Old Books, Fresh Eggs and Mama

It was June, a hot, dusty day, and the sign said, Old Books and Fresh Eggs. I was somewhere between Lander and Rawlings, WY on a relentless stretch of Highway 287. It is basically 160 miles of nothing and I mean NOTHING. Rolling asphalt and scrub brush bent by the years of constant pounding from winds that roll across the plains. There were many times when I had to shield a flag as I recorded the gps spot before planting it. Many times the ground was to hard and I would build a cairn of rocks to support a flag.On one occasion the wind whipped the yellow ribbon off the stick but being strong on my conviction, I wrote the soldier’s name on that tiny flag stick, placed it and moved on. For most of the day I had been reduced to 3 mile an hour and often less, as a wall of 40 mph gusts rocked the stroller and made me unsteady on my feet. It was hard. Looking up and seeing a ribbon of road going off into the horizon I imagined someone along the road reaching out to pull me along. So back to the sign. In a place called Sweetwater, is a small store, cabin like, and they do indeed sell old books and fresh eggs. I wandered around taking a break, blowing dust off of a “Moby Dick” novel. I loved the musty smell, the dirt stained windows and the creaks and groans of the old structure. Far away from towns with traffic lights and traffic. Far from Pizza Huts and Walmart’s. Far from excess. Outside chickens were clustered in a pen out of the wind. I never saw a soul. Filling my water bottles I headed back out. Not far from the book store across the road was a small, what seemed to be RV park. A few campsites and picnic tables dotted the area around a office building attached to a home. Peggy I had finally caught up to me on the highway. School was out for the summer and she would spend a couple of weeks shuttling me at the end of the day to a hotel, a host and KOA campgrounds. This was an area where I was not able to find a host family and were it not for her the days would have been made more difficult and the nights long and miserable. As the sun began to set we made plans for the night. “See if we can camp in the park there,” I asked. Feeling the wind increase I knew we would never get a tent up. Peggy returned with good news. “This is a private  LDS campground but I told them what you were doing and they said it is okay to stay.” There were bathrooms, thank god, but no showers. Knowing a tent was out of the question we lowered the seats in her FJ Cruiser, put coolers and the stroller under the truck and crawled in. Somehow we managed to fit a full size inflatable bed in the back, bungee corded the door somewhat shut and hung a sheet to keep the cold out. By headlamp, we ate cold chicken and rice in a huge pot, passing it back and forth. A little chocolate milk to chase it down and then settled in for the night. The truck was swaying like a ship at sea and even with ear plugs in I did not sleep well in my 1/2 fetal position. By sunrise  the next morning, the wind had died a bit and with a coffee in hand we wandered over to these old pull carts stacked up along the building. An older gentleman by the name of Robert came out and told us the story.

“Back in the day Brigham Young was intent on getting all his followers to Salt Lake City from Iowa. Rather than send for them by train, which was to expensive, he commissioned a pull cart company to build these carts. Each   family was allowed 70 pounds of personal belongings for the journey.” He continued. “Well, the families then set out on foot, from Iowa, pulling the carts, headed for Utah. The eventually got to here, Sweetwater.” “Winter was setting in and they were caught by snows. The men gave what rations they could to the woman and children. Desperate to the situation, their plight seemed hopeless.” “Brigham Young, knowing that they were way beyond their arrival time, sent out some men to find them and it was here in Sweetwater that they were found. Many of the husbands and fathers had died due to starvation and sickness. The remaining members of the party made it to Salt Lake City.” My first thought was, “Thanks for that train ticket B.Y.” Robert continued with the story, “Each summer we commemorate that journey by recreating a small portion of it from here to a campground 7 miles away. Families come from all over wearing clothes from that era and they load up one of our pull carts and start walking.” I felt somewhat insignificant now pushing my stroller down a paved road. Mark Twain on one of his journeys west actually stopped in Sweetwater and had ice tea with actual ice cubes from ice under the mossy perma-frost nearby. All of this across the road from Old Books and Fresh Eggs….

The wind had died significantly as the sun rose higher and after a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee I began my days run. A few miles down the road my  morning became a little weird. I entered the outskirts of the town of Jeffrey City, WY. I did not know it at the time but Jeffrey City had a storied past. As a mining town its ties were to the atomic bomb. Cold War uranium mining built the city in the early 1950’s but Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters killed it 30 years later. It is now virtually forgotten on this lonely stretch of Hwy 287. As I slow to a walk nature calls but I am hesitant to do much to appease that need. I look around and notice apartments and dormitory type buildings all boarded up. Weeds choke the city streets, tumbleweed rolls across the highway and a sign in front of a deserted gas station creaks and sways. I see a school with broken windows, alone and unwanted. It was as if I had stumbled into something out of Twilight Zone. My body was beginning to contort now in all sorts of strange positions as my bladder screamed for relief. And then I saw it. A truck parked in front of a bar alongside the highway and a red blinking neon sign that said “OPEN”. I open the door and walk in and the room is dark except for the faint rays of daylight through the front window. There is a long wooden bar and a Coors Beer sign behind it on the wall. A faded Snap On Tool Calendar hangs behind the cash register. The year on it says 1982. There are mounted deer heads on the wall and their blank eyes stare at me as if to say, “Welcome…..to the Hotel California” and I get this strange foreboding that I may never leave. The swinging doors that lead to the kitchen creak open and a young woman steps out, looks at me and says “ My mama has been watching you for 3 days, she’ll be here in 5 minutes,” Whoa. “Well then, can I use the bathroom first?” is my response. “Surely”, she says with a perky smile. Once business is taken care of and realizing that there is not an escape route except the front door I decide to wait this encounter out. About 1 minute later, on cue, a big Chevy Suburban pulls up. Dust settles outside. In walks a woman, small in stature, with a young teenage girl following behind. “I’m Barbara, this here is my daughter Cassie and other daughter Rachel, I been waiting to meet you, I been watchin’ ya for a few days now”. There is a long pause as we look at each other. “I appreciate that, always good to have extra eyes on the road” I say. “Now just curious, but how many people in this town?”. “17”, is her response followed by another long pause and another equally long stare. It is then that “soon to be 18” pops into my head and some weird scenario where I end up shackled in a basement somewhere with a ball gag, ala Pulp Fiction. I take note of my surroundings. One door, 2 women in front of me, 1 to the side, dark room. I am a little guy however I think I can take them. The silence is broken  then, “So we was wondering if we might do a mile with ya?” My curiosity is perked. “We would really like to BUT, (she then takes a long drag off a cigarette, exhales and says) don’t think we can make it”. “That, Barbara, is not a problem. Why don’t I take little Cassie here and we walk that mile and place a flag and you can record it with your phone?” “Well that would just be wonderful”, she says. Rachel retreats to the kitchen and returns with a sack lunch for me. Kindness at its finest. Back in the bright sunlight Cassie and I begin our mile together. I learn that she took the family car one night and had a bit to much to drink. A bad accident about took her life. She walks with a slight limp and a scar runs from the top of her head down past her right eye to her chin. I direct gaze is impossible so she cocks her head slightly as she talks, studying my face as I listen. The big Suburban waits at the mile mark and Barbara gets Cassie on film as she places a flag. “What happens to them?” she asks. “Well some get picked up and some get blown away by this Wyoming wind” I reply. “But you know, you can pick up as many as you like”. Those word make her smile. We hug and part ways. I look behind me at Jeffrey City. Almost a ghost town on this isolated, forgotten stretch of highway.  For all I know maybe it is. Two weeks later I would get an e-mail from Barbara. She went 10 miles back down 287 and picked up 10 flags. She brought them back to the bar, which she owned, and placed them in the front window in a fan shape with a sign that said “We love Our Veterans”. It turns out her son was in the Navy in the Persian Gulf and upon hearing of my run from a friend had, indeed, tracked me via the internet and my SPOT Beacon for 3 days as I approached Jeffrey City. Barbara had only wanted to meet me, to have Cassie do a mile and to extend her appreciation. Even in the nowhere of nowhere eyes were watching me……

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