When you're alone on the open road

  • On a lonely road

  • There was a welcoming cafe at Mule Creek Junction

  • Ruins of the cafe after the fire

  • Linda Hasselstrom

  During the winter, I live in the southeastern corner of Wyoming, in the capital city of Cheyenne. In summer, and in any weather when the roads are passable, I spend as much time as I can on my ranch in the southwestern corner of South Dakota.


My two homes are about 280 miles apart, but I have a choice of routes. If I do the sensible thing and follow the best highways that God and Wyoming have provided, the trip takes about five hours. "My shortcut" takes five and a quarter hours on a day when I'm in a roaring hurry, the roads aren't icy, I don't take the dogs, no one along my route is moving cattle or hay, and I don't meet an officer of the Wyoming Highway Patrol.


Naturally, I usually take the shortcut. I've driven this particular combination of highways some 300 times in the past five years, but I always see something new.


I round a curve on the road along the creek bottom, slowing down in anticipation of the little town's 30-mile-an-hour speed limit. A flicker of movement in the corner of my right eye prompts me to hit the brakes as eight does finish climbing the retaining wall of old auto bodies that keeps the highway from sliding into the creek. They turn their great white-fringed ears toward me, blink their big brown eyes and vault the fence to pace slowly across the highway. They jump the fence on the other side - by this time I've come to a complete stop, glad not to see an oil tanker growing larger in my rear-view mirror - and look back to the creek.


I know this story: A wary buck always sends the girls out ahead, so I wait and in another instant the buck materializes in the center of the road. He hesitates, turns toward the does, no, the creek, no, the does, until he's spun so many times I'm half dizzy, and watching the rear-view mirror for the truck I expect to see any second. I honk the horn. The buck leaps straight in the air and comes down on the same side of the fence as his harem.


In winter, a beat-up car or pickup is parked at the end of every dirt or gravel road. The kids ride the school bus, then get off and drive the family wreck home. It's handy if the private road is blocked by snow, too - all they have to do is hike to the highway and they can get to town.


I'll bet every one of those vehicles has keys in the ignition, as do the pickups hitched to trailers parked every few miles in the ditches, where someone has hauled a horse from headquarters and gone off to work cows on the horse. When someone comes back in the dark, he or she wants to know where the keys are. If I drove that truck a mile, though, someone who recognized it would see me and probably make a citizen's arrest on the spot.


I drive my favorite shortcut 50 or 60 times in the summer, the trips dwindling as blizzards stalk the land. I'm watching nervously as somebody spruces up the buildings in one of the little towns where I've heard a new mayor wants to legalize gambling. I still keep my foot close to the brake in case I pop over a hill as I did one summer day and find 500 cows and calves scattered from fence to fence.


But none of that is the story I want to tell. The story begins now. In making that drive so many times, I have come to feel as if I am a neighbor to the communities I pass through. I recognize and visit with some of the people; I slow down so I don't hit the tiny boy who never looks when he jumps off the school bus before he runs across the street.


And along that route, I just lost my oldest friend, the Mule Creek Junction café and bar, 46 miles west of Edgemont, S.D., and 46 miles north of Lusk, Wyo. In fact, Mule Creek was at least 40 miles from anything else.


A couple of years ago, over a hamburger the size of a dinner plate - one of the finest meals of my life - I sat for an hour appreciating the place, afraid one of these days I'd drive in and find it replaced by a shiny new truck stop. That sort of thing seems to be happening a lot.


Besides, I'd left the ranch headed for Cheyenne in a blizzard that was rapidly getting worse. It had taken me two and a half hours to drive 100 miles from the ranch, and I was trying to decide if I was smart enough to turn around as I'd vowed to do after driving through the last bad storm. (I wasn't.)


So I picked out a table by the window, walked back to the door to shake the snow off my coat and cap before hanging them over my chair, and nodded, "Yes," when the kid behind the counter hollered did I want coffee. Then I went into the restroom, where a sign behind the faucets of the wash basin read, "We haul every drop of water used in this place so DON'T WASTE IT!" Instead of running hot water over my hands to thaw them out, I went back to my table and wrapped them around my coffee cup while I studied the choices chalked on the menu behind the counter. Both chicken noodle (with homemade noodles thick as my index finger but light as piecrust) and potato. My stomach was already tied in a knot, so I chose potato as being a little more mild.


I'd edged along behind a truck for the past 40 miles, cussing myself for having left the ranch. I tried to pass him once, but couldn't see well enough to risk it. Just as I pulled back in, a mile before the Junction, a big Jeep pulled up beside me and went into a flat spin. I could see the driver clearly, wrestling the steering wheel and yelling and I hope he got the gist of my remarks, mostly threats of what I'd do if he rolled into my lane and killed me. Then I saw the brake lights of the truck ahead of me and dodged into the ditch as an oncoming truck nipped by. That's when I decided to pause at the Junction and consider my next move.


While I waited for the soup, I bought a local paper and caught up on who'd been arrested for drunk driving, half listening to the ranchers lie to each other about how much snow they'd had before they left the place.


When the skinny kid put a bowl of soup as big as my head in front of me, he asked if I'd brought him more books. Not this time, I said. On my trip north, I brought him a box of novels and textbooks and he put the box on the counter and stopped serving while he pulled out each one and read the title. A rancher with a prosperous belly and white Stetson bellowed for coffee, but the kid yelled back, "I'll be there in a minute," and confided that he was enrolling at the University of Wyoming in the fall.


The soup had a half-inch of yellow chicken fat on top, hunks of potato with crackled brown peel floating among pieces of thick bacon. A yuppie health nut would probably have run screaming into the blizzard, but the warm potion pumped courage to my foolish heart and funneled energy into my veins. I paid the check - $3.40 as I recall, with a $2 tip for the boy's college fund - and dived into the blizzard ready for anything.


The next 100 miles were the worst, but I steered carefully between jack-knifed tractor-trailer rigs and kept my white fingers wrapped around the steering wheel. The storm let up about the time I got to the interstate and I coasted into Cheyenne under clear skies, still warm and full of potato soup.


But all that's over now. Mule Creek Junction burned to the ground March 8. A manager smelled smoke around 8:30 a.m. and called a neighbor with a rural fire jeep directly across the highway from the café. The little pumper couldn't catch the flames. Firefighters from both Edgemont and Lusk came, but all they could do was keep the fire from spreading. Wyoming's state fire inspector, Bruce Bowie, later said the fire was accidental and started in a chimney from a wood-burning stove. n





Linda Hasselstrom is a rancher and a writer in Cheyenne, Wyo., and Hermosa, S.D.