ridiculously big pick-ups trucks (each wheel almost larger than me), and even a fleet of vintage cars.

And of course there were many floats, riotous constructions celebrating everything from the early Western pioneers to the Lander Church of Christ. Spectators clapped, cheered and threw water balloons at the floats. In return those on the floats threw stars ‘n stripes wrapped candies into the crowd, which packs of watching kids immediately pounced on.

But for me, the parade highlight was a rather sad little float of five people representing the Lander Democrats. As it approached where we stood the mayhem of the crowd subsided, and the volume distinctly turned down a notch. A woman nearby asked “What float is that?” Her husband replied:  “Ugh – it’s just them Democrats”. And next to me a pair of tough old ladies snorted in disgust, at the sight of lily-livered Commie bastards parading through their town.

Hillary, take it from me: don’t bother with Lander on your campaign trail…

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Three: The High Noon Shootout

After the parade we all headed back to our friend’s house, where beer was distributed in industrial quantities, and a gigantic side of meat was placed in a wood-fired smoker. Immediately all the men huddled around, to tell BBQ tales, offer tips, and bicker over whose cooking method was best. It seems that whether in the Wild West or Down Under, broiling meat on an open flame is Secret Men’s Business.

And then we amused ourselves by shooting a gun.

Apparently Independence Day is the one day of the year where city law allows the unrestrained discharge of firearms in Lander. Anywhere you like – in the street, in the park, in the backyard.

This sounded pretty strange to me, not to mention a touch dangerous. But someone insisted that it was perfectly safe, because a bullet fired into the air can do no harm on its way down. “That’s just physics,” they said. Although when I questioned the source of this assertion, I was told to watch the relevant episode of the TV show “Myth-Busters”. Not exactly the rock-solid scientific assurance I was hoping for.

My concerns duly noted a rifle was produced nonetheless, and we all took turns blasting away. Which I hate to admit was actually lot of fun, in an “I can’t believe I am really doing this” kind of way. A bunch of guys and a gun, in a Lander backyard, on the 4th of July, quite literally killing time.

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Four: Broncos and Fireworks

Next we headed over to the showgrounds, for an afternoon of authentic Western rodeo excitement. There we saw cowboys on horses lassoing young calves; barrel races; bronco riding; and a high speed bareback horse race known as the “Indian Relay” (political correctness be damned).

The highlight of the afternoon was the bull riding: grown men in chaps, sitting on top of a wild bull, and then hanging on for dear life as the bull did everything in its power to throw them off so it could gore them to death. How exactly this qualifies as fun or a sport I don’t know, although it was certainly thrilling to watch.

But for me the best bit was the chance to play cowboy. I had picked up a blue-checked shirt and a Stetson of my own, so arrived at the rodeo feeling my super-cool Western best. Most of the men were dressed in press-stud checked-shirts and cowboy hats too, so I was hopeful I would blend right in. Although no-one was fooled: my Birkenstock sandals gave me away as a city-slicker poseur.

After the rodeo, once the sun began to set, it was time for the fireworks. Although this was not just any old fireworks show.. You see, on the 4th of July, Lander city law makes it is legal to discharge not just guns in town, but fireworks too. Anyone can do it, anywhere. So of course everyone does. All over Lander folks had set up impromptu firework launching pads. It was like being in downtown Baghdad at the height of the Gulf War: a constant whizzing of missiles taking flight, followed by one loud bang after another, followed by flashes of light and color that illuminated the sky, and then smoke.

And even though I have seen a lot of fireworks in my life – New Year’s Eve, Disneyland, and so on – nothing has ever even come close to this one before. Because the fireworks I’ve seen have always been organized events, staged by professionals and watched from a safe distance, for a short period of time. Whereas in Lander, on 4th of July, the fireworks were an anything-goes free-for-all. On random suburban streets fireworks were being launched, constantly, all around me, sometimes from as close as three feet away. Hell, I even launched some of them myself. They lit up the sky over Lander in a magical display, non-stop, without pause, for four ear-splitting hours.

A rodeo and endless fireworks. It was like being a kid again, let lose in a giant candy store cum amusement park cum party. Which I guess is exactly what the 4th of July is meant to feel like.

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Five: “Shopping” in Walmart

Riverton, the nearest town to Lander 30 miles away, hosts the region’s Walmart. I had never been inside one before, so I was keen to check it out. Plus I’d be lying if I said the prospect of driving to a Walmart in a pick-up truck, wearing my checked shirt and cowboy hat, didn’t fill me with glee.

Inside it was like nothing I’ve ever seen: an enclosed space the size of many football fields, selling anything and everything you could ever possibly need (and a lot of stuff you don’t). Name it, it’s there: clothes, food, toys, pharmaceuticals, garden gnomes, shower curtains, builder’s tape, fishing flies. Acres of cheap Made in China crap, filling the insatiable consumer demand of Middle America.

In the back of the store I found the kids section, with a whole wall entirely devoted to Barbie. Thousands of these little girls’ dreams, lined up in neat rows. Not three aisles away was the sporting goods section, a euphemism for what is basically the Walmart weapons shop. It offered a collection of ferocious hunting knives, pistols, rifles, shotguns, and scary looking military guns, all neatly displayed in locked glass cabinets. Meaning that in less than 30 feet, I’d gone from Barbie dolls to bullets. Fucking weird, is all I can say.

A friendly saleswoman asked if she could be of assistance. Moments later I was inspecting a semi-automatic weapon that Rambo would have been happy to own. Then and there, for the princely sum of $274, I could have acquired the means to engage in a mass shooting at the nearest high-school. A pretty disturbing thought, given that on Planet Earth where I come from, people don’t ordinarily pick up an AK-47 along with their groceries and kiddie toys.

But the weirdest thing was the sign hanging over the gun counter, that said: “Hours for purchasing firearms: Monday to Sunday, 7am to 10pm. Firearms will not be sold on Christmas”. So if a homicidal maniac happens to be in Riverton, Wyoming, and happens to gets the urge at 4am, Wal-Mart will at least make him or her wait until after 7am. Except if it is on Christmas Eve, in which case our homicidal maniac would have to wait a whole day more. Thank God for that.

Do Americans seriously not see how completely screwed-up their gun culture looks to the rest of us?

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Someone once summed up the United States to me as follows:

Travel 100 miles in from the coast – East or West – and it is all large urban cities, filled with diverse and interesting people, who eat kale and practice yoga. Everything in between is small towns filled with cowboys in trucks, and fat people in tracksuits who shop at Walmart and love their guns”.

To an extent, this was true of my trip to Wyoming. Although to leave it at that would be grossly unfair to Lander, and the wonderful people and spirit of the place I experienced. Because mainly what I saw there was the same thing I’ve seen time and time again all over the United States: folks who really, truly, passionately love their country, no matter their differences and oddities.

Personally, I have always thought America is a great country. A nation founded on noble ideals of freedom and liberty, that imperfect as it may be has achieved many good things. And whose people are immensely proud of their home, warts and all.

More than anything, 4th of July in Lander Wyoming was a celebration of that. I loved it.

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