Wild West: first stop

From Denver airport, we drive to Steamboat Springs — a place that is as pretty as its name sounds. The slopes are closed for the summer but plenty of people are still around. As is the snow atop the mountains. On this day, everyone is excited about the sun. It’s the first day in a while that the wet stuff has stopped, the clouds have vanished. A magnificent statue of an elk graces a public park by the river.

At Chocolate Soup, Chelsea serves us a savory scone and strawberry rhubarb waffles. I can tell this vacation will be filled with many lazy afternoons and heaping plates of delicious food. Never tasted a waffle with rhubarb before. It made me think of the pies at Yoder’s in Sarasota. Only better.

From the picturesque Colorado ski resort, we drive northeast, through more rugged country. Just before the Wyoming state line, we come across the Hoopla shop in Walden — elevation, 8,100 feet. Amy Symonds grew up here. Her father was a caretaker of a flourspar mine. That’s the stuff they make fluoride out of. And very pretty pendants.

Her store is in the middle of a broken town. Nothing but a saloon, a barber shop and a host of trailers here. The opposite of Steamboat, I think.

Tom Waits is on the CD player. Symonds is wearing a giant fur hat on her head and stands behind the counter to greet her customers, all two of us. She sells all sorts of pelts — mink, ermin, skunk. She sells hat boxes, vintage hoop skirts and handbags, jewelry, furniture and a bunch of other assorted stuff. Her shop was featured in a western magazine. She’s happy about that. She sells me an old silver ring with a heap of copper on it. Looks like someone forgot to mold it into a more shapely sight.

We meander down the road, catch sight of a moose. I’d never seen a real live one before. We stop at Woods Landing, more out of curiosity than thirst, and sit at the bar with a folks who watch Fox News and hate CNN. On weekends, the dance hall is filled here with wranglers, ranchers and pretty girls. Bartender Mary Albright serves me an ice-cold Corona and tells me to never mind all those anti-CNN sentiments. She watches Anderson Cooper every night, she says. Tapes it when she can’t watch it live. She was born in Germany, grew up in Nebraska and worked at Home Depot in Denver before she came to Woods Landing four years ago. Now, she makes a mean vodka tonic and watches people twirl on the century-plus-old floor.

After a refreshing drink, we are off on a lonely highway, through Laramie, the town that became notorious for the torture and murder of Matt Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming. Must be tough to live in a town that’s become synonymous with something that evil.

The drizzle gets heavier in Laramie. The skies are gray. It’s the end of May but feels more like mid-winter in Atlanta. We hit the highway to Cheyenne, the state capital. My colleague Matt Smith lived here once and suggested we stay at the Plains Hotel, a no-frills lodging in a beautiful old building. Matt said we ought to eat at The Albany, and so we did. The place used to be brothel, named after the Union Pacific trains from Albany, New York. They carried troops going off to fight in World War II who had some fun on their stop in Cheyenne.

There was a lot of gambling and prostitution here until the interstates shut all that down, says owner Gus Kallas. I stare at a photograph on the wall of the Thomas Heaney saloon taken in 1888. I notice one of the workers behind the bar. He is a black man.

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