By Paul Charman

It's amazing what stays with you following a trip -- my fondest travel memory doesn't have to do with scenery, food or entertainment.

It was hearing a cowboy yarn in the very Western setting of Amtrak's cross-country
California Zephyr train a couple of years back.

This tale concerned legendary Afro-American cowboy Bill Pickett, who became the hero of Mexico's toughest bull ring in 1908.

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With only his bare hands, Pickett put the sword-wielding bull fighters of the day to shame, wrestling "the most deadly bull in all Mexico", in the world's largest bullfighting stadium.

My wife and I heard the saga from the lips of mysterious middle-aged cowboy chap, who was sitting across a table from us in the train's viewing car.

The stranger's tale (how I wish I knew his name), delivered in a broad Oklahoma accent, has become my fondest-ever travel memory.

Now I wonder if the simple pleasure of a great story does it for others also?

Bill Pickett (1870-1932) was one of the greatest cowboys of all time. Photo / Supplied
Bill Pickett (1870-1932) was one of the greatest cowboys of all time. Photo / Supplied

Can this kind of low-tech pass time -- the kind humans have entertained themselves with around-the-camp-fire for millennia -- still hold the ultimate power?

I mean, a really good story, delivered face-to-face.

In this age of electronic media, does one of these "Stone Age Podcasts", still boot the other forms of entertainment to the sidelines?

I can't help my enthusiasm on this subject.

It's from having been raised on stories of wandering minstrels who turn up at Kings' feasts keen to recite their epic tales from memory.

At Devon Intermediate, my old teacher Mr Taylor fascinated us kids with his classic rhyming ballads, and I'd always hoped to meet a real-life "Ancient Mariner" . . . a mysterious stranger burdened with some great tale to get off his chest.

Well, that's what happened on the California Zephyr -- allow me to set the scene.

Our three-day-journey took us some 3400km, crossing California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa and Michigan . . .

Large scale Western shows were once wildly popular right around the world. Photo / Supplied
Large scale Western shows were once wildly popular right around the world. Photo / Supplied

Apparently, Trump Administration budget cuts may threaten similar long-range passenger train routes, but this one is still open for business.

There's a range of ways to do it; purchase an ordinary train seat, a small two-bunk roomette, or a larger sleeping car.

Your meals, served at four-person tables in the dining car may be rather basic, but you take them with a random selection or fellow travellers, which means conversations with folk you'd otherwise probably not encounter.

And what a journey.

Vistas of deserts, mountains, rivers and towns which whizz past and there's wonderful historic commentary over speakers.

But in my memory all of it pales alongside meeting the Oklahoma Cowboy, and hearing his epic yarn in the viewing car.

For us, this encounter was like meeting "The Gambler" from the Kenny Rogers song.

Or, maybe witnessing a performance by that poetry-reciting-amputee (played by Harry Melling), in the Ballad of Buster Scruggs movie.

That kid without arms and legs in the Coen Brothers' film, could certainly tell a mean tale — but so could the Oklahoma Cowboy.

The disabled raconteur from the Coen Brothers' recently released short film,
The disabled raconteur from the Coen Brothers' recently released short film, "Meal Ticket". Photo / Supplied

Mennonite men in straw hats and braces and women with those funny little bonnets moved up-and-down the isles, as our friend shyly asked if he could tell his yarn, we said "yes" and Debra pushing her "Record" button.

Here's how the story went went . . . just over 100 years ago the Miller Brothers' 101 Wild West Show was a larger than life extravaganza recalling a wildly popular (though mostly mythical) Western era not long ended.

The show toured right around the word with a cast of hundreds; it offered dubious events, such as live buffalo hunt, as well as the most daring of rodeo performances of the day.

Silent movie Western stars, and a large cast of native Americans, including the elderly chief Geronimo himself, worked for the 101.

Apparently it was decided to open in Mexico City without Pickett — but he soon had to be sent for.

The Mexicans considered Pickett, whose moniker was, "The Dusky Devil" to be the Western Show's greatest cowboy.

More precisely, it's said they wanted one to see him killed by one of their top fighting bulls.

The Miller Brothers made a fortune but exploited Native Americans. Photo / Supplied
The Miller Brothers made a fortune but exploited Native Americans. Photo / Supplied

This was for "insulting their culture", by daring to show-up Mexico's top matadors at their own game.

Pickett was an expert at wrestling bulls to the ground, and he needed no sword.

He'd introduced a technique called "bulldogging", copying the way dogs subdue a bull by biting the animal's lower lip.

The descendant of American Indians and black slaves had taught himself to jump from his horse, grab a steer around the neck or horns, sink his teeth into the animal's lip, then pull it to the ground.

It is said that he punctuated the more exciting parts of his act, with hands raised theatrically in the air.

Well, it was an epic struggle in front of that hostile crowd of 25,000 jeering Mexicans, but Pickett prevailed.

No hands raised in the air this time, the strong-man just desperately held onto the raging beast's neck, as it violently swung him from side-to-side, and smashed him against the stadium walls.

Despite being pelted with rocks and other missiles hurled by the crowd, and nearly being crushed, Pickett held on for the allotted time, winning a rich prize for his employers.

The California Zephyr is an Amtrak passenger train running between Chicago and San Francisco Bay. Photo / Supplied
The California Zephyr is an Amtrak passenger train running between Chicago and San Francisco Bay. Photo / Supplied

Mexican bookies had given him four minutes to live; Pickett held on for an amazing seven-and-a-half minutes -- with the bull eventually tiring to the disgust of the crowd.

Pickett and his colleagues needed protection of armed cavalry to avoid being torn apart by the angry spectators, who'd wanted to see the "Gringo Cowboy" killed.

But when the clamour died down Pickett saw that his horse had been badly gored.

And though suffering badly broken ribs himself, he wept and refused to leave the stadium.

Fortunately an old Mexican with arcane veterinarian knowledge was on hand.

A boy was sent to buy red bananas from the market place, which the old man then applied to the animal's open wounds, after which it made a remarkable recovery.

It's said the horse could eventually walk without the trace of a limp.

Pickett returned to his minimum wage work with the 101, where coloured cowboys earned eight-dollars-a-week, while their white colleagues earned $10.

Meanwhile, the Miller Brothers took away tens of thousands of dollars from the successful event . . .

But I can't really the story the way the Oklahoma Cowboy did — I guess you just had to be there.