Women will be key in Tuesday’s mid-term elections. I joined colleagues Ann O’Neill and Jessica Ravitz in reporting what women want from three battleground states. Check it out on CNN here: http://cnn.it/1oat8DM
We decide to pull off the highway in Rollinsville, hoping to grab a sandwich and something to drink. We are not sure about the tiny town at first. There’s an antique shop and a place called the Stage Stop. “Serving hicks, hippies and bikers since 1868,” says the sign atop the door. There are paintings on plywood on the walls and hardly anyone in the place.
We dare to go in to check out the lunch menu and are pleasantly surprised. Pulled pork and chicken salad sandwiches. Home made potato chips. Garden salads. We order and wonder about the place; ask the young waiter what it’s all about. Soon enough the owner shows up.
His name is Patrick Schuchard and for years, he taught art at the University of Washington in St. Louis. When he’d had enough, he and his wife, Carol Crouppen Schuchard, moved out here — this was where his father used to bring the family for vacations when he was growing up.
They live in a nearby town called Eldora but have a studio here. And the Stage Stop.
The building was originally the Toll Gate Barn for the Butterfield Stage Coach Company that ferried people across the continental divide through the Rollins Pass. Schuchard loved the civil war-era wooden building with its rough hewn post and beam timbers. He bought it, restored it and turned it into a cafe, bar and dance hall where artists like Judy Collins, Three Dog Night, Dave Matthews Band and others have graced the stage. This part of Colorado was hippie central once, Schuchard tells us.
Les the bartender stands before the old bar and tells us how the place was haunted. He has heard ghosts whispering.
Schuchard says two women once walked in and told him that many years ago their great uncle had hung himself in the basement of the building. Not a comforting feeling. But then again, the place was also a butcher shop in one of its many incarnations.
He shows us around the place, tells us of his dreams and ambitions for this unlikely establishment. He points to the oldest building in town, gives us history. Stephen Stills still has a house around here, Schuchard says.
He convinced a chef from a Boulder restaurant to come out here to cook. He wanted sophistication.
“We’re not trying to o nostalgia here.” he says. “I could have made it a very Western place. But I’m trying to make a peculiar brand of beauty.”
We are fascinated with the art on the walls and inquire about Schuchard’s work. Soon enough, we are inside the studio filled with his and his wife’s art. All of it seems surreal in this town, tucked away in the Rocky Mountains. I am glad we stopped.
I see the Tetons in the rear view now, white peaks contrasting against blue sky, as the highway winds downward into flatter lands formed of earth as red as Georgia clay. We drive into DuBois, a true cowboy town where the main road is dotted with a few eateries and shops and an old sign that says “Homestead.” We poke our heads into an antique shop filled with old spurs, bits and colorized photographs. We eat burgers at the Cowboy Cafe. They are big enough to fill the belly of any hungry ranch hand.
We keep driving, not knowing where we will sleep tonight. Through the Wind River Reservation, past cows and even elk, and into Lander, where a mean wind whips through a main street that feels empty. This is an old mining town. It was the westward terminus of the “Cowboy Line” of the Chicago and North Western Railway. This is “where rails end and trails begin.”
I close my eyes and try to imagine this place as it was a century ago.
There are plenty of dude ranches nearby. I am told that’s a source for tourist dollars these days.
We keep driving. Into an abyss of nothingness. Nothing we can see but sagebrush and rolling hills in the distant. There are stretches of highway where we do not see any trailers, ranches, animals. No signs of life anywhere.
It’s a strange feeling for me. I would not want to be alone here, I think.
It takes several hours to reach Rawlins. We think about staying there but keep moving. I can’t stand the melancholy of a another town past its prime hanging heavy on every corner.
We turn right onto Highway 287, which will take us back into Colorado. It is evening when we reach Fort Collins. Downtown is bustling in this college town. People are spilling out of cafes and restaurants. I hear one man discussing Jean-Paul Sartre’s brand of existentialism.
We had come from nothingness into being. Or was it the other way around?
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.