We Love Small Towns & The Legendary Jackalope

About Michael Branch

Mike Branch is a writer, humorist, environmentalist, father, and desert rat who lives with his wife and two young daughters in the western Great Basin Desert. His work includes ten published books, one of which is the Pulitzer Prize-nominated John Muir’s Last Journey: South to the Amazon and East to Africa (Island Press). His recent books include: Raising Wild: Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness (Shambhala  / Roost Books, 2016), Rants from the Hill: On Packrats, Bobcats, Wildfires, Curmudgeons, a Drunken Mary Kay Lady, and Other Encounters with the Wild in the High Desert (Shambhala / Roost Books, 2017),  ‘The Best Read Naturalist’: Nature Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (co-edited with Clinton Mohs, University of Virginia Press, 2017), How to Cuss in Western (Shambhala  / Roost Books, 2018), and On the Trail of the Jackalope (Pegasus Books, 2022).

About Amara Fehring

Amara Fehring is a multi-disciplinary performing artist with Fremont County roots. Growing up in Wyoming, Amara found a loving and supportive home in the performing arts community, where she was given space to develop her skills and thrive. Amara is the Artistic Director for Communal Pancake Performing Arts in Lander, WY. She also works for the Wyoming Arts Council as the Community Development and Arts Learning Specialist. She is excited to be able to give back to the Wyoming community and help facilitate meaningful experiences where newcomers and seasoned artists of all mediums can gather and grow, explore new skills, be innovative, and find a voice.

Amara holds degrees in Theatre and Communication from the University of Montana, and an Artist Management certificate through the Berklee School of Music. When she’s not at work, Amara is usually exploring Wyoming’s vast wilderness with her husband, Joe, and her dog Scout, traveling, or enjoying time with family and friends. She loves the outdoors, the theatre, funky concert halls, and divey diners.

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Emy diGrappa (00:01):

Welcome to Winds of Change. I am your host, Emmy DiGrappa. Winds of Change is centered on the people, places, history and stories of Wyoming. We talk about identity, community, land, and the winds of change and what it means to thrive in our state. How does someone identify with wide open spaces and big personalities in small towns? Listen to folks from across our state, share their connection to Wyoming and home, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities.

Emy diGrappa (00:53):

Hey everybody. Welcome to this next episode of Winds of Change. I'm so excited to be joined by Lucas and Chloe, my co-host, but we also have a special guest. His name is Michael Branch. Michael is a writer, humorist, and environmentalist. His latest book is called On the Trail of the Jack Lobe. He has a never before told story of the horned Rabbit, the myths, the hoaxes, the very real scientific breakthrough it inspired, and how it became a cultural touchstone of the American West.

Lucas (01:27):

Yeah, absolutely. Welcome, Mike. Thank you for joining us today.

Mike Branch (01:30):

This is terrific. Thanks for having me.

Chloe (01:32):

I am so excited about today's topic. I know little to nothing other than my lived experience, so I'm very excited.

Emy diGrappa (01:42):

So when we started talking about the jackalope, and I remember that Lucas was especially excited and he's our resident historian at Wyoming Humanities, and we thought, gosh, let's do a talk on this. Let's do an episode. And he was like, "Okay, that's what we're going to do". And then he meets Mike. And so then it got even bigger and better. But I wanted to just start out in this episode talking about myths and because as I've told all of you before on this show, I grew up in a big Hispanic family and my favorite myth is the story of La Llorona. And I don't know if anyone else knows that story, but we grew up telling that story over and over again about this woman. There's different versions of it, but my favorite version is she became incessantly jealous of her children because her husband paid more attention to the children than he did to her.

Emy diGrappa (02:35):

And then she drowned her own children. And so then she got stuck in purgatory as some stories go and they wouldn't take her into heaven when she knocked on the door and they said she had to go back and find her children. And so the story is that you hear her crying by the rivers where she drowned her children, because she's always looking for them. And so a lot of times when we'd be telling campfire stories, we'd just get chills. And especially at night if we heard a cat crying, that was really freaky. So I don't know if anyone else has a favorite myth or legend that has gone down in generations in their family.

Chloe (03:18):

Oh man. So wish I had something as exciting as La Llorona, but I do not. I don't feel like my family grew up with a lot of myths and legends like that. So I have a couple of things, what we'll talk about today, but nothing like that. Nothing that stuck with me so deeply into my childhood and adulthood, nothing like that.

Emy diGrappa (03:46):

How about you Lucas?

Lucas (03:48):

Oh, well, for me the answer's pretty obvious. It's definitely the jackalope thing, but I have to say the stories I heard growing up were not nearly as nice. The jackalope around here is considered a threatening creature, a lot like the Jersey Devil or the Sasquatch in some circumstances. Unlike the Sasquatch though, the jackalope didn't hang around on focused areas. And instead, we usually get this idea that if you were out on a cattle drive somewhere, you have to wear at night, if you're going to go out at night, you have to wear the tin from the stove pipes around your legs to prevent the antlers from goring you, because that's what they would do.

Lucas (04:28):

And they didn't just do it when they feel threatened, from my understanding, they would hunt and packs and attack people. And I don't know if that was just a my thing, but it was always taught to be wary and avoid the jackalope as much as possible. And I don't know if, as I've gotten older, knowing that the jackalope originated in Douglas, if that wasn't just a gillette thing to throw Douglas under the bus, see they created this violent creature.

Emy diGrappa (04:57):

Well, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, there's a whole huge store, it's called jackalope. It's very well known. And I can see how in the Southwest it was definitely more prevalent of a story than one that we grew up telling each other as we were growing up.

Mike Branch (05:14):

I really like Lucas's story though, because there are lots of very cool regional variants. And you mentioned Santa Fe, Emy, and I'm headed there to do some readings in about a month. And each of these different regions has jackalope tales, but they do different things with them. But I really love Lucas's story because one of the things that makes a jackalope so funny is that it's such an odd blend of things. It's so counterintuitive. And I think when we think of rabbits, we immediately think of something that's harmless and cute.

Mike Branch (05:43):

And so one of my favorite bodies of folklore about the jackalope is this stuff about how vicious and aggressive it is. And especially when people use that as a corrective to folks who are not in on the joke. And somebody will say, oh, look at that cute little bunny. And then that's your cue to say like, "Oh no, you have no idea". And Lucas's tale of frontiersmen wearing stove pipes on their legs to protect themselves when they were in jackalope habitat, it is just one of the greatest, I just love the idea of it's got that kind of Monty Python feel, right, of the super dangerous bunny.

Lucas (06:19):

Absolutely. Yeah. And I'm with you. Yeah. That opening to say on second thought, because that's exactly how I got introduced. I'm like, oh, this is so cool and I love to have one as a pet, and I think we'll think twice. Let me tell you, you don't want these guys as a pet. They'll smother you in your sleep or something. By the way, they talked about it, very evil.

Mike Branch (06:41):

And I love Emy's story of La Llorona that each culture and region has a body of myths that are all their own. And one of the things that's been so cool about spending so much time with jackalope folklore and folk tales is that it's not like, oh, Mark Twain did this thing and nobody does it anymore. Or this indigenous culture had this Coyote tale or this Raven Tale. These jackalope stories are morphing every day. It's part of the folk process. Every time somebody walks into a bar or a greasy spoon diner and wants to have some fun with somebody, there's a new dimension to the narrative about jackalopes. And I think that part's really fun. And I even got an opportunity for the book, the book On the Trail of the jackalope. I've had so much fun putting this together, but I interview a lot of people in the book, and one of the guys I interview is this wild guy from Michigan actually, who set up a website where people can submit their jackalope sighting narratives.

Mike Branch (07:36):

And so it's a crowdsourced, sort of spontaneous and organic development of folklore because some people are putting conventional jackalope stories in there. So for example, how do you capture a jackalope? Well, you have to set out a bowl of whiskey at night and then it'll drink the whiskey and get so brave that it thinks it can catch bullets in its teeth. That's the only way you can, or jackalope milk is a powerful aphrodisiac, and the does do sleep on their backs, but it's super dangerous to milk a jackalope and people have been killed trying it. And so, how fast is a jackalope? It runs 90 miles an hour because a pronghorn runs 60 and a jackrabbit runs 30, 60 plus 30. So anyway, you have all these conventional jackalope folk tales, but then people are also just making up this outrageous stuff on the spot.

Mike Branch (08:27):

And a lot of it, and I'm thinking of this because of your comment, Lucas, a lot of it revolves around how dangerous jackalopes are. So you'll get a narrative of you, this jackalope attacked me in the forest and they had to amputate my leg, but the worst part of the whole experience was nobody believes me. So these tales are not always retold generationally. A lot of times they're generated spontaneously. And I love about the jackalope, unlike say Disney, something that's controlled by an army of corporate lawyers who worry about this stuff, nobody owns the jackalope. It's a true part of folk culture. So if you want to write a song or paint a painting or make a film or make a sculpture or tell a story about a jackalope, you can go do it right now. It's one of the things I love about humanities is that we support these forms of expression and storytelling that aren't owned by people, that we do together as a community. So I love that story.

Chloe (09:25):

Oh my gosh, Mike, I love that. I love everything that you just said. Exactly. What's so exciting about folklore, and I mean even just oral histories, is that they are accurate to their time in a way and their place and the teller of the story. And that's really cool. I love that. That was amazing.

Mike Branch (09:46):

Yeah, exactly. And you see even these traditional jackalope tales get folded into really contemporary stuff. So how do we know that jackalopes exist? Because autopsies of jackalopes have been performed next to autopsies of aliens at Area 51, that kind of stuff. So you're taking this thing that's almost a hundred years old and that is part of a folk tradition that's millennia old and just plugging it into these contemporary contexts in ways that I think are really charming and funny. And that's how this stuff stays alive. And that's one of the things that really fascinated me about the jackalope is, for example, in the 19th century west, there were lots and lots of invented animals, imaginary animals that storytellers talked about, but the jackalope has survived in a way that many of those others haven't. And I think part of the reason for that might be that it's cute, but it's dangerous.

Mike Branch (10:36):

It's funny, but it gets used to fool people. And also there's this conversation between the artifact and the narrative. So for example, if I tell you about a Sidehill gouger or a Dungaroo or some other invented animal, I can't march you down to the bar and say, there it is on the wall. So that hoax, taxidermy mount has always functioned weirdly as a evidence that backs up the stories people tell. And I've always loved that idea that all the jackalope kitsch, the postcards, the t-shirts, the taxidermy mounts, they're in a conversation with the storytelling.

Mike Branch (11:14):

So if you have both the artifact and the narrative, they have a way of feeding each other and keeping the myth alive. We're coming on a hundred years or so of jackalopes, and it's just becoming more ubiquitous in popular culture. It's just spreading like crazy. And I just find that fascinating. Why are people so interested in this, and how does it disseminate through the culture? But my connection to you guys is really rich because the main thing that caused me to start this book was to figure out what the jackalope origin story was. Where did this thing come from? And of course, it has its birth in Wyoming, so I got to talk to a lot of people in Wyoming as part of my work on the book.

Emy diGrappa (11:53):

That is so cool. And I didn't even know it started in Wyoming. Like I said, my dad was born in New Mexico and we have so many crazy stories that I could tell you. So the New Mexicans have lots of myths and legends. Holy moly.

Lucas (12:12):

I hear you. Yeah. I was just going to ask a question, a little bit about your book. So you tie into on the trail of the jackalope with the story of Dr. Shop and his discoveries of cancer cells and how these things happened. Which came first, the interest and myth of the jackalope, or did you stumble upon Dr Shop's stuff and just like, oh wow, the jackalopes really tied into this, which one came first? Or is it just an amorphous thing?

Mike Branch (12:42):

No, no, that's a great question. I appreciate it. Well, I'm, as well as being an environmental writer and a guy who writes a lot about the American West, I'm also a humor writer. So my initial interest in the jackalope was, it just seemed like good fun that people use this to fool each other. It makes us laugh. It's iconic to the American West. So when I first got into the project, I thought, I'm just going to immerse myself in all this kitsch and tall tales and storytelling and hoaxing and it's just going to be fun. But then when I learned that there are actually horn rabbits in nature, and as Lucas is suggesting, these rabbits get these weird growths on their heads that are caused by a papilloma virus. And so then, because I'm obsessive and nerdy, like a lot of writers, I wondered, well, okay, who was the first person to ever get interested in studying these actual virus stricken rabbits, real life jackalopes rabbits with these weird things?

Mike Branch (13:38):

And it turned out that it was this world famous virologist who during the pandemic, we heard a lot about [inaudible 00:13:46], which killed between 50 and a hundred million people globally. Well, the virologist that figured out what caused that pandemic, it took him 20 years or so, was this guy who Lucas is talking about Richard Chope, and he was from the Midwest, and he was at the Rockefeller Institute in Princeton world, famous Virologist at that point. And he heard these stories from hunters back where he was from in Iowa. And these hunters in Iowa and Kansas said, yes, sometimes we shoot these rabbits with these weird growths. And he was really interested in why those growths were there. And so he started having these people shipping him these weird rabbits from the Midwest. And there he was at his lab bench in Princeton studying this stuff.

Mike Branch (14:26):

And I'm going to skip over some of the science work in the book, but hang with me on this one nerdy part, which is so important. The study of those horned rabbits, Richard Chope was able to prove that a virus can cause cancer in a mammal. At the time, scientific community didn't think that was possible. Cancer's not contagious, et cetera. Well, we now know that about 10% of cancer deaths globally each year are caused by viruses. So the important thing about Chope's work on those rabbits was when he showed that a virus could cause cancer in a mammal, he opened the way to a lot of research that was going to directly benefit human beings. And if you connect the dots, Chope's work eventually leads to the development of the human papillomavirus vaccine, which is the safest, most effective anti-cancer vaccine we've ever created.

Mike Branch (15:16):

And I just love this idea that we're saving millions of lives every year with a vaccine that literally would not exist if it weren't for horn rabbits. So the answer to your question was, I started in just on the fun and funny stuff, and then the more I dug, the more I learned all this stuff, not only about the science of horn rabbits, but also the fact that there are horn rabbits in the mythology and folklore of people from around the world, which I had never known. So one of the things I love about being a writer is no matter what your topic is, if you really care about it and you dig, there's always worlds within worlds within worlds that open up to you as you go. So the science story was something that I discovered as part of the process, and that's what's so fun, as a writer. I want to surprise my readers, but I can't do that unless I'm surprised myself. And this is a project that just kept surprising me over and over in so many cool ways.

Chloe (16:10):

Oh my gosh, yes. That is, I think all of us, we can see each other, we're on Zoom and oh, all of our faces are like, what in the world? Who would've thought? It seems like a small world connection, but it is the smallest, the biggest, smallest connection I've ever heard of. That is absolutely wild. Mike, thank you so much for sharing that story and sharing such an important part of your book with us. Thank you.

Mike Branch (16:43):

Oh, it was great fun. And Richard Chope, that virologist actually has two surviving children. They're both in their mid-eighties, and I've become friends with so many of the people I interviewed, including them. And it was when they shared with me a lot of unpublished letters from that their father had written when he was young and working on all this stuff, unpublished journals and photographs that I was able to finally put the whole story together. So it's been neat to have a lot of other voices in the book helping me to tell the story through these interviews.

Emy diGrappa (17:13):

Well, thank you so much. Thanks everyone. And I think that I'm going to ask our audience to write in to me, emy@thinkwhy.org and tell me their favorite myth. I'd love to know other myths. It just is so fun, like you said, to just make a pun, go down the rabbit hole, just to learn more and more. And okay, I have to ask one question from everybody. It's a yes or no answer. Do you believe Sasquatch exists?

Mike Branch (17:42):

Are you asking me, Emy?

Emy diGrappa (17:44):

Everyone has to give me an answer.

Mike Branch (17:46):

Do I honestly have to give you a yes or no answer? Oh my gosh.

Emy diGrappa (17:50):

Yes. Yes.

Mike Branch (17:50):

If I have to do that, I will say no. But if you ask again, I'll have a more interesting answer. But let's hear what other folks think.

Emy diGrappa (17:58):

Yeah. Yes or no, Lucas?

Lucas (18:00):

It's such a charged question.

Mike Branch (18:03):

Really is.

Lucas (18:04):

I have to say no also. If anything, because of the unfocused part.

Emy diGrappa (18:12):

It's not nerdy enough question for you. Okay. Okay. I get it. I get it.

Chloe (18:17):

I mean, logically I have to say no, but philosophically, absolutely. You bet.

Mike Branch (18:26):

That's That's a good answer.

Emy diGrappa (18:27):

Okay. Chloe gets an A.

Lucas (18:30):

Yeah, I get to take that from you.

Emy diGrappa (18:33):

I get to take that, write that one down.

Mike Branch (18:36):

The cool thing about Sasquatch and jackalope and some of the myths that Emmy is talking about is, one of the ways I think about this as a westerner is that if we want to have wild thoughts, we have to have wild places. So if we live in places where the wilderness is vast enough that our imagination is engaged by the idea that such a thing could exist, then that's good for us. Every culture, indigenous or settler anywhere in the world, we all have monsters in our mythology. And that's because we need to imagine there's something beyond the world that we see every day. But that imagination itself, I think depends on wilderness, essentially, depends on having these vast landscapes that we're so lucky to have in the American West. So my favorite thing about Sasquatch is that it might exist, but we think it might because of those big wild forests in the Northwest.

Emy diGrappa (19:28):

I know. And there's a whole show on it. So I'm like, wait a minute, someone spends a lot of time trying to find Sasquatch, so I'm just like, he must be out there.

Mike Branch (19:41):

The four of us will get together with a cooler and we'll go look for chupacabra next time we get together.

Emy diGrappa (19:47):


Lucas (19:48):

Yeah, that'll be great.

Chloe (19:49):

That sounds great.

Emy diGrappa (19:52):

Well, thanks everyone, and thanks Mike for joining us, and please stay tuned. And like I said, go to Emy@thinkwhy.org if you want to tell us your favorite story, share with us your Wyoming stories, and stay tuned to hear some Wyoming voices about their love and why they live in Wyoming. And Lucas has one last thing to say.

Lucas (20:14):

Yeah. And please check out Mike Branch's book On the Trail of the jackalope. I'm sure it's available in all the regular book places.

Emy diGrappa (20:22):

Oh, that reminds me, Mike. So tell the audience also, what's your website? Do you have Facebook, Instagram? How come people find you?

Mike Branch (20:30):

I'm on Facebook and Instagram and my website is michaelbranchwriter.com. Michaelbranchwriter.com. And On the Trail of the jackalope is available everywhere, and it's also an ebook and an audiobook if people prefer that. And if you're interested in some of my humor writing, my last three books are all humor work about the American West, and you can learn more about that and other stuff that I'm up to, including the couple dozen gigs that I still have left on this book tour. All that stuff is on my website at michaelbranchwriter.com. And I want to thank you guys for having me with you today. And thank you for all the work you do for Wyoming and for the West. We appreciate it.

Chloe (21:10):

Thanks Mike.

Emy diGrappa (21:11):

Thank you.

Emy diGrappa (21:11):

On this podcast, we feature Amara Fehring, Wyoming native and multidisciplinary artist talking about her love for wild Wyoming.

Amara Fehring (21:30):

I grew up in Kinnear, which is a small town that is just west of Riverton and just a little north of Lander. So I actually have this conversation a lot about what Wyoming is because it's hard to describe because it's gritty, it's really adaptable, it's raw, it's independent really, and it's really strong. And those are also the ways I think I identify in Wyoming. I think one of the things that has really helped me as a person and also as an artist is growing up in Wyoming, you learn to make something out of nothing, because we are so rural and because there's a lot of support here. And I think you're like, I want to do a theater production. And people are like, great, how can I help you? Or they just want to stand behind you and if it's your dream bell, they'll support you in it.

Amara Fehring (22:26):

But it also means you're not afraid to take chances because once again, you've learned to make something out of nothing. So it's really empowering. I would say being from Wyoming is really empowering and I think that that's made me who I am. You feel it when you're driving across the state and it's not gritty like I'm in a scary place. It's just so raw is the only thing I can think. But it's just like you're driving across Wyoming and you're looking out across the sage brush and these intense mountains or these beautiful prairies and it's like, there's just such an empowering and gritty and wonderful feeling about that. You just feel like you're a part of it and that's really cool. Well, and it's interesting too because once again, in Wyoming, because it's so rural, you're taught to prepare.

Amara Fehring (23:18):

So most of us know how to change a tire. Most of us know to pack, especially in the winter, I'll have a folders can, a metal folders can with a candle in it and extra food and all of these things because you do know that if something happens and you go off the road, it's going to be a while before you see somebody. But I also feel pretty comfortable because I know that no matter what, somebody's going to stop and help me, probably. And that's a cool feeling too. I have a very deep love for this state. It's where I feel the most me. And I do have wandering feet. I do like to travel and do things, but as far as where I have found the best community and that this is statewide, I have found community here of people who are the most loving and giving people. And I have yet to find that anywhere else I've gone.

Amara Fehring (24:16):

And so that's why I stay. And I love the outdoors and I love that I can be around a bunch of people and new people and then I can also disappear in the mountains and not see a soul. It speaks to the two different sides of myself that I have growing up here of. I love to be alone and I also love to be with people. So I think that's why I stay, because it also feels empowering to be here as well. So I work for the Wyoming Arts Council. I work as their Community Development and Arts Learning Specialist. So I work with arts nonprofits across the state, helping them find grant opportunities. And I also help them with professional development. They can come to me to ask questions and I can help them work through issues or we try and provide guidance for them.

Amara Fehring (25:06):

And then the flip side of my job is arts learning. So I work with teachers and students across the state, helping provide them with professional development support in any way, that kind of stuff. So it's super fun. I love it so much. I feel like sometimes I'm still, I can't believe this is my job. This is so cool. It is truly a dream come true. Getting a communication degree and wanting to support the arts in a way that isn't just being in a show or performing, I feel like this is the dream job. This is what I've been working for. So it's really exciting to be a part of it. Well, I think part of it for me, and whenever anybody talks to me about this, because I work with a lot of high school students as well, and I worked with a lot of college students.

Amara Fehring (25:52):

I think it's really important for people to go out and experience the life that they want to live. And sometimes that's leaving and trying new things and then coming back. I think that there's a lot of things that cities can offer that Wyoming doesn't have. There's a huge need for, I don't know, young professional things. Like you look at Laramie, and they're obviously a college town, but there's also things for young professionals to do and you come to Riverton and sometimes that can be really hard to find. There's not a ton of concerts coming in or there's not a ton of opportunity to see other things or experience other things besides going to the same restaurants every day. So I think what people are really searching for is new experiences. And Wyoming doesn't always have that, especially if you're LGBTQIA+, especially if you're wanting to try something that maybe Wyoming doesn't have an industry for that's super strong.

Amara Fehring (27:02):

So I think we just have a lot of growth to do in those areas. But I think for me, I had a realization when I was in New York doing theater, that I loved it and I learned so much from what I was doing there, but I also had a realization of I can do it here, the billions of other people that are doing it here, or I could do it in Wyoming where I love to be and where I have a great community. And so I think part of that too is just allowing people to try new things and try what they want and then also making sure people know they're always welcome here. It's a hard question to answer honestly. For me as a young person, I wanted to experience something that wasn't a small town, and so I did it and then realized what I missed though? Wyoming small town.

Amara Fehring (27:53):

So yeah, I think that's what it is. And so the give and take of it is like, yeah, we don't have what cities offer, so you should go visit and have a good time. And then also, it's cool to be home based here. Something really interesting that happened to me when I was living in New York, I was overwhelmed and sad about the amount of consumption that you do in that city. You're constantly consuming things. So it's like whether you're buying a cup of coffee or you're going to a bar or you're going to have an experience, those things are super fun when you're visiting. It's a lovely thing, but I personally had a really hard time with that was the culture. That's what you do. You don't have the opportunity there to disconnect in the same way that you do out here.

Amara Fehring (28:42):

I can be like, oh, okay, I'm feeling a little antsy. I'm going to go on a hike, or I'm going to go sit next to a lake that is hard to do in that city. And that was something that I was not expecting for me personally to feel so intense about. I was like, man, I'm just, all I do is consume. I'm buying something all the time. And it was super weird to have that realization. I wasn't expecting it at all. Whereas in Wyoming, we don't do that all the time. We just learn to exist without it. And I think that it's a wonderful thing to be able to do that.

Emy diGrappa (29:19):

Thank you for listening. I'm Executive Producer Emmy DiGrappa. Winds of Change is brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, our co-hosts and all the people who generously share their stories and their time. For more information, go to thinkwhy.org. Subscribe and never miss a show.