It was mid-October in New Orleans, and winter was already setting in up north. I have been living in the tropics for so many years, I’m deeply dreading a Montana winter and hoping it isn’t as bad as I remember. I have hated cold weather ever since I was a little girl. Waiting for my school bus in a seemingly endless barrage of blizzards shivering and jumping up and down while my teeth chattered until they hurt just trying to stay warm, is one of the horrors of my childhood. The way I recall it, my teeth didn’t stop until about mid-July when I finally thawed out. So, I had already told my mom not to set my dinner place for Christmas just yet because if I ran into an unexpected blizzard, which was a real possibility, I was going to take the next exit no matter where I was. I would then book a room at the first roadside motel I could find, and stay there until spring. She laughed but deep down inside she knew by now, I wasn’t joking.
I am not a big fan of driving. Nevertheless, I seem to cover about the same amount of miles as a truck driver. Since I left the island of St. Thomas where I had been living for eight years, which was a whopping twelve miles long with a speed limit that never exceeded 25mph, I have been crisscrossing the United States in my little orange Toyota Scion. The only thing that keeps me sane is randomly exiting the highway in small towns I’ve never heard of, with no plan whatsoever and let things unfold as they may. That’s when the real fun stuff always happens. When I die, I think my epitaph should read…
“Here Lies Cynthia,
She Played it by Ear.”
Google Maps had calculated the hours it was going to take me to drive to my mom’s in Montana, much to my chagrin, at forty hours of actual driving, no matter how many times I double-checked the map looking for better news. Forty hours of estimated drive time on Google Maps is equivalent to approximately two weeks to six months for me; once you add in potty stops and spontaneous detours. However, this time the plan was to shoot straight over the mountains to Montana before the blizzard rolling out of Alaska overtook the entire northwest, no matter how badly I needed to pee.
Flash forward to day four of non-stop driving except for random naps I took in the back of the car when my head started bobbing, and my eyes rolled into the back of my head. When I packed up my car in New Orleans, I had jammed my gel-foam mattress topper between boxes of artifacts, computers and my prized Japanese rice cooker, leaving me about as much room to move like a turtle in quicksand. The lack of cruise control has become a real pain in my ass. Correction, it would be a pain in my ass but unfortunately, I had lost all feeling in my right leg a couple of days ago, and that included the entire right sector of my butt cheek. Add to that the monotony of the last 1000 miles and lack of sleep, my determination to stay ‘belted-in’ is dwindling rapidly.
The only thing keeping me from nodding off other than hanging my head out the window and slapping myself in the face is my preoccupation with the need to know why anyone would ever have traveled out west in a covered wagon on purpose. I mean, how bad did someone’s life need to be to jump on that bandwagon? (no pun intended).
Imagining in detail the conversations that took place back in the 1800s between husbands and wives was the only thing keeping me awake on the highway. It wasn’t a stretch for me to imagine the husband urging his wife to give up her life, everything she owned, say goodbye to her family and friends forever, and go live in the frozen tundra that is Montana. “Awe honey, Indians aren’t really that dangerous, and grizzly bears are more afraid of you than you are of them. Come on; it’ll be fun! Now pack up your corsets and cookware, jump in the back of that wagon and let’s blaze the trail to the wonderland they call Montana. They say there are endless chunks of gold as big as your head just sitting in the riverbed. We’ll be RICH! The journey shouldn’t take more than eighteen months of surviving dangerous blizzards, fighting off hungry Grizzly Bears and running for our lives from angry Indians that intend on scalping us! Where is your sense of adventure? Oh, and you should probably pack a sweater.”
A couple of days ago, I found myself in Oklahoma in the middle of nowhere, my gas tank on empty and desperately scrounging for fuel before I became a permanent part of the landscape never to be heard from again. In my defense, someone in Oklahoma should seriously consider posting signs warning travelers that the next gas station will be nearly a full gas tank away and until then, there will be nothing but a long straight road that goes on forever until it seemingly falls off the earth into the distance when heaven meets earth. There should be neon signs posted as you pull out of all the little towns along the roadway such as:
DON’T BE FOOL,
AND RUN OUT OF FUEL!
AVOID ROAD RAGE.
CHECK YOUR GAS GAGE!
CHOOSE THE PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE,
THE NEXT GAS IS QUITE A DISTANCE!
On the bright side, I made an otherwise unlikely friend with an old settler named Bob. He had sun-weathered skin and bright blue eyes that would melt butter. Lucky for me, he kept a petrol tank on his property that was visible from the highway. Even better, he was sitting on an old lawn chair next to a building behind his big petrol tank, almost as if waiting for me to arrive. At least that’s how I saw it. When I got out of the car, he limped up to me slowly, leaning on his cane and smiling broadly “Y’all need some fuel little lady?” I jumped out of my car, and the first words out of my mouth were “Oh Papa, am I ever happy to see you! Please let me hug you!” He laughed and reached out a long skinny arm to me. So there I stood in the desolate prairie hugging the sweetest old man on earth. He asked how many gallons I wanted and I asked how much I needed to get to the next gas station. He said he could spare enough to get me there and went about pumping several gallons while we chatted. Sweet ole Bob seemed happy to have someone to talk to, and quite frankly, I was too. He had the demeanor of a mountain-man taking care of the business at hand while not mentioning much about it. There is something I love about that. I asked him how much I could pay him for the gas, and he responded, “Awe, whatever you think is right little lady, I don’t know how much they’re charging these days.”
It was the best twenty dollars I have ever spent, and I told him so when he was trying to refuse it. He was a proud man, and I think he felt good helping me back on the highway knowing I would be safe, and that made me feel loved in some odd way. His gentle chastising and big hug goodbye left me missing my grandpa and most grateful that my angels of loved ones lost, led me to him. As I drove out of his bumpy gravel driveway, I could see sweet salt-of-the-earth Bob waving goodbye out my rear view mirror and aside from feeling an undeniable sense of relief, I was brimming with an almost overwhelming sense of joy.
Since then, aside from mind-numbing, it’s been pretty smooth sailing. I’ve just kept chugging along in my little orange bullet. Until this morning when I passed the big city of Cheyenne without even noticing, and didn’t consider the relevance until I caught my gas gage out of the corner of my eye. I was about thirty minutes outside of Cheyenne, and there wasn’t an exit to be found. The gage was bouncing well below empty, and in that one instant, there were no denying things had just taken a terrible turn for the worse. All of a sudden my mom’s words began echoing in my head regarding the importance of gassing up along this desolate route. Gas stations can be an hour or more apart in this part of the country made even more dangerous by spontaneous blizzards, icy roads and the likeliness of being stranded in your car for hours, even days awaiting rescue. Having the ability to run the heater is not so much about keeping your toes warm, as it is a matter of sheer survival. That, as we know, requires fuel. I was raised never to let my gas get below half a tank, ever. “I will be keeping this to myself,” I said out loud to my windshield.
I could NOT believe I did it again! It was not only an amateur mistake but wholly unacceptable. I vowed to myself right then; this would be the last time. With a lump in my gut, I looked off into the distance of nothing but paved highway as far as I could see. In a little whisper, I asked an eensy-teensy tiny favor from my angels of loved ones lost; “PLEEEASE help me make it to the next gas station!” After all, it has been twenty years since I’ve been back in the mountains, and I was a little out of practice. All of a sudden life got real, the way it tends to do.
Ironically, even before I was in the second state of gasoline absence anxiety, I had passed a roadside sign with the name of a little town called Chugwater, Wyoming, population 244. I knew immediately I was stopping by, if for no other reason than it had a super cool name and I was pretty sure they were going to serve excellent whiskey there. I usually take a detour when something grabs my attention because it has been my experience that it’s in the little unknown and unplanned places that the real magic happens and frankly, the peddle-to-the-metal travel, had long since lost its luster. When I realized the very next exit was none other than Chugwater, Wyoming, it not only became an even more enticing point of interest, it was likely my only chance of not living in a cave.
“Chugwater here I come!” I said to myself smiling. Serendipity is always the best spice of life and rarely lost on me. I have a special spot in my heart for how all the tiny towns, creeks and rivers got their crazy names from the settlers of yesteryear. I chuckled to myself when I drove over “Crazy-Woman Knife-Back Creek” (pronounced ‘crick’ by the way). I wonder what they would have named a creek after me? I doubt it would have been “Whispering Whipper-Willows,” even though I think that would be an excellent name for my creek; or a brothel, I suppose.
Chugwater was named for the Buffalo also called Bison, that were so abundant in that area. I learned later, however, that it was NOT named after the cute sound buffalo made when they were thirsty, as a flirtatious guy at a previous gas station had told me.
In actuality, “Chugging” was the sound buffalo made when they HIT THE GROUND after being RUN OFF THE CLIFFS by hunters. The creek below was called “Water Of The Chug.” I can only assume that referred to the blood and bison remnants that likely poisoned their water supply. I’m not sure though because I hit the little warning bumps on the side of the highway while doing my Google research, and it abruptly ended.
As my gas gage sat flat on rock bottom, I kept my mind preoccupied with the vision of herds of buffalo plunging off the cliffs in droves and all the “chugging” as they hit the rocks below. When I finally reached the exit, I was as euphoric as reaching the summit of Pikes Peak Mountain. I coasted into the village on fumes along the snowmobile tracks, my eyes darting in every direction looking for a gas station the way one looks for grizzly bears on a hike.
As it turned out, Chugwater was a delightful little village. It was NOT, however, filled with gas stations. My heart sank as I drove down the old Main Street and saw nothing but old taverns, a Sundries Shoppe and a grocery store the size of my living room. When I laid eyes on the 102-year-old Chugwater Soda Fountain Café, I knew that was the perfect spot to run out of gas. I say that as if I had a choice.
When I walked inside, it was like walking on to an old Hollywood set. There was a long, old-fashioned breakfast counter with a line of red stools in front of an immense wood encased mirror covered in various notes attached with scotch tape that had turned brown over the years, and a big soda fountain that had likely been bringing happiness to people for centuries. When I opened the big heavy door, a cowbell hanging from yellow yarn banged loudly, startling me. A handful of patrons sitting at tables covered in red-checkered tablecloths were talking with each other across the café. They all became silent for a moment and looked my way with cautious curiosity. The old wooden floor creaked loudly under my feet as I took another step inside. I smiled at the faces and said “Good Morning” as I took a stool at the breakfast counter. A quiet well-groomed man about my age sat a couple of stools down from me, eating a big piece of bing cherry pie, sipping on hot tea and pretending not to notice. Now that that was over, the older gentleman went back to teasing the two ladies at the next table. I couldn’t help quietly laughing along with them even though I had no idea what they were laughing about. I was in heaven.
Behind the breakfast counter, was a young but quite sturdy teenager named Clovis with a bright, welcoming smile and dark curly hair tucked up under a baseball cap. I thought he was skipping school until I remembered it was Sunday. Clovis was friendly with an easygoing manner that made everything feel ok. He handed me a piece of paper with a short menu comprised of the sort of dishes my grandma prepared on her wood burning stove when I was a little girl. It made my mouth water. He warned me that he might not know how to make everything on the menu, but he’d do his best. I told Clovis that I was hungry for breakfast and I would let him prepare his favorite dish for me, whatever it was, “Surprise me,” I said. His big smile told me he liked the idea.
While Clovis went about cooking, the quiet man looked up from his tea and introduced himself as “Clay from up the road.” He started asking me the usual questions while the rest of the patrons pretended not to be listening, which gave me the perfect opening to announce my desperate need for gas. Clay said quietly, “Well, I guess I could go up the road and get you a couple of gallons after I finish my pie.” I smiled while professing my gratitude.
I was chatting with one of the ladies at the table behind me while Clay went up the road to bring me back some gas. I mentioned the sign I saw on the highway stating the population of Chugwater was 244 people. She informed me it was only 180 people. It seemed pretty important to the lady that I knew that. She wanted a new sign posted on the highway with the population of Chugwater correctly counted at 180. So much so, she had already sent a letter to the Chugwater Mayor to be discussed at the next town meeting.
The “big dramas” in little towns are worlds away from my reality. In fact, a small part of me was envious that correcting a number on a highway sign was the lady’s most pressing problem. I was still thinking about that hours later driving down the highway. Why was that so important to her? Was she mourning the loss of someone dear, such as her husband, and wanted the highway sign to reflect her loss? Or…. maybe, she killed her husband but made it look like an accident, and it was her polite way of bragging. Pondering all the possibilities helped hundreds of miles pass by unnoticed driving northbound in the dark. It’s still bugging me.
Clovis had been busy clanking dishes as he “cooked me up something special.” Finally, with a big grin, he placed in front of me a huge platter with a gravy smothered breakfast burrito as big as my head, and a most decadent, almost sinful hot fudge brownie sundae piled high with fresh dripping whipped cream. Boy, I love how teenagers think.
Clovis said that he was only helping his mom Sherry out until she got back from picking up a gallon of milk down the road, and then he was going snowmobiling with his friends. There had been an enormous blizzard three days before, and they were going to check on a couple of families that were stranded in their homes up the mountain and bring Mr. Willy a bottle of bourbon. I assume, measured by his enthusiasm, Mr. Willy would be sharing. The owner of the tavern next door gave Clovis the bottle of bourbon and put it on Mr. Willy’s tab. That’s when you know you are in a small town.
Sherry who didn’t work at the cafe, but was a friend of the owners, returned with the milk and I slipped a tip in Clovis’ hand as he raced out the door. It turns out that Sherry came in to open the cafe because the owners were still snowed in from the ‘18 INCHES’ they got on Wednesday.
She was delightful with a bubbly personality and kept the chatter going with the local patrons that stopped in for pie on their way home from church. Yes, the Chugwater Soda Fountain Café was as bustling as it must have been 102 years ago, and it was easy to see why.
I hadn’t noticed Clay taking my keys off the counter while I was chatting, and he was already pouring gas in my tank through a plastic hose when I walked outside the café; dazed in a food coma so severe I wasn’t sure I could make it back to the exit without a nap.
So, like most of my best adventures, my fabulous breakfast at the Chugwater Soda Fountain Café happened serendipitously. Maybe running out of gas again, wasn’t such a bad thing. Not that getting ‘18 INCHES’ on Wednesday, wouldn’t have been better!
The history of Chugwater feels almost frozen in time, and it’s evident the minute you roll off the interstate and wind your way down the hill to Main Street. You won’t need directions to find it, trust me. Those travelers who are searching for a taste of the authentic ‘Old West Cowboy Country’ should put aside a couple of hours to enjoy a country meal at the cafe or a cold draft beer at one of the old taverns. You will find plenty of historic buildings to explore and photograph in addition to an old railroad car from the railway that brought settlers out that way for work in the 1800s.
Another interesting point of interest is the iconic bucking horse named Steamboat featured on Wyoming license plates, the longest-running license plate motif in the world, was once stabled there. I will leave it up to you to discover the legend of that story and many other little-hidden secrets of Platte County. The trick to finding them is simple; EXIT the highway once in a while.
Don’t miss the massive steep clay-stone bluffs on the outskirts of town to the north and west. It is easy to imagine a herd of wild buffalo barreling off the sides of cliffs and the sound of them “Chugging” as they landed on the rocks below. It is definitely enough to put a chill up your spine. There is a good vantage point from the frontage road easily accessed at the other end of Main Street. You can pick up I-25 from there as well.
You will most certainly come away from Chugwater with a sense of how the Wild West Was Settled. Imagining the settler’s covered wagons winding through the rough terrain makes the naming of “Crazy-Woman Knife-Back Creek” (pronounced ‘crick’ by the way), make total sense. I think jotting down the funny names of places you come across would be a fun souvenir. If for no other reason than most of them would be great names for a band.
Chugwater, Wyoming makes my list of top spots to see along Interstate 25. It is conveniently located right off I-25, 45 miles north of Cheyenne, and while you will find a historic hotel on Main Street, you will not, it’s important to note, find a gas station there.