I never told you about this minor incident, about why I owe Walt Longmire. You know? That Wyoming sheriff on TV? I never told you about that? Well, go ahead and take a seat, Cuz. I will be happy to tell you all about it. Everything I tell you is either true or could be true.
Back when I was in the Navy, I was about to enjoy my first leave. “Now, where will I go?” I closed my eyes and pointed my finger at a spot on a map. Do you remember those multi-folded, awkward Texaco maps? They wouldn’t talk to you like Siri, but you might have a few choice words for it as you tried to read the clumsy miner’s map that took up the entire front passenger compartment when fully unfolded. Well, once I finished using the Texaco-filling-station-staple of motoring, as a sort of vacation-Ouija-board, I tried to fold it. I failed, crumpled it up with impatient defeat—a precursor of things to come—and shoved it back in the glove compartment of the green ‘66 Dodge Coronet. My Navy buddy let me borrow “Old Reliable” for a future favor (I ended up deep-cleaning the “head” for several months of lonesome weekends). My friend’s last words should have been nominated for Understatement Award of the Year: “Oh, yeah, Mike: she might leak some oil, but no problem!” It was 1976, so the car was only ten years old—a hard, unkept, and very rusty ten years.
So, with little concern for the bon voyage that was, in truth, bonne chance— good luck, I departed from Monterey in that beauty that the other sailors called a “chic-deflector.” I drove up the spectacular Pacific highway, cut across the Diablo Range, through Carson City, Boise, and a thousand small towns to get to the Canadian border. Why? Do we really need to question the undeveloped prefrontal cortex of an eighteen-year-old male?
How would I sum up my adventure?
I drove. I saw. I broke down.
Returning, I encountered a monster blizzard about twenty miles outside of Laramie, Wyoming. I pulled my former friend’s Coronet over on the side of the Interstate highway, thinking, “I’ll just wait this one out.” I had never been in a snowstorm, a fact that nearly cost me my life, if not my overly inflated teenaged male ego. About thirty minutes into the blissful ignorance of my siesta of death, I was unknowingly being buried by a killer snowstorm. I was living a Jon Krakauer Outside Magazine feature story minus the grit and courage. My foolhardy slumber was disturbed by the flashing lights that appeared through the ice-block that had once been my rear-window. A Wyoming State Trooper in a tan cowboy hat, a ski-mask, and a massive coat, that looked like a Buffalo hide, approached my door and banged on my window. “Son, what are you doing?” The lawman had to shout through the muffled air of the blizzard. I rolled down the driver’s window, yelled back, seeking to match his volume, but with over-done respect and a Panglossian attitude, “Sir, I am going to just wait here until this here snow is finished!” He looked away as if to gather himself, my distinctive Southern accent undoubtedly profiling me as a “newbie” to Wyoming blizzards. The trooper was either stifling laughter or screaming, spoke. “Son, you’re not from around these parts, are you?” I figured that it was a rhetorical question, and I preferred the safety of silence. Then, the Wyoming trooper proceeded to “school” me, with an obviously restrained frustration, assuring me of the absolute idiocy of “waiting out” a veritable dump truck of snow, ice, and slayer winds assaulting my dying Dodge. The trooper obviously felt it was worth enduring unrelenting ribbons of frigid Arctic air and a severe snowstorm to describe my certain death on the Laramie Plains between the Laramie Mountains and the Medicine Bow Range. The kind but increasingly impatient Wyoming trooper assured this East-of-the-Mississippi tenderfoot that it was all but certain that he would soon be reading my forthcoming obituary in the Laramie Boomerang newspaper. However, once he lectured me, the Clint Walker-looking prairie-enforcer said that he would remove the ever-enlarging sculpture of hardening snow off of the windshield, and, then, he ordered, “I will follow you to a motel outside of Laramie.” He was walking back to his flashing, warm patrol unit when I rubber-necked out of the passenger window, “Sir, there is just one problem.” The poor fellow stopped in his tracks, refusing to pivot and look at me. Hearing no reply, I hollered once more: “Ugh, Sir,” The trooper had heard me. He spoke, “Yes, Son, I hear you. What else?” I had to be honest about the real reason I preferred risking my life over going to Laramie for the night. “Sir, I don’t have enough money to buy gas, get my leaking tire and bad carburetor fixed, plus pay for a room.” He never faced me in his response. “Just drive towards Laramie, Son. I’ll be following you.” I was concerned he still didn’t hear me. However, I was beginning to sense the potential for bodily harm from the freezing trooper. So, I drove, carburetor spitting, tire limping but comforted that the “drill sergeant-state trooper” was tailing me with red and blue lights pulsating through the white-out. That white storm, by the way, gave the raging blizzard a sort of winter-wonderland effect—or, maybe not. Well, my new “buddy” and I made it. Our destination wasn’t quite the Bates Motel, but the single line of about twenty doors, alternating primary colors, appeared to be a suitable shelter though built circa 1900. I still had no idea how I would pay. But here is the thing: That Wyoming trooper saw that I was a “service boy,” as he explained my plight to the humorless innkeeper. “Carter, go ‘head and put the boy up for the night and tomorrow night if it gets worse. Feed him, too. Now, you know where to send the bill.” The trooper turned towards me, adjusted his cowboy hat, an unnecessary motion that appeared to indicate he was thinking of something to say. “Son, where is your military base?” I answered with pride and a bit of embarrassment that I had driven so far and so unprepared. “U.S. Navy, Defense Language Institute, Monterey, California, Sir.” He shook his head. I read his thoughts. I believe that I heard him whisper, “What a fool.” As I considered my position, over one thousand miles from my home-sweet-barracks, in a borrowed old Dodge in need of automotive hospice, and just enough cash to drive straight through without lodging—oh, yeah, and in a snowstorm, my first, in the great state of Wyoming—the trooper extended his gloved hand. I was shocked to see two twenty-dollar bills. He shook my hand, smiled, and uttered the words that seemed uncommonly nice, if not politely insincere: “Thank you for visiting Wyoming. Please come back again.” Before I could say, “Thank you,” the trooper turned, and the iconic Western hero disappeared into the night, a single safety-light on a pole revealing the figure of a courageous lawman walking through the horrendous elements. Well, I stayed two nights at the Bates’ because the blizzard was a bad one, indeed. I ate grilled cheese, grilled cheese, and grilled cheese before departing. I literally could not locate my battered, and abused, borrowed, and abased ’66 Dodge Coronet. The snow had buried all the vehicles in the motel parking lot.
I journeyed though some magnificent parts of America on my way back. Too bad, my focus was on staying alive in the death-trap of a car.
Well, that’s about it. My wife has heard the story a few times. She invariably shakes her head and mildly chastises me, “Why in the world would you take off in a beat-up car, and travel two thousand miles just to—what—see a sign that says, ‘Welcome to Canada?’” I reply, with feigned seriousness, “It is so obvious to me that you have never lived life with an under-developed male frontal cortex infused with testosterone and gas fumes.”
Well, I made it back to Monterey to resume my studies of learning Albanian, a rigorous top-secret course of study designed to prepare me for properly spying on the isolated Marxist-Leninist regime.
I will never forget Wyoming, though I have not returned since that unforgettable trip. So, I watch the Longmire television show in honor of that anonymous state trooper who saved my hide from a snowy ending on the high plains of the Great American West. I figure it is my small way of paying back that $40.00 plus lodging and grilled cheese sandwiches to the State of Wyoming. When I look at the show’s hero, Sheriff Walt Longmire, I feel compelled to say, “Thank you, Sir. I owe you one.”