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Friday, September 22, 2006

 

Roaming the Western States Part 4 - People are Strange

Even if no one is reading these things I'm determined to make it to the end of what's sure to become a hundred-part series of blog posts about my summer road trip. So like a drunk, elderly relative and Led Zeppelin too, I must ramble on, sing my song, etc. Part three covered the assorted flora and fauna that run around Yellowstone trying to cause traffic accidents. But what of the people that roam this part of the country?

---------------

It's 10 o'clock on a Tuesday night. Shanna and I are sitting near a group of horny Russian teenagers at a lonely burger stand in Gardiner, Montana. As we were waiting for our elk burgers, a scrawny guy in a black skull t-shirt brought his truck to a screeching halt in front of the place. His greasy, long hair tied back in a bandana, he hoped out of the truck and stormed up to the window. He looked like a Worlds of Warcraft aficionado that had traded his PC for enough meth to get seriously addicted. He was on edge and looked like bad news all around. The fry cook, all of 19, came around and met him out front.

SKULL GUY: "Thanks for working my shift."

He handed over a roll of bills, at least $200, to the cook before jumping back in the truck. The cook headed back inside to his spot in Helen's Burger Corral ("Home of the Hateful Burger, Best in the West") and flipped our elk patties. What had just transpired?

After bringing us our order, the cook joined his friends at the picnic tables out front. They smoked cigarettes and stared at the Big Dipper while chatting among themselves. If not for the language barrier, this would have been a scene out of American Graffiti. Just a gaggle of small town kids just out of high school, killing a summer before heading off to college or whatever. But these four clearly hailed from a foreign land. What had brought them out here to the middle of nowhere? Gardiner, with its population of a mere 851, couldn't possibly crank out four unrelated Russian teens, all of whom could only speak broken English. These kids were clearly bred across the Atlantic. Was this what they had expected when they crossed the ocean with their work visas? And what of the American in the skull shirt?




The corral's namesake, Helen herself, had proven to be just as big and bad as her burgers. An enormous woman, in her 60s, with a take-no-prisoners-or-shit attitude. We watched Helen lecture the cook about how to "for the fifth damn time" use the mop bucket before heading home for the night. Did she know what was going down every night after her brake lights turned the corner?

So many stupid, petty questions and we weren't about to bug the teens for answers. Two guys and two girls, all now working on getting to second base in Big Sky Country. Maybe they had forgotten we were there or just didn't care. A biker and his all-leather-clad wife rolled up a few minutes later to break up the action, their Harley as loud as God's farts.

The burgers were excellent. It was the first time either of us had eaten elk.

From there we headed to the Blue Goose Saloon, an old refuge back when I was studying to become a hotel clerk in Yellowstone. Back in the far gone summer of 2002 the place was something straight out of a Jeff Foxworth bit. One wall was lined with the bust of a dozen buffalo and elk. Three scowling bears stood nearby. But over the past few year most of them had been replaced with video poker machines. A guy in a faded Phish t-shirt had taken the spot of an old bartender who wore a cowboy hat every time I came in. The Blue Goose now offered Red Bull vodkas. A banner over the door declared every Wednesday from here on out would be known as "$2.00 Margarita and Taco Night!"

"DAMMIT!"

This "DAMMIT!" had come from Skull Guy, who was now staring in disbelief at one of the poker machines. He stormed up to the bar and took a seat next to a Budweiser before starring endlessly into the mirror behind the bar. He looked like someone who had done or was about to do something terrible or stupid. Maybe a girl from Phoenix had broken his heart in WOW and he had returned the favor by slaying her lovely orc alter-ego. Or maybe that wad of cash was pay-off to the couple on the Harley for some past transgression and he hadn't the balls to face them himself. Maybe the bills were fakes and the wife was now kung-fu kicking the fry cook behind the burger stand.




Or maybe Skull Guy had simply paid the cook $200+ to work his shift for him and that was that. At one time Montana was considered the northern border of the Wild West. Seth Bullock himself supposedly had a hand in the formation of Yellowstone. In a gift shop I found a book of ghost stories.

One from the 1920s told of a 15 year-old girl that married her wealthy family's butler. Against her father's stern objections, they headed west until their money ran out in Wyoming. They rented a room at the Old Faithful Inn and fought all night, keeping their neighbors awake before finally quieting down in the wee hours before dawn. The next day the staff became concerned after they knocked on the door of their room and no one answered. Inside, they found the girl's corpse and both the husband and her head missing. The later was found after a long search. For reasons unknown, he stashed it in the "crow's nest," a large perch at the top of the inn's tall, timber lobby.

Nowadays the staff occasionally reports seeing the girl's spirit descend down the nest's long stairwell, still in her bridal gown, with her head tucked under an arm. There's no telling what was going down in Gardiner as we headed back to our motel but we didn't see any gunfights or truncated ghosts.




Yellowstone is staffed by and attracts people from all over the world. I spoke with an Australian working the desk at the Old Faithful Inn. Two French girls had turned us away from one of the restaurants when it was overbooked. A girl from Croatia brought us cornbread at the cabin cafe at the Roosevelt Lodge. If you ever get a chance to grab a drink at the Stagecoach Inn in West Yellowstone, Montana, I would recommend it. On a Sunday night we watched a crowd of service industry folk from all corners of the earth hit on one another in there. When the clock struck 2 and alcohol could no longer be legally sold in Montana, the bar owner invited everyone over to his place for an after party.

While I was working as a clerk, I remember one night when a British guy in his late 20s staggered up to the front desk at 2 AM.

"I've come to see the buffalo," he announced. "I have to return home in a week and I drove all the way here from New York City. I couldn't leave America without seeing the buffalo."

The whites around his pupils were more red than pale and he looked like he had driven straight in from his temporary gig in NYC. If I hadn't a cabin key to give him, he would have probably passed out on the floor. He was beyond the point of reason on some bizarre, spur-of-the-moment spiritual quest to spend time among wild bison.

I told him that the long drive hadn't been in vain. By noon the next day he would probably see hundreds of them down by Lake Yellowstone. He seemed disappointed as he headed off in search of his cabin. Maybe he had expected to find a single, solitary white buffalo glowing, fueled by an ancient power on the top of a hill...that it would give him the secret of life, tips on how to land a soul mate and the secret combination of buttons that would net him 30 lives in Contra (this one I could have answered myself. Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start). Or maybe he had expected me to jump over the counter and roust one of the beasts out of bed.

I never saw him again. I wonder if once he found one or a dozen that they had met his expectations. A few days later I found a bison sleeping on the lawn behind the office instead of standing majestically in front of a sunset.

But everything's disappointing when you see it up close. And it's always smaller. I remember standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building and thinking, "This ain't so tall." If a giant ape's arms had reached over the barrier and snatched one of the tourists next to me I probably would have yawned. But I guess this is just an inevitable drawback of living in the 21st century when for $9 you can watch Tom Cruise jump off a building in Singapore. Or for another $40 in Florida you can experience the same G-forces astronauts experience in a fake mission to Mars. It's amazing that anyone still gives a damn about geysers and slumbering bison. The Brit should have probably high-tailed to Disney World instead.


Next time: a trip to Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City.


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