The Avoidance Trip

Musings

If someone had told me as a child that I would one day have a real compulsion to not only know ranchers but to potentially be one… well I probably wouldn’t have laughed it off as I have always been wildly imaginative and I might’ve seen the merit, even then, but I may not have entirely believed it.

So when an opportunity came about for me to potentially apprentice with some real Wyoming ranchers, I threw my bags in my car—having been hunkering in Colorado Springs until just such an occurrence gave me reason to leave— and put the petal to the metal.

I had a brief pit stop in Fort Collins to see my beloved lil sis Kirst who now resides there. She made me laugh until I cried and plied me with craft brews, whiskey and homemade tacos. Then bought me coffee and one extra large donut the following morning after too much whiskey and tacos, while generally confirming my suspicion that my sisters are my soul mates and always will be. There’s no love like that.

Anyhow, even though Kirst and her new beau wanted me to stay another night I was anxious to get on the road and only lingered until about 10:30 in the morn, knowing I had a 6.5 hour drive ahead of me and not wanting to travel after dark.

I had already looked at my GPS and even talked about what route I would take with Kirstie’s man, having settled on coming up through Thermopolis to my new destination. This route would take me through some areas I hadn’t seen before which was promising, however, going through Thermopolis and the Wind River Canyon had me less than thrilled. You see the ex-cowboy took me on my favorite date of all time there and I already had a pit of doom about driving through it and thinking of him and all the ways in which he used to make me laugh.

But obviously I wasn’t going to let the ex-cowboy ruin any of my plans or my love for the Wind River Canyon just because he told me inappropriate pirate jokes there and held my hand and smiled at me in a way that made me forget about what wind and rivers and canyons even were.

That was until I double-checked my GPS and saw that there was a third route that wasn’t an option before. And it shaved off half an hour. It didn’t go through Buffalo or Thermopolis. Hmmm, I thought, that’s a new way too, and no uncomfortable ex-boyfriend memories. We have a winner. I happily cruised along on the sunshiney day listening to podcasts and planning my future as a rancher.

When I got to Casper I noted that gas was $1.42 a gallon, which was good but I was at half a tank and didn’t feel like stopping yet. I left the city of Casper and passed another gas station touting gas for $1.53. I kind of regretted not getting gas at the $1.42 place but still didn’t want to worry about it at the moment, though I suspected it would only get more expensive from there.

I also had to go to the bathroom, but not terribly bad so I kept on. Now this is when my GPS had me turn down a road off of the main highway. The road was in disrepair, looked rather desolate and seemed an odd road to take, if I were going to listen to my intuition, which I did not.

If my life were a horror movie this is where the eerie music would pick up signaling the heroine was about to head into serial killer country while you the viewer clench your midsection knowing that she’s an idiot and should have never turned down that road, but you watch on anyway to see what ghastly scenario she finds herself in.

When I crested a hill and saw not a hundred sheep in the road, not five hundred, but a gaggle of sheep so thick and dense that I could only surmise thousands, I began to wonder further about this road choice of Google’s. But I chose to be charmed instead, eyeing up the sheep blocking the road as if I were in Scotland. I slowly inched my car toward the sheep and a farmer nearby on a four-wheeler. I rolled down my window and said hello.

He smiled and asked how I was doing, I said good and asked him how he was doing.

“Couldn’t be better,” he beamed, looking at his sheep. This charmed me further and so I disregarded that this was a bad road and thought, this is a Wyoming road with a lovely sheep farmer that’s welcoming me back to my state that I love so much. Where the traffic jams involve sheep and happy farmers instead of road-raging idiots and blaring horns. 

He asked if I was heading on up the road and I nodded, though I hesitated wondering if I should ask him about this particular road and if it was okay… and my now half a tank was at about 100 miles until empty. Would I make it 100 miles on this road before another gas station, I almost asked and then didn’t, but just watched mesmerized while he parted the sea of sheep like Moses parting the Red Sea.

But soon after exiting my sheep jam, the decrepit paved road turned to dirt. I again wondered about this and wondered why my GPS surmised that this was faster, but kept going, against my now better judgement which was pointing out there was a gas station back the way I came, where I could pee, and fill my tank, and also this couldn’t be right.

But now I felt sort of stubborn and adamant about where this road could be leading me, so I kept following the cues provided by Google Maps. I went deeper into what seemed pretty wild Wyoming territory, passing a historical sign about the Sand Creek Massacre. If that wasn’t some pretty intent foreboding, I don’t know what else could have been. I was also listening to a sermon at the time about not letting your negative thoughts become words and instead having faith in God’s favor.

At this point, every new road that I turned on was another dirt road, leading me further into deep canyons and gorges and further and further from civilization—or gas stations—of any kind. The sheer magnitude of my surroundings began to frighten me, because though my GPS claimed I would reach a highway of sorts before my now 88 miles til empty, the sprawling, mountainous wilderness before me looked as though there couldn’t be a gas station for some several hundred miles.

Plus the road was getting worse. It seemed the only vehicle that should be back there was an all terrain vehicle or a four-wheeler. This is when the road wound down the side of a canyon, covered in sheer ice. My fingers white-knuckled the wheel while I stayed as close to the canyon wall as possible while reminding myself not to think negative thoughts and instead have faith.

I could no longer listen to the sermon as I was too tense and now very negative-minded about what I had gotten myself into. I waited to see if the next turn was perhaps pavement or had a neon glow sign for gas and vodka, because I now needed all of the above. Instead I saw a sign for a town with an arrow. It said the town was 26 miles away. Instead of immediately turning toward the town, I listened to my GPS one more time thinking maybe just over this last hill I would be homefree.

Except just over the hill was a nightmare of a road that was all tore up, had enormous rocks everywhere and soon was completely covered in snow. At this point, I had 71 miles left til empty and so I naturally hit the panic button and called my mom as I had two bars of service—I had had no signal for almost the entirety of this “joyride.”

“Mom,” I practically screamed, “I am on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere Wyoming; It’s like a farm road or something; I am lost; I have 71 miles until I run out of gas; This is the only spot with cell reception and I passed a sign for a town a ways back and I need you to find out if Armington has a gas station!”

“What?” she said patiently, “I am only getting every other word. How do you spell Armington? A-R-M-Y?” she started spelling.

I tried not to reach hysteria as I yelled, “no like an arm, an ARM! A-R-M-I. Armington! Mom I am going to lose you, or fall off a mountainside. These roads are really scary and I don’t have time to dawdle. I have hardly any gas left!”

“Armington is in Montana,” she informed me while I made the executive decision to precariously turn myself around on the mountaintop. “Are you in Montana?”

“I don’t see how I could be… but maybe I am really lost and Montana is now close…”

And this is when the call failed and I could not get my mom back.

I gingerly maneuvered my car back down the mountainside while trying to force my negative thoughts that were now circling about me like goons about to do some knuckle-breaking, out of my head and instead focus on my faith.

I got back to the sign and it did not say Armington-26 miles, it said Arminto-26 miles. The sign also said Kaycee- 31 miles. I felt sort of happy about that because I knew of Kaycee, however the arrow pointed back the way I had come from before and I had seen no signs for Kaycee and I was driving on that road for a long, long while.

I decided to take my chances with Arminto, though something ominous inside of me now suspected that Arminto could be anything: an old wagon post, a historical marker, a factory… who the F knew? I sure didn’t.

But I went ahead and started driving toward Arminto while nervously eyeballing my gas mileage that was dwindling with my hopes of ever seeing another life form again.

Eventually I passed cows, which seemed a good indicator. Cows meant people. People meant maybe I would have help if I did run out of gas. I passed some guest ranches but was too nervous to stop in case they were seasonal ranches and no one was there. With every bend in the road I prayed Arminto was around the corner and I would be saved, but still it was more vast open nothingness, with some red rocks and mountain ranges far, far in the distance. At this point my gas light came on and my mileage disappeared as it does when I am 30 miles until empty. I rounded a corner and saw a rather large animal skeleton stuck on a barbed wire fence.

You’re going to die out here, I thought miserably. This is where things go to die.

But I tried insisting on my faith instead of my rampant fear that this was some sort of sicko plot by Google maps to lead me to my death. As I rounded yet another bend and saw only more emptiness I wanted to bawl while considering whether to turn around and go back to one of the ranches.

But that is when I saw something faint and black and square-ish in the far distance. Could that be Arminto? Was it a truck? Or a house? Or a sweet, and beloved gas station? I decided to take my chances that it was Arminto and that I was saved.

But as I came into what was indeed Arminto, I again felt absolutely sickened. It looked like nothing more than a ghost town. As I crept through I looked around and saw a teepee in the distance and then to my right a sort of tin looking house with an old car graveyard, but also some new cars in the driveway.

I wondered if I was on a reservation. Now normally this would not have scared me as I love Native Americans. However, I was already in a wild state. And I also would like to throw a lot of blame on the ex-cowboy here for getting me in a tizzy of worry over reservations anyway with his advice of “you stay away from the reservations. You’ll get thrown in Indian jail and never get out.”

I had no choice though. I couldn’t go a moment further if there was indeed no gas station in my foreseeable future. I had to ask the residents of the tin house where in God’s name I was and if I could make it to a gas station, otherwise they were driving me. Or murdering me. Or throwing me in Indian jail. But I had to take my chances.

I parked my car in their driveway. I clutched my keys and nervously walked up to the door, when it swung open and an old man walked out and said point blank, “you must be lost.”

“Uh, yes, very,” I said relieved that he wasn’t cuffing me and dragging me to a teepee for disturbing his land. “Do you happen to know if there is a gas station within 30 miles of here?”

“Well…” he didn’t look convinced that there was. My stomach began to drop thinking about what a flaming idiot I was for choosing to take the so-called shorter route to avoid painful ex-cowboy memories, when in reality this route had added almost three hours to my trip, caused me considerable more grief than simply recounting a Wind River Canyon date, and would surely cost me ample more in gas money. “Yeah I think you can make it. There’s a gas station in Highland, about 18 miles from here. Stay on the pavement. Don’t get off it. And at the stop sign turn right.”

As if I was ever going off the pavement again, I thought as I thanked him profusely, got back into my car and gunned it to Highland. It was a dilapidated motel/gas station combo, with gas pumps so old I could hardly read the prices, which had me slightly relieved, because I didn’t want to know what this was costing me.

I got a paper map and went over the directions to Hyattville with the gas station attendant.

I had to go through the Wind River Canyon and Thermopolis anyway. And yes I thought about the date with the ex-cowboy and his silly pirate joke, and his smiling and hand holding and how much I still adore the kid though I hate that I do. But I also thought how happy I was not to be stranded somewhere in the deep wilds outside of Casper. And how my mom being the super sleuth that she is, deduced I wasn’t in Armington, Montana from that brief phone call, and that I was near Arminto—population 5, she later informed me—and that had I run out of gas back there, Mama Sturos would’ve sent a helicopter for me before letting my bones rot in a canyon.

And so my so called shorter 6 hour trip in fact took me 9.5 hours.

But guess what? This story would be the story I told to the ranchers the next morning over coffee, while they laughed and shook their heads, but seemed delighted I was there. But more on that later.

He’s the Berries (Part 2)

Musings

All the next day I hoped I would see the pilot again and that he—instead of his friend—would ask me out. I was in the midst of a smallish dinner rush and was buzzing about my tables, checking on how their food tasted and if they needed refills. I had a water jug in hand and was filling up a table’s water glasses when I spotted him out of the corner of my eye. Instantly my stomach clenched and I could feel myself wanting to beam, but I didn’t want to seem overly giddy, so instead I kept my cool—which if you know me at all, is still me being wildly uncool. I kept filling the glasses though one wasn’t water, it was Sprite and as soon as I did it I snapped back to the present and away from the pilot’s smile.

“That was Sprite wasn’t it?” I said to the gentleman staring at his newly destroyed Sprite/water mix. He smiled and nodded. “Ooops. I am so sorry. I will go get you a new Sprite.”

I scurried to the front to seat the pilot and get a new Sprite. Again, he stayed until close. His new buddy Bill joined him again and I frequented their table, pretending it was just because I am an attentive waitress, but really I couldn’t get enough of the pilot or his disarming smile.

I hardly knew what to do with myself, he was such a distraction to me. I was delivering the wrong food and pouring the wrong drinks, but I couldn’t redirect my thoughts to the tasks at hand; they only wanted to be on him.

And so when he got up to leave, I kind of slunk behind my waitress station in nervous anticipation of whether he would just leave and that’d be the end of it or if he did remember that tomorrow was my day off and he really did want to take me to dinner. I had a large glass of ice water I was sipping on and I inched over to the counter at the front of the restaurant. He had paid for his dinner and walked back over to the counter where I was standing.

“So, if you would like to hang out or anything tomorrow on your day off…” he ventured while my brain instantly ceased functioning. “I can give you my information.”

I don’t remember what I said, maybe I just nodded like a loon, sliding a waitress tablet across for him to write down his information. He ripped off the sheet and slid it back to me. And being too dumbfounded for words—because besides his smile, have I mentioned how beautiful he is? How tall? Or dapper? How ‘bout that he looks just like a cowboy—I accidentally knocked over my entire glass of water onto the slip of paper, ice sliding this way and that, while water ran over the sides of the counter.

He laughed and asked if I was alright.

I felt honesty was my only option at this point. “It’s just your smile…” I confessed. “It’s very unsettling.”

“That doesn’t seem like a good thing,” he replied.

“No it is!” I insisted, “But it distracts me… and well…” I motioned to the mess I was trying to mop up with napkins, while shaking out the paper with his name, phone number and email.

“Maybe I should take your information too…” he suggested. I was deeply relieved. I knew I would have contacted him, because I was already too far gone, but I was very nervous and preferred the idea of him getting ahold of me.

I wrote out my information and finished cleaning up my mess.

The next day I shopped in town with my sister trying not to dwell on the impending ‘hangout,’ and if that meant date and if the pilot would take me to dinner or worst-case scenario, if he would even text me at all. When he did text me and even passed my serial killer joke test—where I ask if he’s a serial killer to test his sense of humor, to which he responded, “No I am not a serial killer! What about you? Are you the Bear Lodge brutalizer?”—I had to phone my mother and give her the lowdown: that my life goal of being asked out by a handsome stranger while at work, had finally come true.

I kid that isn’t my life goal, but I will admit, many a romantic comedy had given me the notion that this rather rare happenstance—at least in my case—could one day happen to me.

We settled upon meeting in the lodge gift shop at two and would go into town to visit, King’s Saddlery Museum. I ran into the lodge a minute late feeling breathless and nervous and quickly apologized for being late. He shrugged it off and said he usually ran late too. We walked out to his truck where he held the door open for me.

I chitter-chattered our way down the mountain. I couldn’t seem to stop or take a breath. Maybe it was nerves or maybe he just brought out the extra verbose in me. Country music played in the background and we both agreed that the new pop style of country was utter rubbish.

We arrived at the museum, where we wound our way throughout the Wild West decor, him admiring ropes and the fine craftsmanship of the saddles, me mostly admiring him. The pilot made saddles as a hobby. And he had horses. And although he was a pilot—also as a hobby—and not a cowboy, he had the quality of a cowboy, both in attitude, dress and general demeanor. He even had a sort of cowboy drawl.

Before we got to the checkout, so he could purchase his King’s Saddlery baseball hats, he asked me if I would like to get dinner. I nodded casually, while inside I did fist pumps and victory leaps that would impress the flashiest gay Broadway star.

Dinner was lovely and after we went on a drive around Sheridan and then out into the country where he played me cowboy poetry he had on his Spotify. My heart quieted for a minute, while I let the gruff words sift down inside of me like lazy dust flecks coming in through a sunshiny window. I think in that moment, driving in the country with him, rock ridges to my right, mountains to my left, and cowboy poetry playing on the radio, I fell a little in love with him.

He told me he wished I didn’t have to work the next day as he was going to a canyon he’d always wanted to see, and he would’ve taken me with. I told him I only worked the morning shift until one, if he wanted to wait.

He said he’d wait.

We wound our way back up the mountain where an 80’s party was taking place at the lodge. My outfit was to be your basic 80’s aerobics gear, while my sisters dressed up as Molly Ringwald and Madonna respectively—total knockouts. But upon seeing me in my simple cotton workout gear the pilot beamed and said, “If this is what the 80’s looked like, I want to go back!”

Later after we had a couple drinks and I danced with my sisters to Footloose the pilot walked me home, while holding my hand. Then he pulled me to him in a tight hug while he beamed and told me he would see me the next day.

The next day we drove two hours to the Wind River Canyon. He held my hand and made me laugh until all my mascara washed off. We stopped at the Marriage of the Waters, where I joked that I was going to jump in. We struggled to find anywhere to eat in Thermopolis, but I hardly had an appetite anyway as I was drunk on him.

On the drive home he told me I could sleep and got me a sleeping bag to lay my head on. Before I dozed he told me to pick out songs on his Spotify. I was listening to Righteous Brothers, You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling, while he pumped gas, and at the part where they belt out, “baby, baby, I’d get down on my knees for you!” he popped his head in the car and belted out the words to me.

I fell a little more in love.

Then I passed out.

When I awoke we were already winding back up the switchbacks and his hand was in my hair. I sleepily commented that we were almost home. He looked at me, the dashboard light flickering on his five-o-clock shadow and said, “I wish we had a 100 more miles to go.”

And right then I knew, the way you know about a good melon.

He left to go home to Pennsylvania a few days later and I ached thinking it was just to be some perfect mountain fling, but right before leaving, he wrapped a blue silky scarf around my neck that he said was his lucky scarf.

“I want you to have it,” he said.

Why would he give me his lucky scarf if I was just a fling, my brain reasoned?

I went off to Colorado on a weekend trip and he made his way back East.

And that’s the end.

Just kidding! That’s not the end. Barf, that would’ve been horrid.

No, my pilot cowboy continued to text and call. And then send me packages and letters. And generally seem like I was the farthest thing from a mountain dalliance. And well, now that handsome pilot is my handsome beau. In fact I am going to see him in Pennsylvania in two days.

So there you have it. The berries. Total berries up in here.