Monday, April 22, 2013

The road to Chugwater, Wyo.

North out of Cheyenne on I-25, the electronic highway sign warns NO GASOLINE FOR 65 MILES. A few months ago, a less than rational human rammed his car into the only gas station in Chugwater,  the next town on the route, 45 miles away.

Meet me in Chugwater for chili, beer and milkshakes.
Once past the last outcropping of trophy homes and the Little Bear Inn steakhouse, there’s a whole lot of nothing on this highway. It’s open land: rolling hills with washes labeled as creeks that I've never seen hold water. We've had a late April snowstorm, and white covers the ground. Tomorrow when I drive back it will have a faint and hopeful green cast.

This stretch is punctuated only by telephone poles on the frontage road and the occasional herd of cows or old style windmill in the distance. Cell phones cut out. At night, you'll see little but the glow of your headlights on the pavement in front of you; it's hard not to be hypnotized into sleep. In winter weather, once you leave Cheyenne for Chugwater or the other way around, you are irretrievably committed. Nothing but ranch roads, so there’s no safe place to stop and shelter between. There are plenty of white knuckle driving stories.

It can be harsh. In places like this, I see why homesteaders broke themselves trying to break the land, and the women went mad and walked into storms to die. But there is a certain beauty to it. The sky goes on forever. It's early, and the clouds turn from pink to peach through the passenger window with the sunrise. I breathe deeper in a way I never do in town.

Chugwater, population 212, is in Platte County. The town’s first post office was established in 1872 before the county itself was formed. South of town, you begin to see hills and rock outcroppings and the line of bluffs to the north where the Indians hunted buffalo by stampeding them off the cliffs. This was the origin of the name, per Wyoming Places:

When buffalo were hunted in early days they were driven to the bluffs and shot. They usually fell from the rocks into the water, making a sound like "chug". (WPA) Located on the Chugwater River, so named because, when buffalo were driven over a nearby bluff by Indians and fell from the rocks into the water, they made a sound like chug: the Indians called the stream "the water at the place where the buffalo chug," and the name was shortened to Chugwater by white settlers. (Annals of Wyoming 14:2)

No buffalo are falling off cliffs this morning. The gas station is just off the exit. The pumps still stand, but there's no building. Mercifully, after a morning of too much coffee, the rest stop across the street is intact. There's a sign in front of the station that I think should say, “Closed due to lunatic.” Instead, it directs drivers to the Buffalo Grill for a meal or a room.

Chugwater now has as its claim to fame the best chili spice mix around, courtesy of the town's Chugwater Chili Company, which has been around since 1986 Each summer, there is a chili cookoff and a Tour de Chili bicycle ride on the roads leading from town. On Ty Road, the main street through town, the soda fountain offers both milkshakes and beer, I assume not in the same glass. Of course, they serve up bowls of Chugwater Chili here, too. It's one of those places I can picture myself living, until I open the car door and get hit by the wind. It howls down this eastern edge of Wyoming.

I'm a little hungry, but I'll wait for Wheatland down the road. I’ll stop at the soda fountain for a bowl of chili and a beer milkshake another day.

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