I stumbled onto the photographs accidentally.
I was with my mother at an auction house in Colorado Springs. My mother owns a used furniture store; she bids on the big stuff, the things people use to furnish an apartment. I like those things too, but I seldom bid on them. In fact, I seldom bid on anything. But this one day the auctioneer started the bidding for a cardboard box which was curled at the corners and filled with heaven-knows-what, and something possessed me to bid.
Maybe it was the fact that nobody wanted the box, even though the auctioneer started at only a dollar. Maybe it was the fact that I had a dollar in my pocket. I tentatively raised my hand. “Sold! To the lady without a number. Somebody get that a lady a number!”
The team on the stage moved everyone else’s attention to an oak dresser. I took my box to a quiet corner and sat on an upholstered chair. I pulled a sturdy coffee table closer and set the box on the table. It had belonged to a man — the whiskery old shaving mugs and blunt-edged cigarette lighters spoke of a lack of feminine oversight — and the items, wrapped in newspaper pages from the early ’40s, had been a long time forgotten.
I would have forgotten them, too, had it not been for the photographs I found layered beneath.
They were large format prints, preserved in the heavy envelopes used by professional photographers. I held an envelope in my hand and opened it.
A procession of some sort in an old western town — Montana maybe? A Native American man wearing a war shirt and full headdress, riding on a horse alongside a white, bearded mountain man. Another white man, clean-shaven and dressed in a uniform typical of the Union Army, post-Civil War.
Despite all the military finery and the presence of weapons in the hands of all three men, this photograph did not speak of conflict, nor did it show surrender. All the men appeared comfortable riding near the others — and with the riders in rows behind them. The presence of each man in the photo appeared voluntary, even staged. Yes, that’s what it was. A parade. And judging by the presence of telephone lines, vintage 1910 or thereabouts.
I set the photo down and picked up the next envelope.
There were several prints in this one, and at first I had a hard time figuring them out. The first showed people gathered on the far side of a lake, against a background showing the dim impression of a railroad track, a low hill and then a vast expanse of plains and sky. It’s the kind of large, open space where townspeople put their fairgrounds, and that’s exactly what this photo reminded me of — of people gathered for a fair or a rodeo.
On the right a large scaffold hugged the edge of the lake. Judging by the men standing near it, I guessed the structure was about as high as four-storey house. Ramps with rails allowed a safe ascent up the structure. It looked like a modern super slide, only there were no children in the photograph, and no slide. But there was — what was that? A plank, jutting out over the lake. Was this a high dive, then? Where were the divers?
The next two photos told the story, a story I now wish I did not know, because there was nothing in these photographs that spoke of voluntary participation or of beings feeling comfortable in each other’s company.
A small group of Rocky Mountain Elk stood in a corral at the base of the structure, cowering as men poked at them with sticks to guide their movements up the ramp. One elk, a female, ascended the ramp, her head down, her ears lowered. Once she reached the top, there was no way for her to go, but …
The next photo showed a female elk, the same one perhaps, midway between the plank above and the lake below. Her feet were pulled tightly together, her neck stretched, her nose pointed to the heavens.
The next photo showed the elk swimming for shore in the direction of the corrals, the men with sticks and the structure that would take her to the plank again. The people along the far edge of the lake clapped their hands and watched for the next elk to jump.
I put the photos back in the envelope and closed it tight, at a loss for a means to label my thoughts. Over the next few months I showed the photos to my parents and other friends and relatives their age, but they, too, were at a loss.
Finally, I got the idea of showing the photos to an elderly man I was interviewing about the 1918 flu pandemic, and he nodded in recognition. “Elk circus,” he said. “Used to come around with the wild west shows.” And that was all he could remember.
Since that day I have interviewed elk biologists, nature writers, western historians and specialists of all ages and have yet to find a soul who can help me make sense of the fact that at one time people thought it was entertaining to load elk into trains, haul them from town to town, set up ramps and force these magnificent creatures to jump and swim for their suppers.
It saddens me and makes me feel ashamed, but still I want to know.