The Very, Very Middle of Nowhere (USA Day 65)
A man stands behind the counter at a gas station, dreadlocked and slim, with a knife in a holster by his waist. In his dingy shop are the normal everlasting packaged foods, fridges of lurid drinks and a wall of cigarettes. The other walls, though, are plastered with names scribbled in every colour, each with a destination and a date. Some have little messages. Some have pictures. Every inch of wall, even the shelves and rafters, bear names, destinations, dates. Through the window is the road junction known as Muddy Gap, Wyoming, a true exemplar of the middle of nowhere. Far to the north is the busy town of Casper, to the west is the road to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, to the south is Rawlins, a city of decay and Walmarts. Here, however, is just a junction and a gas station, lots of names and a man.
But he’s a busy man. His forecourt is always full of motorcyclists, like these two Norwegian tourists parked up by the front door. Their leather jackets bear broken chains, crucifixes, proud declarations of sobriety and one small but very racist ‘NO P.O.C.’ patch on the breast. Who knows what these two bikers thought of the jolly Person Of Colour who just served them coffee and donuts.
A truck grinds to a halt and out climb half a dozen Mennonite farmers, the men in striped linen shirts, dungarees and hats, the women in dowdy dresses with bonnets. They purchase six bags of ice. Much of it goes to the horse box they’ve been hauling, presumably containing either one very hot horse or a cocktail party in need of a restock.
Three cyclists and a bonsai tree puff up the gravel track and lean their bikes in the shade. Their faces and mouths are thick with the gritty detritus of a windy Wyoming morning. They’re after cold coffee, use of the bathroom and a tap to refill their bottles. They still have twenty miles to go today, which seems like nothing compared to the fifty they’ve already done, but it’ll take them just as long. There’s a powerful westerly headwind today. There’s a powerful westerly headwind every day in Muddy Gap, Wyoming.
The cyclists leave their mark, as all visitors to this gas station do, with a touch of a permanent marker on the wall. Their names, destinations and dates will be there until the wall is repainted or the building’s demolished. Even after that, they will wait under a layer of paint or deep in a heap of rubble.
Our man has tired feet. Grinning, he tells the cyclists that it’s long overdue time to change from boots to sneakers. He hears a screech outside and sees a large yellow vehicle through the window. “A schoolbus?” he wails. “What’s a f***in’ schoolbus doing here?” Beneath his feigned dismay, it’s clear he’s delighted.
He’s a busy man. He has to print out a label telling users of the nacho cheese machine that extra pumps of cheese will be 75 cents each. He has to re-stock the donuts, before more racist yet hungry motorcyclists come by. He has to keep running to the back office to fetch change.
Long after the cyclists and the bonsai tree grunt off to battle the wind, he’s still there, still busy, counting passers-by. Twenty-five-hundred cyclists this year, he says. They all stop here for iced coffee and water. They have to. There’s nothing else for fifty miles. They all sign their names and write their destinations and dates. He’s never used the knife in the holster, but he feels safer with it there.
This morning, the wind pushed the cyclists and the bonsai tree towards Muddy Gap, but now they’ve left it’s dragging them back. It’s like cycling through cushions. It’s like riding into a rugby team. It’s like pedalling in play-doh. Each mile takes forever. When they finally cross the remainder of the desert and find the next town, Jeffrey City, there’s a church awaiting with a cavernous basement, its walls also plastered with the names of the cyclists and bonsai trees who passed by. So many cyclists it’s staggering. Not so many trees. The walls are loud with their presence. Each one has pushed their way across that desert, visited the dreadlocked man in Muddy Gap, bought an iced coffee and refilled their water. Each has had their own, unique, identical journey. Each leaves their name, destination, date. Then they’re gone.