Back of beyond

I went to Cody to collect a new painting truck—and to scope out a new workshop.

My new painting truck, photo courtesy Jane Chapin.

“Why did you go all the way to Wyoming to buy a pickup truck,” a reader asked. Well, it was a good deal and a known quantity, but even more than that, why not?

Wyoming is one of my favorite states, but I’d never made it to Cody. It’s home to 9700 people, which makes it the 11th largest community in a fabulously-empty state. Park County is an area of outstanding natural beauty, close to Yellowstone. It’s no surprise that its major industry is tourism.

High Pasture, oil on canvasboard, 8×10, by Carol L. Douglas

I immediately put my new truck through its paces, driving it as far up into National Forest lands as I could get. I painted two small studies from its bed, and I think it will suit me just fine. I’ve climbed off-road through snow and it hasn’t hesitated. Nor was it troubled by the 80 MPH speed limits in Wyoming, or climbing to 9666 feet on the Powder River Pass.

One of my first off-road adventures was to the abandoned homestead of Bull Creek Ranch.

I was itching to paint and do nothing else, but Jane Chapin prevailed on me to visit the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. This unusual museum includes Plains Indian ethnography, Buffalo Bill hagiography, natural history, art and firearms under one roof. Each of the collections is superlative.

The art includes delicate, sensitive plein air works by Albert Bierstadtand Frederic Remington. There are fabulous animal paintings by Carl Rungius, but my favorite was by an archetypal easterner, N.C. Wyeth. At the tender age of 22, he went west to learn about the life of the cowboy. “The life is wonderful, strange—the fascination of it clutches me like some unseen animal—it seems to whisper, ‘Come back, you belong here, this is your real home,'” he wrote in a letter home.

Hunters with Bear, 1911, by N.C. Wyeth for Winchester.

This is grizzly country as much as its cowboy country. Bull Creek, which tumbles down through the ranch, has bears, along with quail, mule deer and a ferruginous hawk who sits on top of a pivot irrigator scanning for prey. There are herds of horses and cattle in the bottom lands.

North Fork of Shoshone River, oil on canvasboard, 11×14, by Carol L. Douglas

All of which are highly paintable. My second reason for visiting Cody was to assess the practicality of a workshop there. It’s got an airport and the accommodations and vistas all lend themselves to a great painting experience. I’ll be announcing dates soon.

Razorback ridge on Bull Creek Ranch, photo courtesy of Jane Chapin.

In every trip comes that sad moment when one has to turn around and head home. I stopped at Thermopolis. Soaking in a hot spring in a winter snowstorm has long been my ambition, but sadly, the weather didn’t cooperate—it was much too mild. Still, the hot springs were fine, it was an appealing little town, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes traveling back roads.

Tomorrow’s plan is to paint in the Badlands, but I’m keeping an eye on a storm sweeping in from the west.

High Plains Pisseur

Coronavirus has closed McDonalds all over America. That’s tough on the long-distance driver.

Wind River Canyon, by Dwight Perot.

I thought I knew all there was to learn about the pipi sauvage, the business of peeing in open spaces. I’ve managed it on four continents. It’s less of an issue for men, whose clothing is designed for it. Women have to get creative about finding a place to crouch, but it can be done, even on the high plains without so much as a scrub pine in sight.

It’s not that Wyoming doesn’t have beautiful rest stops; they do. But once you leave the interstate, you leave the conveniences behind.  For both genders it’s gotten worse with the advent of COVID. McDonalds, that defender of long-distance drivers’ bladder health, has closed its lobbies in many states. It’s the tumbleweed or adult diapers in the age of Coronavirus.

The upthrust east of the Rockies, called High Plains, is beautiful, desolate and windy. Photo by Dwight Perot.

 The pipi problem was just the last in a line of small inconveniences. I never seem to be able to get on a plane and land three hours later, unruffled, at my destination. Perhaps that’s in part because I live 90 

minutes from the closest real airport, or that I prefer out-of-the-way end points.

Since I left Colorado in the early 80s, Stapleton Airport has been replaced by Denver International Airport. Like everything else on the Front Range, it’s bloated beyond function. It took way too long to cut loose with our bags and rental car. I was exhausted, but I soldiered on through dinner with family, and gratefully went to bed almost 24 hours after I’d risen.

Anticlines make for beautiful painting. Photo by Dwight Perot.

At 2 AM, I was awakened by a ringing doorbell. I peered out through the window slats and decided it was prudent to ignore. The doorbell rang again, this time accompanied by a maglight. It was a cop. He’d noticed a car door open; had we been burgled? The hoarfrost inside my rental car told the story; I’d just been too tired to close it. They say that exhausted drivers are as impaired as drunk ones, and that’s a warning I should heed.

The development that blights Colorado’s Front Range mercifully ends north of Fort Collins. I found a porta-potty in a city park in Cheyenne and struck northwest towards Cody. That route takes you east of the mountains, but the payoff is a fabulous climb through the Wind River Canyon, surely one of the great beauty spots in America. High plains drifting is not as dramatic as the mountain peaks of Colorado, but just as beautiful. My geologist son and I traced geological strata as we drove. Artists love anticlines because they produce wonderful angles; geologists love them for their oil deposits.

The beautiful Wind River. Photo by Dwight Perot.

We easterners must hydrate when we get to the Rockies. That unfortunately makes the pipi rustique problem an urgent one. North of Casper, I met my bête noire in the form of gale-force winds. Privacy wasn’t the issue; but peeing in a crouching position was darn near impossible. Men can just aim downwind; as for me, I’ll be doing laundry later today.

Approaching Cody. Photo by Dwight Perot.

I dumped the rental car in Cody and met up with Jane Chapin, who’d driven down from the ranch to collect us. There’s an amazing 360° mountain view from the ranch-house, and I can’t wait to paint. But first I must slap my plates on the truck I’ve driven out to collect, still scratched from the time we decided it was more prudent to back up through piñon than drive over a cliff. “That’ll buff out,” Jane had said. I’m still laughing about it two years later, and now it’s my truck, not hers. Yes!