Are they an art project? The product of bored teenage gift shop employees? Signs from God?
Altered road signs around the valley have been raising eyebrows this summer.
Wildlife crossing signs featuring a leaping deer silhouette have been modified with a sticker of the top half of a cowboy placed just behind its withers.
What could it mean? Does someone want bareback Bambi bustin’ to be the next hot event in Wyoming’s state sport of rodeo? Is someone so concerned with ungulate mortality that they want to call more attention to the workaday signs? Could it be a statement on the bravado of our cowboys?
Regardless, drivers have been doing double-takes this summer as they pass these signs. Jackie Skaggs, spokeswoman for Grand Teton National Park, had a friend in town from Boise, Idaho, who thought they were official.
I don’t know what you guys are trying to say, the confused friend remarked to Skaggs. What’s the cowboy riding the deer mean?
Park staffers remove the decals when they see them, Skaggs said, but not aggressively.
“Obviously we would like whoever’s doing it to quit defacing the regulatory signs in the park,” Skaggs said. “On another level they are relatively harmless and are not changing the basic messaging that’s there on the sign.”
An “unintended positive” side of the sticker campaign, Skaggs said, may be the attention attracted to a sign that otherwise would be ignored. Wildlife collisions could be avoided if the sticker “makes people stop and pay attention to a sign that they ignore or that becomes part of their everyday landscape.”
The crew responsible for sign upkeep on the valley’s highway system has a similar view.
“I think it’s amusing,” said Ed Smith, maintenance supervisor at the Jackson outpost of the Wyoming Department of Transportation.
“And it might make people notice them more. It doesn’t bother me. If it starts to affect people not thinking it’s a deer crossing we’d have to do something about it.”
Smith’s higher-ups at WYDOT likely would not be as entertained, he acknowledged.
“They shouldn’t be messing with the signs,” Smith said. “It’s dangerous out there late at night when they’re probably up there with a ladder. It’s not the safest thing to be doing.”
Especially at Teton Village in winter, stickers can be a problem for the WYDOT crew, Smith said. In the 1990s crews had to remove a stop sign that had become almost completely obscured by stickers pimping snowboards, wax, goggles and bands.
Replacing defaced signs costs taxpayers money, said Derek Thompson, road foreman with the Teton County Road and Levee Department. They’ve had to replace a “Dip” sign on a county road in Hoback Junction several times because of vandalism. Pranksters scrawl a predictable four-letter word under the “Dip,” or a word on top: “bean.”
Replacing a sign costs about $100, including the cost of the sign, shipping and installation labor.
“We’re supposed to take everything that’s not what the sign is intended to say off,” Thompson said. “If it’s not read properly and an accident occurs, we’re at stake.”
He admits, however, to thinking an altered sign on Spring Gulch Road is “kind of cool.” Someone put a University of Wyoming sticker and cut-out letters on the “Pavement Ends” sign so now it reads “Pavement Ends, Wyoming Begins.”
Another sign on the county-maintained South Park Loop has been switched from “Watch for Stock” to “Watch for Spock,” complete with a sticker of the esteemed Vulcan from “Star Trek.”
Moosehead Ranch resident Erika Edmiston has been enjoying the newly adorned wildlife crossing signs this summer on her drive into town.
“I think they’re great,” she said. “It highlights the uniqueness of this area.”
Her father, Star Valley Ranch resident Tom Wells, thinks WYDOT should manufacture the signs with riders atop deer for the whole Cowboy State, she said.
Several artists in the valley say they don’t know who is responsible for the signs. Benjamin Carlson said the signs are a harmless visual joke.
“I’m all about people being creative and provoking to inspire thought and dialogue,” Carlson said. “It’s nice to see something subtle and clever as opposed to typical spray-paint graffiti.”
Adorning the signs wasn’t as simple as chopping a UW logo of the cowboy on bucking bronc Steamboat. The bronc leaps to the right while the deer on the signs leap to the left, so the rider appears to be a mirror image of the logo.
Regardless of who’s responsible or what their motive is, sculptor Ben Roth has just been enjoying them.
“I think they make people smile,” Roth said.