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THE SMACK-DAB MIDDLE

Story ID:207
Written by:Kathe M. Campbell (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Travel
Location:Buffalo Montana USA
Year:2002
Person:Last of The Old Cowboys
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THE SMACK-DAB MIDDLE
by Kathe Campbell

Come sunshine or blizzard, we two ol' Montana duffers love working throughout much of our beloved state. We're on the road every other day inspecting warranteed autos, taking digitals, and home again to download and upload our work. At 77, Ken loathes the word "retire" and I'd probably crown any ol' buzzard that did nothing but sit about the house emitting disgusting sounds all day.

So there we were in the month of June, off the beaten path on a narrow secondary, where the giant motorhomes and travel trailers miss the old west charm and pristine landscapes of bygone days. Where broad valleys and rolling hills are dotted with acres of cottonwoods and pines. Where a meandering stream turns the grasslands green and lush, and where the deer and the antelope play. Where elk and buffalo and predators roam at will, and where untold numbers of raptors soar and hunt all manor of rodent against the backdrop of snowcapped peaks.

One blink of the eye and we nearly missed a charming old country hamlet hidden amongst massive lilacs. At last, some semblance of civilization! The sign read, "Ringling," it's only claim to fame being two showman brothers who made good in a world quite apart from whence they were conceived and reared.

They say if you wait a half hour in Montana, the weather changes. It did. We nearly froze our gizzards and wore out the windshield wipers plodding along through slush and headwind. The cows and calves were hunkered up against barbed wire in misguided anticipation of relief. Nary one other living thing would be seen until the assault was played out. When visibility became zero, we pulled off onto a grassy shoulder to wait out the peculiar wrath before making another run at it.

Swiftly and thwarted, our home on the range daydreaming was halted by a grim ambush. Down a long curvy hill into bottom country there appeared something out of a western movie, something far from our romantic notions of the old west. This must be the place where the cowboys of yesteryear whoop it up after the trail drive. Where a tattered sign stretched across main street announces a by-gone rodeo. Where the post office competes with an old timer's cabin. Where a half dozen dingy-curtained and moldy-scented hotel rooms remain idle and dusty. Where one cold water-stained sink/bath/toilet is shared at the end of the hall. Where there stands one gas pump and a general store full of trinkets and stale bread. Where the only diner is attached to a smoke-filled saloon reeking of stale beer. Where 40's and 50's country platters plop down on the jukebox turntable . . . sometimes. And where the sound of cue sticks are poked at balls atop a raggedy pool table covered with mysterious and ancient stains.

It was noon. The blizzard had gratefully headed south, and although the scene was grim, we were curious and hungry. The diner facade sported a huge Conestoga wagon wheel adorned with a deco art neon sign. How tacky, I thought. I would have preferred gas lanterns and western style font, but what do I know! There were even a few genuine Cayuses tied to the hitching rail. My notions of a true 19th century cowtown being dashed, I realized we were not only caught in the middle of Montana, but between two eras. A lot of the very old and little of the new.

We entered to the laughter and drone of men's voices, and then abrupt silence. I felt compelled to belt out a chorus of "Lonesome Polecat" as the waitress rushed past carrying overlapping plates stacked precariously up both arms. "Just have a seat anywhere's folks," she roared. We found a table next to a window which I doubt had ever been washed. We waited for menus and water until a voice in the crowd announced, "Ain't no menus, jest the chalkboard!" Sure enough, the board read, "DINNER" followed by, "pea soup, slaw, roast beef, taters n gravy, slim beans or brussles, biscuts, homemade strawberry pie, milk or coffee." We were about to take a gamble and go for a gen-u-ine ranch style noon meal.

Ken looked me straight in the eye with that questionable stare, "Think you can handle this place, dear? The meal sounds pretty good, don't you think?" "Sounds great. Guess I won't have to cook tonight. I'm cool, and if nothing else, it's colorful and I'm starved."

Conspicuously jammed into jeans just a wee bit tight, Opal swished around between tables filling coffee cups. She was big in the little and bottom at the top, if you know what I mean. Them thighs was jest a fightin' like a couple youngin's under a blanket with her every move. She often stooped low over a table for a few seconds and then rose up in uproarious throaty guffaws. Twice she leaned low and told a colorful story within hearing distance, and then gave us a wink before heading for the kitchen. Poor ol' Pops turned beet red while I took quick notes. Surely no one had heard anything this good on the internet.

Ken went first to a door marked, "Pointers," from whence he finally emerged trying to keep a straight face. As I entered the "Setters" door, I could hear the men roaring with laughter amongst themselves. Attempts at shaking this ol' blue-jeaned Montana gal up failed. I'd been there, done that, in stranger places. Meanwhile a bunch of the old timers had drawn up rickety wooden chairs, barely functional but for spans of twisted wire criss-crossed between the legs. While leaning perilously backwards and puffing on smelly rolled up cigareetes, they entered into inquisitives with Ken. It was old home week in The Wagon Wheel Diner. Ken was enjoying them thoroughly, but I was anxious to hear of their adventures spoken in characteristic drawls in-between dinner courses. Those ol' boys sure had a hankerin' for new folks to jaw with.

"Say thar girlie . . . wharin deed ya git that purty red har?" And of course the usual, "How'd ya lose that thar arm, Missy?" And my personal favorite, "You married to that ol' fella, or you his daughter?"

The meal was copious and scrumptious, the creations of the grizzlied and bewhiskered old Swede sweating his heart out in the hot kitchen behind the counter. I simply could not finish the entire fare, but felt duty-bound to save room for his fresh strawberry pie piled with mounds of real hand-whisked whipped cream.

As long as the good Lord keeps us a travelin' pair, we'll never run out of adventures. These old timers are disappearing fast and I need to work quick. Of course, that's what the youngsters are saying about me! You've got to answer their questions fair and be willing to jaw and laugh at the spinning of cowboy yarns. It's what you call a gen-u-ine old cowboy happening, smack-dab in the middle of Montana.

Kath