Weekly newspaper of Three Rivers, California, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks

Reflections on the SUMMER OF LOVE: Part Four

John Elliott


This is the fourth installment in an ongoing memoir in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love in San Francisco. Previous installments are here.
We ended the previous installment with a motel stay in Ogallala, Neb. Early the next morning, I was awakened by the slamming of car doors in the parking lot. I peeked through the Venetian blinds and spied Doc, our driver on this adventure, already seated at the one picnic table in the motel’s courtyard. 
I joined him directly while my two traveling companions dragged themselves out of bed and outside too. It wasn’t full sun yet but there was little doubt that in a couple of hours when we crossed the Wyoming border at Pine Bluff, it was going to be a warm summer day. 
Doc served us more Kellogg’s cereal and fruit. He had already gassed the Rambler and within 15 minutes, we were off. In this section of highway, signs for U.S. 30 and 80 shared the same post. 
The first mileage I saw for Pine Bluff was 125; alluring Cheyenne was 169 miles. As I tried to visualize what Cheyenne might be like, an image of “Cheyenne Bodie” came to mind. 
That must be the place he was named for so, of course, Cheyenne’s entire population would be frontier folk and rodeo legends in buckskin boots and jackets. Cheyenne Bodie, aka Clint Walker, is a big strapping actor (at a height of 6 feet, 6 inches), born in 1927, who starred in his own ABC/Warner Bros series called Cheyenne from 1955 to 1963. The show was television’s first hour-long western and basically taught me everything I knew about the Wild West.
There was an episode etched in my memory of when Cheyenne had to battle a renegade grizzly that had been badly burned in forest fire, losing all his claws. The only way Cheyenne could attract the bear into his camp was to sit up all night around a roaring campfire. 
The fire seemed to drive the grizzly stark-raving mad, causing the bruin to extinguish the blaze and seek vengeance on anyone nearby. I still can see the reflection of Bodie’s fire in the piercing eyes of the bear as the nine-foot tall critter stood on his hind legs and sized up his prey.
The episode inspired the 1966 hit film The Night of the Grizzly, also starring Clint Walker. That classic Western story was set in Wyoming but filmed in the Holcomb Valley in California, near Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino National Forest. So much of how I, a naïve 16-year-old from Ohio, pictured the West was shaped by Hollywood and TV.
When we pulled into Cheyenne, Wyo., that afternoon it was apparent that during this summer of ‘67, there was an ongoing celebration of the frontier town’s centennial. Founded in 1867 as a supply depot for the Union Pacific Railroad, the town has evolved as the most populous city in Wyoming and also the state’s capital.
This year (2017) marks Cheyenne’s sesquicentennial; its city population is more than 53,000 with a metro population of 91,000. It remains best known for its Cheyenne Frontier Days, 10 days of western fun. 
If you like rodeo, Cheyenne is the place to be. The modern Frontier Days, first started in 1897, attracts more than 200,000 visitors during its annual late-July run. When we took a pit stop on Carey Avenue, it was apparent that the summer extravaganza had recently concluded.
Cheyenne hasn’t changed all that much in the last 50 years. There were 40,300 residents in 1967 with the same numerous passenger wagons and rodeo gear on display everywhere that you will still see today. But, spoiler alert, the residents don’t necessarily look or dress like
Cheyenne Bodie.
For the first time on this cross-country trip, it seemed like we were, in fact, a long way from Ohio. Now we were in the wild, wild West where cowboys punched cows and the landscape, at an elevation of 6,000 feet, seemed almost magical with endless rolling hills, a huge sky and, on the western horizon, the tallest mountains I had ever seen. 
So in less than three days, just after high noon, we were heading out of Cheyenne, bound for Salt Lake, Utah. That stretch of roadway I’m certain is now designated a scenic highway but hopefully today some of the hundreds of billboards have been removed. 
Travel by automobile became all the rage after World War I and so did outdoor advertising on billboards. There was a plethora of products from shaving cream, breakfast cereals, chewing tobacco, and every lodging place and attraction just ahead. Many of these billboards were artistic and entertaining, all competing for the attention of motorists and their passengers, especially on highways like U.S. 80.
And then there were the roadside giants that also were used to lure travelers to businesses before the interstates rerouted everyone around and off of Main Street. These fiberglass statues were always the largest something: catsup bottle, a Native American chief, a cowboy, dinosaur, soda bottle, teepee.
Kaweah Country has a few of these nods to 1960s auto travel: the Bull, a transplant from Why, Ariz.; the Big Orange in Lemon Cove; and Paul Bunyan, sculpted by artist Carroll Barnes from a giant sequoia log.
The distance from Cheyenne to Rock Springs, Wyo., is 256 miles. There must have been 100 signs that read: See Rock Springs. We never pulled off to see what necessitated all those billboards — Doc wanted to make Salt Lake, another 180 miles, before we stopped for the night.
Driving all those miles in 1967 was certainly a hugely different experience than today. Instead of seeing all the same gas stations, motel chains, and corporate fast-food outlets at every exit, on the old state highways there was a unique view of the countryside and main street America. 
But the slower pace of highway travel 50 years ago was monotonous at times as I stared at the endless pavement and power lines. But Doc was quite a conversationalist, and my ability to talk and ask questions as an inquisitive teen served me well and guaranteed that I got to ride in the front seat for the entire trip.                                                                      
We talked about anything and everything. But what I remember most was Doc’s fascinating story of why he was moving to California: to become part of the team of surgeons that would perform the first human heart transplant in the U.S. 
Even though Doc insisted it could be done, I wasn’t sure that transplanting a heart in a human was even possible. After all, it had never been done and, for that matter, not a single Ohioan had yet walked on the moon either.          
Next time: What I learned from Doc – the whole shooting match of the cardiovascular competition to successfully complete the world’s first heart transplant.