With a little luck, I’ll soon be living in one of the more historic Wild West towns ever–Hays, Kansas. Among other things, I hope to float a historical tour business there.
I spent a year in Hays back in the early 1970s while attending school there. Even though as a clueless college student my history gene had not quite kicked in yet (I planned on majoring in psychology), it was hard to get around in Hays without bumping head-on into history. That Christmas, I bought a new iron kettle on the site of Wild Bill’s famous saloon shoot-out. I learned to ice skate that winter on Big Creek in the very shadow of fabled Fort Hays and, appropriately, a small herd of buffalo grazed nearby. One fine spring day, I caught myself whistling “Garryowen” as I explored a place called Custer Island. (The famous colonel was forced to slaughter his mules to stave of starvation here, even though his command was within bugle sound of Fort Hays, or so the highly suspect sign declared.) I drove to class each morning parallel to the grade of the old Kansas Pacific Railroad, made famous by Indian attacks, buffalo stampedes and Bill Cody’s hunting prowess.
Although there is much more involved, Hays history can be neatly sized up in three words: Custer … Cody …Hickock. Any community which could claim even one of these men would have its historical hook set for thousands of tourists for centuries to come (witness North Platte, Nebraska, Deadwood, South Dakota and Hardin, Montana). And yet, Hays can rightfully claim all three as its own.
A thought: How any town–much less a small one plopped down on the wild prairie, as remote and isolated as any island in a vast sea–could contain those three men at the same time must remain a mystery of the modern world. All three were already American legends. All three were incredibly brave. All three were Alpha males. All three were crack shots, expert hunters and veteran Indian fighters. All three had large egos. And yet, all three managed to remain friends.
One of my favorite pastimes is asking fellow-travellers: “If you could go back in time for a day, where would it be, and when?” Most folks have to ponder. I don’t.