Route 191 skirts the edge of the Great Basin as it maps north through the same sensation of isolation as before on U. S.287. Out here there’s no worry about over-population. The advent of air-conditioning shifted that burden to the sunbelt states.In fact, Wyoming has a nonchalant, “I couldn’t care less” attitude as to their subtledecrease in population. I can vouch for this admission from a state official back inour 1980 on-site in Cheyenne. I really like their attitude…. leave this state as it should be…untamed and untethered. As I ascend into the Bridger-Teton National Forest,I’m looking to the right for a familiar landmark – a sort of log cabin structure functioning as a general store/gas station.
Soon I spot the dark, one-story building, sansgas pumps. But I’m sure it’s the place where I made a fuel stop 16 years ago. I guessanother rural outlet has been deemed dispensable by Ma Mobil, or whoever. Why is thislone locale so vividly etched in my memory? Well, I’ll tell you. It was mid-November,1981, and a light snow was falling. After prying my frozen hand from the pump handle,I went inside to pay the tariff. There was a small black and white TV behind the counter on which the proprietor’s eyes were affixed. There in the middle of Wyoming I wasabout to witness one of the miraculous endeavors of the space age – very first space shuttle landing back on mother earth. As the ungainly craft touched down withbillowing parachutes behind, we both raised our fists and yelped: “All right”. What great timing! No itinerary could ever plan that. That was my brush with history.
As I approach Jackson, there’s the incredible peek-a-boo view of the Grand Tetons,a visual teaser15 miles away, lasting maybe15 seconds. Miraculously I find a parking space in the tourist-trap town square, reknown for its antler archway entrances tothe park square. As usual, out-of-state plates are everywhere. I find a public phone,but it’s occupied by a generation-X kid who’s screaming and cursinghis jeremiad – the stranded and broke song-and-dance. After45 minutes of this falderal, I’m finally online trying to reach cuz Serena, but to no avail.A long distance call to her motherreveals that she is now residing in Missoula, Montana.
So what the heck. I buy somepicture postcards, sit in the park writing to friends and talking to strangers. It wasa very pleasant afternoon. That evening I visited several art galleries in search ofsome inspiring watercolors. To my consternation, a very few were of little value, butI was astounded at an egregious mistake made by one curator…I asked to see an aquarelle and she directs me to a wall of oil paintings: I stood there in a stunned silence. I don’t have the heart to inform her of her blatant faux pas. I stroll out, get in Ol’ Blue and head out to my stand-by rest area outside of town. Thanks again…
The next morning the sun is reflecting off the headwaters of the Snake River notfifteen feet from my side door. Ducks are bobbing for fish food as if they were being turned on a rotisserie, their tail feathers shooting straight up skyward.It was like nature entertaining me. A sedan and a semi have kept me company overnight. It’s always comforting to wake up with some fellow travelers parked nearby. I stop bythe super Safeway on the edge of town, the only major market around. You’d thinkthere would be price-gouging, but everything was copacetic. I have to backtrack south about 14 miles to get to the junction of 191 and U. S. 89, which winds its way through the canyon next to the mighty Snake. I pass a group of white-water rafters, so I pulloff at the first river overlook. I guess I just want to vicariously enjoy what thoserafters below are experiencing as they negotiate the rapids. I’m yelling down at them words of encouragement like: “Keep paddling. Pull, pull, pull!”. I’m remembering the great raft trip I was fortunate to be a part of back in July of 1980 …two days down the Colorado River. If there was one lesson I learned about rafting, it was you had to paddle like hell when you hit the rapids. Otherwise, you were at the mercy of the river, and God help you.
At Alpine Junction, I have to say goodbye to the canyon carving Snake, and I meander through lush, green valleys….quite a contrast to the dry,grazing land off to the east. I have time to think about how I did miss seeing dear cousin Serena, in particular, her intelligent narrative and wit as dry as a 6 to 1 martini. We had some good times in Jackson. Hey, there’s no such thing as a wasted, out-of-the-way sojourn in Wyoming. Every mile is an adventure. Which leads me to the next unexpected experience – a wrong turn at the right place. Somehow I miss my planned route on state road 89 and the next thing I know, I’m in Idaho. Only 15 mileslater I’m in Montpelier, a sleepy town of about 3,000 nestled in the southeast cornerof the potato state. Somehow I envision converting this happen stance into a fun and fruitful day.
Intuitively I cruise main street looking for an antique shop,and, sureenough, there are two within a stone’s throw of each other. The first one chosen is alittle shop of horrors, crammed tightly with all sorts of breakable knickknacks thatmake me feel like the proverbial bull-in-the-China-shop. Unfortunately, I have to juke my way through glass and porcelain to reach the rear counter where a middle-age woman a waits my beckoned inquiry.
Up to that point, I have been very skeptical about finding my desired object. However, upon glancing up at the wall behind her, I spotted a black-on-white 1947 Idaho plate! “Wow, what a find”, I thought. My bubble deflated after finding out the price tag: $19.00. Highway robbery was my silent reaction. Obviously,the demand had outstripped the supply. So I thanked her, and strolled down the streetto her competing neighbor. Thank goodness this store had comparatively more spacious aisles. The proprietor was lounging in his easy chair behind the counter, and explainedthat he had not carried license plates for several years. However, he did suggest aviable alternative….a junk yard just outside of town. I thanked him with more sincerity than I had administered to the greedy lady down the street. My exit from town is via a viaduct over the Union Pacific rail yard with more track mileage within the citylimits than Denver and Dallas combined.
My directions indicate a road sign that doesn’texist, so I pull off at the first farmhouse. Whenever I’ve had to approach a rural habitat such as this to ask for directions, I’ve always anticipated being greeted by a12-gauge shotgun from behind the screen door. You know, in all my travelsnot oncehas that occurred. I mean, not even a distrusting demeanor from anyone as I, a complete stranger, comes a knocking on their door.
A mute testimony to where the trustworthy live…far and away from the inner city culture of fear. A very hospitable and helpful womandirects me back to the turnoff road. As it turned out, the sign was visible from herdirection only. As usual, a dusty gravel road leads me to the salvage yard (ever seenasphalt pavement around one of these yards?). A corrugated metal building surroundedby auto carcasses is so incongruous to this beautiful valley it‘s kindof unnerving.
Inside this outpost of grime and grease, the owner informs me that old Idaho plates areabout as rare as screen doors on a space satellite. I ask if it would be possible forme to scavenge some part of the yard on my own. He consented and directed me to thevery end of the dirt road where I could do my hunting on the back part of the lot, asafe distance from their guard dog. I packed up the necessary tools and the “Liquid Wrench” and took off through the knee-high weeds in search of the elusive green -on-white plate with stamped, raised – not painted – characters. Well, it turned outthere were plenty around, mostly faded, scarred, and bent with rusted mounting screws. It took some perseverance, but I retrieved three that I considered restorable. What a beautiful afternoon it turned out to be!
There was no sense of urgency – I had all the time in the world. It was a calm, clear, 75 degree day, and I could see the UnionPacific freights rolling through town about a mile away. I’ll have to admit that it’ssomewhat depressing rummaging through all those skeletal metal remains of what were oncesomeone’s pride and joy – a gleaming, brand new automobile. I compensate by lookingbeyond all that nostalgic nonsense and realize they are only inanimate objects.