That’s me, in the spring of 1971, back when I could grow hair on my head and not on my face, about two months and another inch of hair before Hank, Jan, Kenny, Mike and I embarked on our Kerouacian trip across America.
(Because we always give credit where credit’s due, we pause to note that the photo was shot, unbeknownst to me, on the Quad at Hobart College by a William Smith freshman named Karen Platt, who one year later would take me up in a two-seat Cessna and perform several maneuvers designed to make me throw up, her way of saying thank you for being very demanding of her in the offices of our college newspaper, The Herald, of which I was editor-in-chief.) (And, thinking back on it now . . . What kind of idiot climbs into a small plane and goes on an aerial joyride with a 19-year-old novice pilot? My god, I did some really stupid stuff in college.)
But I digress. Let’s return to the photo . . .
Note that I’m playing an A-7th, capoed up a fret. That’s me, kids, playing 12-bar blues, the music of my soul.
Also note the cutoff jeans, which went in the laundry every few weeks.
But most importantly, note the Tonto headband, which almost got me killed at a truckstop in Buffalo, Wyoming, at 2 in the morning on a Saturday night.
Pull up a chair, kids, and I’ll tell you all about my night in Buffalo, and my encounter with an 8-foot-tall hulk of a man who, for a brief moment, had me certain that my life was going to end at the tender age of 20.
It’s a Saturday in late July or early August, and Mike has gotten up ridiculously early in the morning in New York to fly to Rapid City, South Dakota, where he will join what just the day before became a four-man, two-car caravan, a story we’ll explain on another day. Mike is fairly exhausted when we meet him at the airport, so, naturally, we toss his three-man tent onto the roof rack of my 1970 Ford Maverick, color Thanks Vermillion, and, along with Kenny’s blue Mercury Cougar, begin a 517-mile trip westward. Destination: Yellowstone Park, with a brief detour to see Devil’s Tower.
Our route should take about nine hours, according to Google Maps (which, of course, doesn’t exist yet), plus a couple of hours to walk the two-and-a-half miles or so around Devil’s Tower. But we expect it to take even less than that, because we’re college guys and we know that speed limits, like the “Don’t Walk” signs in New York, are mere guidelines, not laws. They are meant to be exceeded. Or flat-out disobeyed. We figure we’ll be traveling at 100 mph, or thereabouts.
But we soon discover that the Ford Maverick, color Thanks Vermillion, with a three-gear column shift and packed with three people and lots of heavy camping gear, and 105 horses of power under the hood, simply can’t go uphill in third. And uphill pretty much describes the entire trip from Rapid City to Yellowstone.
So the next thing we know, we’re doing most of the trip at 33 mph, with the engine revving in second. And we have to stop to let a herd of buffalo cross the road in the Black Hills. And then Hank’s suitcase will go flying off the roof rack of the Ford Maverick, color Thanks Vermillion, somewhere along a two-lane highway in the dark, and we won’t discover it’s missing until the sun comes up, and we’ll have to go back a hundred miles or so looking for it, and that’s why a nine-hour trip will last more than 24 hours, an arduous adventure for all of us, but especially Mike, who woke up in Brooklyn, New York.
Which just goes to explain why, instead of driving THROUGH Buffalo, Wyoming, at around 6 p.m. on a Saturday night, we found ourselves stopping at 2 in the morning for some sustenance — and lots of coffee.
Now, for all I know, Buffalo, Wyoming, is a chic town these days with a multiplex theater, a Starbucks and a Banana Republic.
But that most definitely was not the case at 2 in the morning on a Saturday night in 1971, when it had a couple of stoplights, a truckstop restaurant and a serious dearth of long-haired college kids from the Northeast.
Buffalo did, however, offer a wide variety of enjoyable activities and diversions for the local population, the most popular of which appeared to be whiskey and beer. And it quickly became apparent that everyone in town was partaking in those activities and diversions.
And so it was that when Mike, Kenny, Hank, Jan and I stepped out of our cars, we immediately increased the number of sober people in Buffalo, Wyoming, at 2 in the morning on a Saturday night from zero to five.
We walked into the truckstop, found a table and sat down.
And every bloodshot eye in the place was trained right on us.
The waitress, a dyed redhead straight out of Rosie’s Diner, came over and asked, “One check or separate checks?”
She then added: “You better say one check.”
We said one check.
And then we ordered whatever she ordered us to order, because everyone in the truckstop was staring at us and this clearly was not a good time to request whole wheat or say hold the mayo.
Rosie walked off with our orders, and we sat there, quietly, staying as inconspicuous as five long-haired, grubby Northeast college kids can in a truckstop full of cowboys and Indians in Buffalo, Wyoming, at 2 in the morning on a Saturday night.
And that’s when the giant came around to pour our coffee.
We didn’t see many Native Americans — we called them American Indians back then — in New York, but there sure were a lot of them in this truckstop. In fact, pretty much everyone who wasn’t a cowboy was an Indian, and the most noticeable one of them was the giant pouring coffee. He was roughly 8 feet tall, and he was weaving unsteadily. He’d clearly been partaking in Buffalo’s favorite pastime, though I was not about to ask whether it had been rye or bourbon, Bud or Coors. It sure as hell wasn’t Tab.
He staggered over to our table and poured our coffee, and when he poured mine, he bent way, way down, and in a very deep and loud voice, for everyone in the joint to hear, he asked . . .
“What’s the headband for, son?” (At least he didn’t inquire about my cutoff jeans.)
A lot of thoughts ran quickly through my mind. How, I wondered, would my parents bring my coffin back from Buffalo? Who would drive my car back to New York? Would this be fast or slow?
“Ummmmm,” I replied meekly, “it keeps the hair out of my eyes.”
At least I think that’s what I said, because, really, I couldn’t hear my own voice.
The giant snorted, harumphed, and said loudly, for everyone to hear . . .
“Keeps the hair out of his eyes.”
And then he staggered off to another table.
We scarfed down our burgers and sandwiches and left a very big tip on our single check and got the hell out of there.
But on the way back to our cars, we encountered three women who also had clearly been partaking in Buffalo’s favorite recreational activity, and whose pickup wouldn’t start because their battery had gone dead. So the five of us, being real Northeast gentlemen and all that, offered instructions on how to jumpstart a vehicle, got in back and pushed, and the exhaust sputtered and off they went, waving and shouting to no one in particular.
And then off we went, remarkably unscathed.
I owe my life to an 8-foot-tall Native American, who had the kindness and grace not to tear me limb from limb for wearing a Tonto headband in a truckstop in Buffalo, Wyoming, at 2 in the morning on a Saturday night.
It’s a nice place to visit.
— 30 —
Steve- It was like it happened yesterday. I have entertained many people with this story coupled with hank’s luggage, not to mention us seeing a rock climber fall from devil’s Tower with no mashed potatoes to break the fall! I can’t wait for the story of our fated meeting out in the Buffalo field- I thought at the time I had a revelation from God!
This is great!!! I do remember hours of second gear — and the head band.
Just so you know, someone who WASN’T on your road is reading your blog
Love reading your stories, Steve!!