Sunday, May 12, 2013

Buffalo Bill Historical Centre

Yellowstone was a bust…well that’s what you get when you visit in the bizarre off-season the region has between the busy summer and winter seasons. One thing I found frustrating about touring the US (and something that helped prompt this blog) is that there really is no central hub for tourist information. You need to either know exactly where you want to go and what it is you want to see and what questions you need to ask, or else you could be left out in the cold…so to speak.
Case in point. I spent weeks investigating this trip to Yellowstone National Park and nowhere, and I mean nowhere, does it mention you cannot drive through from the north entrance at Gardiner to Cooke City. Certainly it says many roads can be closed, and how impossible it is to get to certain features in the park during winter without snowmobiles or other snow traveling vehicles, but when we arrived it was still a month before winter began. Yet there was no sign, no message, not even a cheeseboard mentioning don’t drive down this road as it was closed. Luckily, I asked at the main ranger station inside the park before we headed towards the interior and ruined an entire day, or worse, got stuck.
Getting back on point about a central information hub for US tourism, nowhere could I find information warning me that, during the last months of autumn, many tourist destinations, including hotels by the way, are closed until the start of winter and the snow season. If you’re traveling north during late October/early November, you need to meticulously go through each and every destination and location you will be traveling too, INCLUDING all the roads between these locations to ensure you can physically travel. Google Maps was of some help in this planning as it did occasional come up with a warning that a certain road may be closed, but its Google maps, so always take this information with a grain of salt and follow up on anything it tells you.
Driving through the sleepy town of Cody towards a snow capped mountain, you quickly come across the town’s current claim to fame (maybe that’s overstating it, how about current reason for visiting), the Buffalo Bill Historical Centre.
Having just undergone a rather expensive facelift and reopening in 2012, the centre isn’t actually a single entity but a number of organisations under the same roof. Of interest to us here is the Draper Museum of Natural History, and for the life of me I cannot recall how I’d heard about the museum- but I was quickly thankful that I’d made the effort to visit.
The Buffalo Bill Historical Centre is damn impressive. The place is huge, with a large log cabin welcoming visitors into the natural history section- an entire cabin, and that’s only the entrance. The Wyoming outdoor hall of fame has some very unusual displays, from rustic homemade furniture to an amazing chandelier made from (what I assumed was) elk horns. At first I was disturbed how many animals had died for such a piece, but the display explains elk and deer lose their horns every year, and though some may have been from hunted animals, most of the antlers had simply been picked up off the ground after mating season. 

Greater Yellowstone Natural History Hall

Next is a series of life-like displays depicting animals from the local region. Bears fighting ferocious wolverines and big horn sheep climbing fantastic mountain displays lined the entrance of something spectacular. Dropping away is what I can only describe as a large, spiralling corridor (as its far too big and grand to be called a stairwell), which ends several floors below at a large, illuminated map of the region.

As you wind your way down you enter little side corridors with each containing lifelike displays to walk through. Reconstructed forests with owls, stouts, bobcats, hornets nests, moose, fly-fishing, parts of rivers- with    some items along the roof or buried in the floor with plexiglass flooring that you walk across.
This long descent ends in a big display on the geology of Wyoming- a place as many of us know renowned for its dinosaur fossils. Here are dinosaur footprints and a large reconstructed rock canyon with dinosaur bones and a raptor running across the top. It’s not just dinosaur’s either, there’s a nice sabre-tooth skeleton bounding down at you from the top of one display, along with mammoth and human remains. There’s also a display of fossils from the nearby Green River formation, including fish and stingrays.

This is all great, but the single display that really makes this part of the museum world class is the rock wall running along one entire end of the hall. At least two (maybe three) floors high, this reconstructed cliff has a replicated fossil dig at the base, with various levels revealing how palaeontologists and anthropologists find and catalogue fossils. And what bones were they digging up?

Hanging above your head, as though falling off a cliff to their death, is a plummeting bison herd. This amazing piece is unlike anything I have seen in any natural history museum I’ve ever visited and verges more on art than display. Standing under this piece is both awe inspiring and intimidating.

To return to the ventral entrance you next walk through a few subterranean corridors that house the Buffalo Bill Collection. If you like the Old West, this is the place for you as there’s gunfighter paraphernalia, wagons, old saddles and a large library where you can research the history of the west.

Plains Indians Museum
 Containing items from Plains Tribes such as the Arapaho, Lakota, Crow, Cheyenne, Blackfeet and Pawnee, the second part of the historical centre is the Plains Indian Museum. Once again this is a huge building, the size of an airplane hangar.
One corner has a native tipi, with walls strewn with the most magnificent native art- most on cured animal hides. War bonnets, weapons and the general instruments of native life making for great viewing, but like earlier this remarkable museum steps things up a notch. When you turn a corner and enter what looks like an IMAX theatre, one wall has been left blank to allow images and movies to be projected on a western scene.
Before this is a life-scene from the Plains Indians (a word I generally don’t like to use by the way, but it’s the one the museum itself uses), with various parts of the display highlighted or darkened as a multi-media story unfolds all about you. This is really good fun and a nice and clever way of educating the general public.

One thing that caught my interest was the display of native artefacts from the Battle of the Little Bighorn. There is a lot of this stuff at a number of museum’s so I’m not 100% certain the significance of these pieces. If they are the real thing, then WOW, but if they’re pieces with what you could call peripheral influence (items from the tribes but not owned by individuals who’d actually participated in the battle), then nice, interesting and great to see, but the fact that I left this display with questions may mean a little more scripting may be needed here.

The display ends at a frontier log cabin and (if memory serves me) a native sweat-lodge that you can walk in and again watch a multimedia display…I did mention this place is big!

As an Australian I would say the only thing missing was someone, somewhere in the display I could talk too. It sounds strange, but I met very few Native Americans in my three years in the US and would have loved the opportunity to chat and ask some questions. To be fair though, we were there during the off season leading up to winter and most places in the north were either closed or understaffed before the on season rush, so they may have people in there during these times.

Whitney Gallery of Western Art

The third section of this complex is the Gallery of Western Art. Hanging on the walls here are numerous paintings and statues of the quintessential western scenes.
Cowboys, cattlemen with columns of longhorns being driven across a grassy plain, frontiersmen fighting wild animals, wild animals in majestic poses in majestic scenery, natives either suffering or living a free life, here you’ll see all this. Many of these images are famous so are likely from quality artists, I just didn’t know any of them.

This gallery ends in one of the most picturesque windows you will ever see which creates a living painting showing the seasonal changes of an actual western landscape. During our visit we got to see a snow covered plain with white peaked mountains in the distance. Fantastic, and again a very clever use of space.

For any fan of the West Wing, you’ll likely remember there was always a statue of a frontiersman astride a bucking horse in the Oval office. ‘Rough Rider’ is a statute built by famed western artist, Frederick Remington, and the gallery contains many fine examples of his work, both in statue form and paint. They have even rebuilt Remington’s workshop in one corner, a brief look into the workroom of a true artist.

Cody Firearms Museum

The fourth and last gallery was a real eye opener and brings home the struggle the US is having today after the recent tragedies in that country.  The love affair American’s have with guns goes back a long way and is well and truly ingrained into many parts of the nation’s society. This is most obvious in the Cody Firearms Museum where there are thousands, and I do mean thousands of weapons on display.

These guns are sorted into makers, time and conflicts, hand guns, rifles and machine guns. Row after row of guns, walking you through the history of the United States and the weapons they used to define the nation today.
Their fights against the natives, the French, the British, the Germans, Cuba, Mexico, drug runners, beasts and birds, the mob- the guns on display were truly amazing.
What was somewhat disturbing was the hunting lodge that takes up one end of this display. Inside hang dozens of animals heads, though most if not all were antlered beasts from the American west. I don’t recall there being a bear or cougar- perhaps seeing one of these beasts dead would have been one step too far for visitors.

“We believe in a spirit, definable and intellectually real, called ‘The Spirit of the American West.'”. This is the unifying theme of all five museums and it’s hard to disagree as they do seem to cover everything. In conclusion, for a museum that wasn’t really on our itinerary and we had really no reason to visit, the Buffalo Bill Historical Centre turned out to be a true gem and worth the drive if you find yourself visiting Yellowstone National Park.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The National Showcaves Centre for Wales

Dan yr Ogof - but if you don’t speak traditional Welsh - the National Showcaves Centre for Wales is a 17-kilometre long cave system in south Wales, five miles north of Ystradgynlais.
Now it rains a lot in Wales so the weather was no surprise, but I have to tell you it was really wet, I mean reallyyyy wet. Having caught the ferry from Ireland we drove through the stunning landscape of ‘Cymru’.
The character of the landscape was amazing and truly differs from the rest of the UK. Ireland has rolling green hills, numerous grass strewn rolling green hills. Scotland has mountains rubbed smooth by Ice Age glaciers long departed. The wild weather that torments Scotland continues to wear the landscape smooth by allowing little more than small bushes to grow. These hills are far more dramatic than the Irish ones, though neither hold a candle to Wales. Huge craggy mountains and rocks, more rocks than you can possibly imagine in a landscape that was still bizarrely green. Add to this the very low clouds rolling across the landscape and the only word I can think of that truly describes the Wales we were seeing was ‘dramatic’.
We drove through these hills and mountains, loving every minute of it, then approaching Ystradgynlais we came across a sign pointing out the National Showcaves Centre for Wales and Dinosaur Park….it was time for a break and a walk, you know, to stretch the old legs.
A good sign was the car park, which was large and well-manicured. Another sign was the large fenced garden you drive past to park had an Emu in it running about. It was a little weird seeing an Australian animal like this so far from home. Looking at the picture when researching this article though, I’m now pretty sure it wasn’t an Emu but a South American Rhea.
To get to the park’s entrance you have to walk under a sauropod, one of the largest outside exhibits I have ever seen. The thing was monstrous and very well made. On the other side of this meaty corridor was a large open courtyard with massive T-rex heads poking out of the bushes, along with another couple of large sauropods- Camarasaurus I’m thinking.
Purchasing our tickets we were also handed rain ponchos, a good thing because they were soon needed. This much rain keeps Wales very green, and the dinosaur park has been situated amongst a small forest, allowing the numerous dinosaurs to be hidden from each other…and there are numerous dinosaurs to hide, believe me.
As we began wandering through the park the heavens opened and did not look like it would be letting up soon, so it was on with our ponchos and ahead we forged. It’s called a dinosaur park but really it’s full of all sorts of prehistoric creatures.
The pond is full of ancient crocs and fish, there were plesiosaurs and coelacanths escaping the jaws of mosasaurs and the armoured head of a Dunkleosteus. Flocks of pterosaurs fly between trees or roost along the cliff edges that border a raging waterfall populated by enormous amphibians.
Between trees are dinosaur families, both adults and young, along with some truly enormous reconstructions. Raptors attack pods of nodosaurs, while herds of pachycephalosaurs head butt each other in displays of sexual prowess.
Amongst all these monsters are reconstructed villages, some stone age, some depicting scenes from paleo-Wales.
One of my favourite displays was of a large Terror Bird (Phorsuracos) hunting along the crest of one hill. It was looking at this specific animal that it finally hit me, I’d seen this creature before. Not a reconstruction, it was the pose that had been haunting my memory. Zdeněk Burian was a Czech painter that was one of the original paleo-artists. His prolific work included a nice Terror Bird painting, and the Phorusracos standing in front of me was identical to this painting( . With this thought in mind, as I looked about the dinosaur garden I began to recognise many older paintings coming to life about me…in statue form.

The path that winds past this killer bird leads to one of the more unusual things I have seen in my travels. The park has been built around a series of caves (supposedly some of the largest in Europe), and here you can enter one. This is possibly one of the most visitor friendly caves I have ever been too as the floor has been concreted smooth. There is also a small stairwell at the end of the caves path to reach a platform where you can view the main chamber-the stairwell of St. Pauls. This chamber has been formed by a small subterranean lake, fed by two waterfalls whose noise echoes throughout the cave. This area is occasionally hired out for functions and weddings, a handy use for a great looking space.

To originally get into this cave you have to cross a path under a strong looking steel cage. Wales is known for its shale, and here the constant rain seems to cause numerous rockslides. To keep people safe the park has built this cage across the gap so people can get past safely. When we arrived the scene caught us a little by surprise as there was about thirty people huddle under its armoured roof and we weren’t sure why.
Heading out there’s a small museum on site with a few fossils and more reconstructions of life from the local region. Roman soldiers stand guard down one corridor, while another display shows how the caves were explored.
After all this dinosaur fun I wasn’t sure our day could get any better…I was wrong. One hour away we visited the 14th century St. Pauls, an amazing ruin and one of Wales’s great treasures. All in all I thoroughly loved Wales and am looking forward to returning one day.