Tuesday, May 17, 2022

On the Trail of the Jackalope – As Real as You Want Them to Be

An Excerpt of Michael P. Branch's latest - Pages 13-21 - Publication Date: March 1, 2022. - Book Launch: 6 pm, March 10, 2022, at the Nevada Museum Of Art

As Real as You Want Them to Be

My next appointment is with Bruce Jones, Mayor of Douglas. After walking back to the LaBonte I drive a few miles to the edge of town, where I’m to meet the mayor at the restaurant of the local golf course, which is called Douglas Golf Course and is located on Golf Course Road. Aside from jackalopes, people and things are refreshingly straightforward around here. The restaurant is a wonderfully unpretentious place, more like an old-school soda fountain than a martini-mixing nineteenth hole. Having neglected to dig up a photo of the mayor, I don’t have the slightest idea who I’m looking for. But Bruce Jones knows everybody in his town so he immediately recognizes me by virtue of not recognizing me. Jones is a big man with a warm smile, a goatee, and a tattoo on his upper arm. He introduces his wife, Cathy, who is friendly and a bit reserved. I try to put myself in their shoes: they are representatives of the town they grew up in, love, and serve, and they are now meeting a wild-eyed, obsessed guy who journeyed one thousand miles from the high desert to interrogate them about antlered bunnies. Who would be hospitable to somebody like that? The Joneses, as it turns out. They couldn’t be more welcoming, and our conversation is unforced and illuminating. Within ten minutes I’m determined to reelect Mayor Jones, and I don’t even live here.

The restaurant’s only waitress brings me an iced tea with a wedge of lemon as I ask Jones about the jackalope in the context of his role as mayor. “Well, we’re the home of the jackalope. So, part of my job is to remind people that there’s only one of those. A lot of folks have tried to claim otherwise over the years. They put up a jackalope over in Dubois—that’s a couple hundred miles west, out toward Jackson—and said it was the biggest jackalope anywhere. Not true. The statue here in Jackalope Square is much bigger,” the mayor says, with obvious pride. “There’s always somebody claiming they invented the jackalope. Once the Governor of Texas tried to make the jackalope his state’s official mythological creature. Well, I put a stop to that. We’ve had trademark on the jackalope since ’65.” Jones is polite, but unwavering in his conviction that Texas ought to stick with the chupacabra.

The mayor goes on to tell me how much fun he has with the jackalope myth, especially when he’s visiting Washington, D.C. on business. Since colonial times it has been an American tradition for folks from the hinterlands to dupe city slickers whenever possible, and the jackalope has performed reliable service as a hoax. Jones is fond of telling representatives from other states about the animal, showing them pictures of it, and inviting them to visit rural Wyoming to join him for a little jackalope hunting. He insists he has reeled in plenty of credulous politicians with these stories.

Jackalope in its native habitat
Postcards are among the oldest and most popular items of jackalope memorabilia. This vintage card, circa late 1940s, came from the studios of photographer Harold Sanborn. It was immensely popular, with at least 17,000 copies made over the life of the negative.
Courtesy of John Meissner, Sanborn Research Centre and Estes Park Archives. Photo by Kyle Weerheim.

“It’s like the snipe hunt,” he says, referring to a gag that has been going strong since before the Civil War. “Jackalope hunting is the same idea. It’s D.C. They don’t know anything about Wyoming. ‘Do you really hunt them?’ is what they always ask me. Well, sure we do!” he says, dropping effortlessly into a lilting, rustic twang. “We’re a whole town with an inside joke. Everybody goes along with it.”

Bruce’s wife, Cathy, who has been nodding and smiling, enters the conversation with a fresh take on the horned bunny.

“When I was a little girl, I thought every town had a jackalope. I remember when my cousin told me it wasn’t real and I didn’t believe him, so I asked my grandma, and she had to tell me. That was so hard! Here in Douglas, Jackalope was like our Tooth Fairy. We’d leave out a bag of raw oats for him, and if the oats were gone in the morning, it meant you’d have good luck. I think I believed in Jackalope longer than I believed in Santa Claus. For her first birthday, I gave my granddaughter a pair of jackalope booties that I knit.” Looking genuinely wistful, Cathy looks down and sips her iced tea. Bruce smiles at her affectionately.

I ask Bruce about the branding value of the jackalope to the town he represents. He replies that in the eight years he’s been mayor there hasn’t been much pushback against using the jackalope to market Douglas. The town hosts the state fair, he says, but that’s just once a year. And they have plenty of clean coal but can’t get a coal port, he adds. The current gas and oil boom will help, but the beauty of the jackalope is that it hasn’t been a boom-and-bust phenomenon, but rather a reliable, recession-proof means of keeping his little town on the map. Jones pulls out his phone, turning its screen toward me.

“Here’s our brand new logo and motto,” he says with a laugh. “Some of the older folks don’t care for it much, but the younger ones like it. Jackalope is just like a town: you’ve got to keep it alive as you go.” On the small screen is a modern-looking, stylized image of pyramidal mountains and, integrated into the range, the sweeping, dynamic, impressionistic form of a leaping jackalope. Beneath the logo is the new slogan Bruce has developed to re-envision his town’s mythical creature: “City of Douglas, Wyoming. Home of the Jackalope. We know Jack.” I smile and tell Jones how much I like it. He laughs again.

Before thanking the Joneses for their hospitality, I ask my question, first of the mayor.

“Bruce, why do you think people love jackalopes?”

“Wyoming is the least populous state in the lower forty-eight,” he replies without hesitation. “Six people per square mile, and I can remember when it was half that. There could be anything out there. Who’s to say it can’t happen? Everybody’s heard of a labradoodle. Would you believe me if I told you we have a pet wild antelope named Jake who has sixteen-inch prongs and grazes in our backyard? Well, we do.”

President Reagan and Colin Powell
11-25-1987 President Reagan during a trip to Santa Barbara, California and talking with Colin Powell in the living room at Rancho Del Cielo

Now it’s Cathy’s turn.

“I guess it goes back to Santa and the Tooth Fairy. It just kind of gets into your head. It’s a piece of innocence you never have to lose, and it stays with you even after you find out. Every fable has a grain of truth to it.”

My final stop is the town’s visitor center, which is set up in a charming old train depot near the North Platte River, a broad, shallow, gleaming beauty that meanders languidly through town and beneath Jackalope Bridge. To a person, everyone I’ve talked to and corresponded with in preparation for this pilgrimage—including members of the Herrick family—has recommended that I meet with “the jackalope lady,” Helga Bull. Given the jackalope’s origin as a hoax, I speculate that Bull is as much a myth as the jackalope itself or that, if real, she has the perfect surname for a teller of jackalope tales.

The very real Helga Bull is expecting me and lights up as I enter the old building. The jackalope lady is pure warmth, energy, and enthusiasm, and it’s immediately clear that she’s in the right line of work. Before I can ask my first question, she launches into what I can tell is her shtick, but it’s such an enjoyable one that I have no urge to preempt it.

“Here’s what you came for, Mike!” Bull exclaims, gesturing toward a wall featuring three jackalope mounts with a fourth full-body mount displayed on a table below and, to the right of and below the table, a fifth jackalope perched upright in a cage. The wall also features a bright yellow “Jackalope Crossing” sign, an original of the horned rabbit medallion that decorates the nearby bridge over the North Platte River, and a large framed replica of Governor Herschler’s proclamation officially designating Douglas the Home of the Jackalope.

“Now, there are two species of jackalope. These here, with the branching antlers, are the mountain species. But sometimes you see the plains species, which has horns like an antelope. Of course, these are all bucks. The doe jackalope doesn’t have horns or antlers. Both the mountain and plains species are related to a much larger jackalope species called the saber-toothed jackalope that’s probably extinct now. Those ones weighed up to 150 pounds. Bones of that big fella have been found all over Converse County!”

As Helga Bull continues her jackalope primer, I notice that one of the creatures on display is wearing a blue bandana tied loosely around its neck. A sign posted near the caged jackalope, which has been placed at kids’ eye level, warns younger visitors not to stick their fingers into the cage because “Slick” might bite.

“Old timers around here said those big ones sometimes attacked wagon trains or homesteads, but nobody knows for sure. We do know that jackalopes roam together in groups of ten to twenty individuals. Scientists call this kind of group a ‘committee’ of jackalopes. In the springtime . . .” Helga continues her animated and impressively detailed lecture on the natural history of the jackalope, covering information about the creature’s habitat, mating, feeding, shelter, speed, camouflage, predation, herding, evolution, thermoregulation, recent sightings, and threats to the species. Wrapping up her enthusiastic introduction to the imaginary animal we both love, she adds, “But then you said you’re a serious jackalope researcher, Mike, so you must know all that.” The jackalope lady smiles at me and I smile back. As a fellow aficionado, I recognize the twinkle in her eye.

But I do need some real answers, so it is time to coax Helga Bull out of character. I ask if the jackalopes in her display are Herrick mounts. She confirms that they are, but clarifies that the mounts were made not by Ralph Herrick—as were those at the Pioneer Museum—but rather by Ralph’s son, Jim. Jim’s creations bear a family resemblance to his dad’s, while also having a signature quality that is entirely his own. His critters are a little gentler, somehow more dignified, more aware of their elevated status as a trophy mount, a little less ornery and sarcastic. I ask her if it is true that, as I’ve heard from others, Jim has made tens of thousands of jackalopes since learning the craft from his father and his Uncle Doug. “It wouldn’t surprise me,” she replies. “I think he’s been making them almost his whole life.”

A man comes through the back door and introduces himself as Bill—not chipper Bill Kalar of the haunted LaBonte, but Bill Truitt, the native of Douglas who works with Helga at the visitor center. At that moment I happen to be asking about Jackalope Days, a festival the town holds each year to celebrate its iconic mascot.

“Oh, we have a lot of fun!” Helga says. “We have a car show, and lots of crafts, and a food truck. There’s a contest where you can enter your own homemade beer. One of our local businessmen dresses up like a big jackalope and gives all the kids candy. They love it! And we have a street dance too. Oh, and the dodgeball tournament! Everybody comes out for it.” Now Truitt chimes in. “I remember the very first one, back in ’84, when I was a kid.”

“Was that the one where somebody got loaded and plowed down the big jackalope statue that had been out on the median of old Yellowstone Highway since the sixties?” I ask, referring to the main road through town. “Yeah,” Bill says, chuckling. “When our local deputy showed up, that fella climbed out of his pickup and swore that the big jackalope had jumped out in front of him.” He laughs again.

“That was May 19, 1984, when the eight-foot jackalope got hit,” says Helga. “But on May 18, 1985, we put up another jackalope, and that one was even bigger than the first one! But after the old town grocery burned down and the family gave the land to the town, we made Jackalope Square and moved the big jackalope over there. Later on some people saw that big jackalope and wanted to use our town to do a jackalope TV show that would be like that show Hunting Big foot. We said no way!”

“No way,” Bill affirms. “Something like that would make us look like a bunch of idiots.”

“What kind of responses do you get from visitors who don’t already know about the jackalope?” I ask.

“They love it!” Helga says. “Especially the kids. But grownups too. I’d say about half of them leave believing they’re real. And that’s okay.”

Douglas and Ralph Herrick, of Douglas, Wyoming, are reputed to have been the first taxidermists to make a jackalope mount during the 1930s. This excellent full-body mount was the last jackalope ever fabricated by Ralph Herrick. Circa 2004. Courtesy of Wyoming Pioneer Memorial Museum, a division of Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources. Photo: Michael P. Branch.

My mind flashes to my writing desk at home, where I keep pens in a jackalope coffee mug emblazoned with the reassuring slogan: “The Important Thing Is That I Believe In Myself.”

“Yup, people love them. I always ask visitors if they’ve seen any jackalopes on their drive in, and of course, they’ve always seen jackrabbits, so I tell them that those are the jackalope does. And then they point to these display mounts and ask me ‘Are they real?’ And I say, ‘Yes, they are.’ And they are real, Mike. They’re real jackalopes!” Helga’s answer has me smiling. “Why do you think people love jackalopes?” I finally ask, looking first at Bill.

“The jackalope is kind of like that giant ball of string they got over in Kansas. Just an oddball thing. I think that’s why,” he says.

Helga Bull, beaming, has a ready answer. “Because they’re as real as you want them to be.”

I thank them both and gather up my journal, baseball cap, and travel coffee mug to head for the door.

“Before you go, Mike, the town of Douglas has a gift for you. We think you’re going to need this. You’ve come a long way to be with us here in the Home of the Jackalope, and we appreciate that. Now, you take good care of yourself.” Smiling, she hands me a sealed envelope and shows me politely to the door. More thanks are exchanged, and when I offer Helga Bull a handshake, she hugs me instead. Like everyone I’ve met in Douglas, Helga has a way of making me feel at home.

Outside it’s brisk and sunny, and I pause to take photos of the visitor center’s ridiculously large jackalope statue. It is painted entirely white, with black horns (not antlers, so it must be the plains species). It has a placid look on its face, expressing a kind of serenity that is cute but lifeless when compared with the Herrick family mounts. Even more impressive than the statue is the strange shadow it casts in the late afternoon sun. In the silhouette of that dark shadow, the giant creature appears to be walking upright with an oddly hunched back, and the outline of its huge ears and gracefully curved horns etches the ground beautifully. I take a picture of the giant shadow jackalope with my own full-body shadow standing next to it. Then I step in front of the statue, causing my own shadow to vanish, and photograph the shadow jackalope again. No one who later sees this striking image will think to ask why the photographer’s shadow is not also cast. The work of the imagination is real work. Maybe the jackalope is best understood by the shadow it casts, even when our own shadow is hidden within it.

The charming old Hotel LaBonte, in Douglas, Wyoming, was built in 1914. The first jackalope mount ever made was displayed on the wall of the hotel’s bar for decades, before it vanished in the late seventies. Photo: Micharl P. Branch.

Tonight will hold more baseball, IPA, and good conversation with ranch hands, hunters, and oil patch roughnecks in the bar of the LaBonte. Tomorrow at daybreak I will drive across Jackalope Bridge, catch a glimpse of the giant jackalope art installation perched on a nearby hillside, and then roll a thousand miles home to the high desert. For now, I relish sitting quietly in the sun-warmed cab of my truck, sipping lukewarm coffee, and scribbling notes in my journal. When I unseal the envelope Helga Bull has given me, I find within it a piece of authentic Americana: a Limited, Non-Resident, Jackalope Hunting License, duly issued to me by Converse County, Wyoming, and the town of Douglas. The document offers a brief history of Pedigres Leapusalopus, which was reportedly first sighted by trapper Roy Ball, who “staggered into the Wyoming territory around 1829.” “The existence of the jackalope was known prior to that only through Native American legend,” the account continues. “Mr. Ball was the first to record that jackalopes mated during flashes of lightning common to violent thunderstorms of the prairies. This, however, is yet to be confirmed by modern zoologists.” Under the section “Legal Notice and Regulations,” the license specifies that “The Wyoming Fish and Game Commission requires that jackalopes be hunted only between sun-up and sun-down on June 31 of each year.”

I turn the paper over and read the official language aloud in order to formally take the oath: “I, Michael P. Branch, being first duly sworn, do hereby state: That I am a person of strict temperance and absolute trustfulness. I do reserve the right, at my discretion and if interrogated concerning my hunting experience, to employ such lingual evasion, loud rebuttal and double talk as the occasion and circumstances require.” The license is signed by the invented Chief Licensor, Adam Lyre, and by the real First Lady of Jackalopes, Helga Bull.

Well, it’s official, I think to myself. I am in now in possession of a duly sworn legal warrant authorizing me, as licensee, to hunt, pursue, trap, or otherwise go after the jackalope in any way I can possibly imagine.

And that is exactly what I intend to do.


For sale now  

Publisher – Pegasus Books


Book Launch: “On the Trail of the Jackalope” with celebrated author Michael Branch – Thursday evening, 6:00 pm, March 10, in the theater of the Nevada Museum of Art. Discover the never-before-told story of the horned rabbit – the myths, the hoaxes, the very real scientific breakthrough it inspired.


Michael P. Branch is a professor of literature and environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches creative nonfiction, American literature, environmental studies, and film studies. An award-winning writer and humorist, Michael is the author of How to Cuss in Western and lives with his wife and two daughters in the western Great Basin Desert, on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Range.

 


 Founded in 2020, the Sierra Nevada Ally is a self-reliant 501c3 nonprofit publication with no paywall, a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, offering unique, differentiated reporting and explanatory journalism on the environment, conservation, and public policy, while giving voice to writers, filmmakers, visual artists, and performers. We rely on the generosity of our readers and aligned partners.