#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 14
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)
The sun is lowering in the sky as we arrive at the Fort Cody Trading Post. With a cannon and a buffalo in the parking lot and dummy soldiers on the battlements, it takes us a little while to even get into the store. Once inside, there’s a lot more to see. This place is heralded as Nebraska’s largest souvenir and Western gift store, and they’re not kidding.
Inside the store, immediately to my left, I find a bin of candy cigarettes. “Look!” I gasp. “I didn’t think they made these anymore!” I launch myself at the bin. Brent has turned right and found himself an old time peep show machine.
I deliberate between the red and the white packets and decide on a red one. Cigarettes in hand, I drag Brent away from the peep show, and we find aisles and aisles of Western hats, sheriff badges, wooden horses, magnets, candy… We wander through the store, playing with everything. I mean everything. Other tourists start following in our wake, sharing their own road stories with us. As Brent rides around on a stick horse, one couple asks us if we found the covered wagon out the back door.
“There’s more?” I ask.
“Yes!” the couple tells us, “You two might want to see it.” They point toward the back of the store.
Brent holsters his horse and we hurry through Jewelry and Toy Guns (a major feat for us) to the magical and nondescript back door. Opening it, we find another world. In the grassy yard, there’s a whole host of Wild West buildings, the covered wagon, a giant Brave, and of course, a Fort Cody jail. “Nobody mentioned this,” Brent says, and I know he’s referring to his carefully arranged seven-page list of roadside stops.
We look at each other and smile, then set off running in the yard as if we’ve just been allowed out for recess. We pause only to one-up
each other in photos, and of course, we matriculate to the jail.
The Fort Cody jail doesn’t have a guitar and a crumpled hat like the Argo jail in Colorado, and it doesn’t have a mannequin jailer and Wanted posters like the Abilene jail in Kansas—come to think of it, how many Wild West lockups have we seen on this trip? (A few days from now, my 4-year-old nephew will look through my photos and ask, “Why is Aunt Jody always in jail?” I’ll tell him, to my sister’s delight, Because I don’t eat my vegetables.”) Here in Nebraska we have our own props: the not-quite-yet-paid-for candy cigarettes and sheriff badges. We just can’t pass up a good jail.
Finally back in the store again, we check out the museum area. We find a two-headed calf, which Brent thinks is awesome and I, well, don’t. “It’s heartbreaking,” I say, but Brent refuses to agree. Thankfully, it’s not for sale, and I can’t believe how many times I need to remind him of that. He keeps looking from me to the calf and back again, waiting for that information to change. In times like this, his face can be as telling as a peep show: The movie reel of his mind pops up and look! It’s us, riding down the open road with Two-Head strapped into the passenger seat while I’m relegated to the backseat with a big fat frown, arms crossed…
I finally get him away from the calf by luring him toward the glass case filled with moving figurines and a circus-like sign for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show. Signage and Google tell us that in the late 1800’s, after riding for the Pony Express and serving as a civilian scout to the U.S. Army (for which he won a medal of honor), Buffalo Bill began performing in cowboy shows. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was founded in 1883, and the large company went on tours the United States and then in Great Britain and Europe. The shows depicted cowboy skills, stagecoach robbery reenactments, and sideshows, but after scrutinizing the miniatures and digging through Wikipedia, I realize that’s not all it did.
In the mid-1800’s, America’s West had not been safe for man nor beast and everyone was pitted against one another—some for Manifest Destiny, some for survival, some on sheer instinct. And then a mere 40 years after America’s cry for Western Expansion, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was all-inclusive, and for that, ahead of its time. According to Wikipedia, “The show began with a parade on horseback, with participants from horse-culture groups that included U.S. and other military, cowboys, American Indians, and performers from all over the world in their best attire. Turks, Gauchos, Arabs, Mongols, and Georgians displayed their distinctive horses and colorful costumes.” The show included women such as sharpshooter Annie Oakley, trick shooter and trick rider Lillian Smith, and Calamity Jane appeared as a storyteller. There was even an appearance by Sitting Bull with 20 of his braves.
Brent and I marvel at the nearly 20,000 different miniatures, “hand-carved by Ernie and Virginia Palmquist over a 12-year period,” according to signage and the interweb. This stop is totally worth it.
We make our way to the checkout and finally pay for Brent’s two-headed calf magnet, our slightly used sheriff badges, and our open packet of candy cigarettes now with a few missing. Before leaving North Platte, we stop next door for gas–mostly because Brent spied a green dinosaur outside the station–and we’re back on the road again. This time, we’re tracking down Kool-Aid.
On our way to Hastings, Nebraska, we pass a local truck with a Ghostbusters sticker. “Look at that,” I point it out to Brent. I take a picture and think about all the people who talked to us in the Trading Post. “I like these people,” I tell him and breathe in deeply. “Nebraska,” I say. Who knew?