Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Three Heat-Moons

Like three William Least Heat-Moons, Jill and Lauren and I were sticking to Colorado's blue highways.

We drove southwest on US 258 just north of Bailey, heading toward a rendezvous with Michelle's ashes in the San Juan Range. Now, though, it was time for some lunch.

“Scoob,” I said, “Punch up Yelp and find us some grub."

After a minute, she said, "Crow Hill Cafe. About 10 miles ahead."

We found the turn-off that took us past High Country Trucking, the Platte Canyon Fire Station, and into a row of storefronts leaned against a hillside. Our

options appeared to be a pizza joint, a liquor store, the Bailey Depot Feed and Supply Company, and an abandoned gas station. Nothing that looked like a cafe.

"Keebs, are you sure?"

She looked at her app. "4.5 out of 5.0 stars," she said, looking out the window. “It’s supposed to be right around here.”

Jill looked up from her app and offered a key piece of intel: "One of these reviews says, 'It's an old gas station. Don't be afraid.'"

Our three heads turned toward the "abandoned" gas station: muddy and battered trucks parked at dry pumps, with two satellite dishes on the roof, held in place with cinderblocks.

Lauren's eyes are younger than ours and she looked for signs. “There's a chalkboard by the front door,” she said. “It says ‘Crow Hill Cafe’ but in real small letters. Most of the sign has big letters that say: ‘Restrooms are for PAYING customers ONLY!’”

“Sounds welcoming,” Jill said.

We weighed our options. Pizza? We had that for breakfast. We could split a six-pack of tall boys and some beef jerky from the liquor store, but Keebs was only 19. We could strap on a couple barley feedbags from the Bailey Supply Depot.

I shrugged and pulled in next to a dry gas pump. We were driving a Chicken Hawk Rent-a-Car, so how much worse could things get?

As we walked toward the front door, a couple exited. Somewhere between middle-aged and elderly, the fellow was wearing Wranglers, a short-sleeve shirt, and a necktie. His keys hung from a carabiner on his belt loop. She was in an ankle-length cotton dress and cowboy boots, her graying hair tied back in a ponytail. The old gent held the door for his missus while giving his tummy a satisfied after-lunch pat.

Locals eat here, I thought. A promising sign.

As the door swung shut, another sign caught our eye: “Our family will be on vacation next week. Plan ahead so you don't starve."

"They're funny,” I said. Jill was still unconvinced.

We entered and found the inside was nothing like the outside (except for the bathroom warnings, which we’ll get to in a minute). The place was tidy. Clean floors, pressed tin sheathing around the counters, full bookshelves, and walls covered with the work of local artists – paintings and photographs – most of them for sale.

The place was nearly full, but we found a four-top.

As we surveyed the menu, a party of six men ambled in and took seats in the rear. They wore boots and jeans, some in denim jackets and some in leather.
Some carried Glocks in Kydex holsters, some had 1911s in Milt Sparks leather, and one wore a shoulder rig. You could find a badge on each of them, either on a belt or hanging from a neck lanyard. They looked like modern-day versions of every western movie lawman you’ve ever seen.

Tommy Lee Jones was in the shoulder rig. He shed his leather jacket to uncover a full sleeve of tats on one arm and a dagger with a snake coiling around it on the other.

Val Kilmer sat next to him. Not the teeth-snapping Iceman from Top Gun, but a less tubercular version of Tombstone's Doc Holliday, his eyes narrow and suspicious and scanning the room.

At the end of the table, we found the curly hair and mustache of a James Butler Hickok (known to history as “Wild Bill”), a badge hanging from his neck on a leather strap.

One deputy, seen only from behind, resembled a bear that had shape-shifted into a man and might have been a scruffy Rooster Cogburn.

Across the dining hall from the lawmen, two young fellers ate their lunches in peace, seated at a table by the window. One kid wore a tee-shirt that advertised “100% Weed Fed.” This being Colorado, everybody was buddies.

Viggo Mortensen (in his role as Captain Fantastic) entered next with his family. He was not yet middle-aged but was still lightly grizzled, with the look of a man who lived off the grid. The braids in his beard were tipped with turquoise and wooden beads. His wife, younger than he, looked fresh-faced and capable. A kid who might have been age nine wore Crocs and a doo-rag. The kid could have been a boy or a girl, but one who knew how to throw a knife if called upon.

We turned back to the menus. Sandwiches came with one side: slaw, fries, or a "Bag of Chips — Chips that a machine made somewhere and put in a bag just for you.”

We ordered. Pancakes for Scoob. A BLT for Jill. I had eggs with sausage on the side, baptized with a ladle of sausage gravy. You know what? It was good. But this isn’t about the food.

We finished, paid up, and got ready to hit the road. As far as using the restrooms, we were now PAYING customers. I locked the door behind me and saw a Crow Hill Cafe logo on a sign, advising: 

“This restroom is cleaned on the 1st of the month whether it needs it or not. If it's the 1st of the month and this place needs attention, alert the dishwasher or the old man next door." 

Fortune was smiling on us: it was 2 August and the restroom, cleaned recently and on-schedule, smelled of mountain pine.

On the way out, I found a final warning taped to the restroom door: 

“If you're using this bathroom without making a purchase, you are in effect stealing from us, which makes you a thief. Don't be that guy. Buy a cookie."

We walked out, past the law, with our heads held high. No miscreants here. Paying customers. Have a nice day, deputies.

We got in the car and pulled away from the defunct gas pump. I was glad we stayed off the interstate. You don’t get this at an Applebee’s or a Subway.

In Blue Highways, Heat-Moon wrote of being on these two-lanes: 

“I had nothing to lose but the chains, and I hoped to find down the county roads Ma in her beanery and Pap over his barbecue pit, both still serving slow food from the same place they did thirty years ago. Where-you-from-buddy restaurants.”

This was Heat-Moon’s kind of place, I thought.


Josh Lanier said...

Awesome story! I have found that these roadside joints are the best places to eat and see the local color.

Pdug said...

Very cool story! Sounds like quite the adventure

Joe said...

Thank ya, Josh and Pdug. Glad you liked it.

boromax said...

A delectable anecdote, scrumptiously told. You made me feel like I was right there with you. I particularly like the descriptive details about the people you saw, including that trick of pairing them up with silver-screen characters. Your folksy conversational style is darn near perfect. Thank you for writing and sharing!