In 1963, the Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce enacted a plan to construct a wild west-themed amusement park on a large swath of land on McMillan Mesa in Flagstaff, Arizona, hoping to create a tourist attraction and boost Flagstaff’s economy. New York had Coney Island, California had Disneyland, almost every other city was close enough to one national park or monument, and everybody knew the Grand Canyon was starting to get a little dull, so the obvious solution was to fence in several square miles, carve dirt paths through the area, and let people pay to sit in authentic frontier-era stagecoaches driving through a combination zoo, museum, and amusement ride.
Encased in a tall wooden fence, the park was divided into several sections to fit the animals and people arranged for mass entertainment. Patrons could view women doing tricks with ropes; not quite sharpshooters, but impressive nonetheless. They could watch a Navajo woman weaving blankets. They could see deer and elk, and eight live bison, all caged in more wooden fences, in a compartmentalized wild west that was, in the early days of the Space Race, no longer as wild as people remembered it.
At least, in 1963, it was not particularly wild. But that was part of the contrivance of the park, an accepted fact audiences brought with them to the show in a tradition of artificial westerns dating back to the nineteenth century. As early as 1883, for example, Buffalo Bill’s famed Wild West Show advertised authentic Native American Indians on the grounds that they were on the verge of extinction, encouraging customers, quite threateningly, to view them while there was still time. The same went for the animals in the Wild West Show. See them, these exotic North American rarities. Have popcorn in the stands and socialize with your friends. It was a theater of pre-apocalypse, the capitalization of a terrible situation. The park in Flagstaff was built with the same intent, but with the doom of nuclear weapons looming in the distance. See these bison now before it’s too late. Carpe Diem.
The park didn’t last.
The space designated as a wild west spectacle quickly fell apart, but experienced a resurrection as Buffalo Park. Its stagecoach roads became biking trails; its entrance became a place to put on sunscreen and tie jogging shoes. I don’t know a single child who grew up in Flagstaff with me who did not visit Buffalo Park at least sometimes. The spectacular view of the mountain from the park is impossible to physically frame, impossible to sell tickets to. An inactive volcano covered in dry forests that could easily be ruined by a wildfire, Mount Elden can squash the town with the right combination of forces. Animals with rabies have crept from the forest into people’s backyards, and children sometimes got lost climbing the mountain. It was the only part of the park that felt truly wild, the only part that did not seem contrived. Not like the eight bison, moping around the park as children threw popcorn at them.
Except, however, in 1964, when one of Flagstaff’s unrelenting blizzards tore down the wooden fences containing the animals. The deer and elk were now in their natural habitat on the mountainside. Driving by Buffalo Park on Cedar Hill, you can still see deer lolling around the hillside a few yards from the road. The eight bison, however, did not feel at home, so they went looking for it.
I lived near Cedar Hill for twenty years, and went to Coconino High School right beneath it, so close that during lunch hours I could walk to and from Buffalo Park in time for my next class. I sometimes imagine those bison wandering down the hill to old Coconino High, confused, irritable, hungry.
The bison roamed freely around town, making it far into Flagstaff, into residential areas and the grounds of an elementary school. They ate in people’s gardens, broke fences, trampled bushes and potted flowers, crossing boundaries nobody wanted crossed. Where they went, what property they destroyed, was unpredictable. For a while, the west was wild again as eight creatures seized their freedom, putting their hooves to the concrete.
Eventually, the bison were rounded up and returned to their wooden pen after damaging the city and the park’s reputation, and they remained there until the park’s closure following more harsh winters.
Paintings are not supposed to leap from their frames and push museum-goers aside. Michelangelo’s David does not step off his pedestal in search of a bathrobe. As far as I know, the turtle in The Grapes of Wrath has yet to wander from the pages onto a reader’s hands and start nibbling on her fingers. Why would anybody have expected the bison to act any differently? The city of Flagstaff knew that the wild west could not exist in a few square miles because it was dead to begin with; it had never been born in the first place. By 1964, the Western was a staple American export to the world. Writers, directors, actors, photographers, painters, novelists, all kinds of artists had documented a feeling, a sensation, but not an actual place and time.
By now, most of us will never interact meaningfully with the west, but we certainly interact with its commodified environment at the expense of land, water, and people. We interact with almonds, lemons, lumber, copper, gold, silver, corn, and cauliflower, but never the people living and working in western states who mine, harvest, and deliver these things. They are the stunt people who take the blows for our benefit, because the west, like art, is supposed to be a nonliving performance without victims, an idea that doesn’t come alive and make itself known. We expect a museum of the wild west. For a price, here’s a hotel where John Wayne stayed one night. For a price, here’s a ghost town where a dozen miners died. For a price, here’s the last remaining buffalo.
In 1964, Flagstaff’s eight museum pieces came alive and walked out of their frame, stopped being art and started being what they were born to be: wild animals who roam, who look for food, who soil the ground behind them.
Today, some of the wooden fence still stands at the entrance to Buffalo Park, along with a large, lumpy statue of a buffalo and a metal gate decorated with stagecoach silhouettes. It’s not where I rode a stagecoach or sought authentic portrayals of the west. Instead, it’s where I learned to ride a bike.
At least, it’s where I tried to, because it took me much longer than everyone else around me. I was usually a late bloomer, and this was especially true of my learning how to ride a bike, a skill so commonplace that being an adult who can’t ride a bike has now become a sitcom trope. I came very close to being such a trope, too, as if that would have been so terrible. But in middle school, everything has the potential to be terrible or already is, even for those who manage to fit in. I was uncoordinated, unbalanced, and easily discouraged. I fell more times than I know, got more scars and bruises than I can recall, and it took me until the age of thirteen to ride properly on the flat dusty paths of Buffalo Park. On my bike, I stumbled my way down those paths formulating images of freedom and independence for motivation, but motivation didn’t help.
I don’t know why I was so uncoordinated, but in my head, it went like this:
Riding down the dirt path, pushing my foot against the ground and somehow working my foot back up to the pedal in time to keep me going, using both hands to force the front wheel in the right direction, a wild bison leapt into the road in front of me. Yes, I told myself, those eight escaped bison started a colony of bison somewhere near Flagstaff, and they have lived as mountain bison the way mountain goats do, standing impossibly on rocky ledges on Mount Elden, leaping from boulder to boulder, charting their bisonography, eating, loving, reminiscing, and reciting their bisonology about their heroic godly ancestors who braved the storm and the cruel human world to recreate a bisontopia and live in never-ending bison bliss. And here was one of them, one of the free-thinking, highly evolved, thinner and stronger mountain bison glaring at me as I struggled to ride a bike in its direction, forcing me to swerve off-balance. That was how I ended up with a four-inch dirt-encrusted bloody gash on my arm, not because I couldn’t steer properly, but because of the bison returning to seize the park.
But of course, none of that is true. I was just uncoordinated, slow to learn, lacking the confidence to keep trying harder. There isn’t even a legend about the escaped bison starting a colony. The park was already facing financial difficulties by the time the bison escaped. Burdened by damage from the blizzard and overall expenses, the wild west park closed its gates for good in 1969.
In my hometown, the abundant wilderness and its rapid loss coalesced to impose a collective impulse to both see and save the desert while there was still time, a balance of doom and passion. It was our imperative to save the natural environment that was there and mourn what had been lost. For a long time, I was indifferent to both.
Tourists still come to Flagstaff in search of a missing west, in search of cheap Native American spiritual assets, authentic Mexican food and beer at places where they can watch the Raiders. Some of them look for a newer west of motorcycles and beatniks, but all of this is static art, never free to leap around. It has become the bison statue, forced into stagnation, where I spent summer after painful, red-and-blue-faced summer trying to impose momentum on myself.
Occasionally, tourists do what the eight bison did. They step out of their car in Wyoming or Montana and run up to wild bison left outside the concrete frames of our world to take a selfie with them, mistaking them for immobile artifacts in a museum. It’s tragic, yes, but why should we be surprised when bison do precisely what they were born to do?
We hunt with cameras now, freezing the wilderness into rectangles we can crop, saturate, and sell as packaged portraits of bison and deer and coyotes without the threat of tooth-and-nail action, without the threat of breaking the boundaries between us and them. All the pleasure and none of the risk.
I can ride a bike today, and only now do I realize how petty and ableist it was to have measured my self-worth by my ability to ride a bike. But for as long as I couldn’t ride it, I thought of myself as weak and unintelligent. I still think of myself that way most of the time, though. Now I’m just weakly and unintelligently riding a bike. I don’t ride often, but when I do, I feel my legs shake, and I hold onto the handlebars as tight as possible, afraid that I’ll screw it up again. When I ride, I don’t feel mobilized or free. I feel more like a fraud, not a real cyclist but the imitation of one, like an optical illusion. I don’t belong on a bike, but I’m there anyway, and I somehow enjoy it.
I don’t belong out west either. I’m not doing it any good, but I’m still here enjoying it, this portrait left in the desert, de-coloring in the sunlight, burning up, curling, splintering into a dry framework of bones. The west possesses us in a death grip, and while we’re strangling it we seem totally unaware that it’s strangling us too. It possesses us in a frenzy to survive after all the survival it’s done already. It’s not wild the way we want it to be, but there’s wildness in its death cries. It’s as wild as it’s ever been, and we don’t like it anymore because it’s storming out of the frame and coming after us.
So, I ride my bike, and I walk up the mountain, and I occasionally see deer in the woods, occasionally fall off my bike, get my feet twisted or simply forget to maintain constant confidence. I think of the possibility that the eight liberated bison really did escape to Mount Elden, deep in the Coconino National Forest, deep into the grey mossy boulders strewn with prickly pears and yuccas in the shade of ponderosa pine trees older than Flagstaff. Maybe the bison escaped, procreated, started a colony of mountain bison. Maybe they maintain elusiveness so well that we simply don’t know about them, something we’re on the edge of forgetting but still lurks in the backs of our brains. I like to imagine the mountain bison, calm massive critters unable to discern their size, thinking themselves squirrels and leaping marvelously through the rocks, looking south to the city and wondering why the smoke, why the noise, why the fuss? Then they leap onward without prediction, without intention, pulled by an unnamable, directionless momentum, a kind of freedom I still don’t dare to look for myself.