The Tiny Town of Ten Sleep

I stop for the night at Ten Sleep, a tiny town about halfway between where I’ve been (Devil’s Tower) and where I want to go (Yellowstone). The first motel I spot is made up of cabins, but there’s no office to check in to. I call the number on the sign but no one answers. I pull my car out of the lot and go two hundred yards over to the only other motel in town. This place has a front desk, but no one is sitting at it. I’m looking around wondering how obnoxious I’m willing to be when an older woman appears. I book my room and ask if she has a recommendation for where to get dinner.

Carter Inn“What day is it?” she asks, looking at the calendar on the wall.

“Tuesday,” I say.

“Well then you only have one option, so I recommend it.”

The Ten Sleep Saloon, like all of Ten Sleep, is only a few blocks away. She’s tells me I can walk to it. I casually mention what a nice night it is for a walk.

“They’re saying we got a big storm coming tonight,” she warns. I decide I better take a coat and umbrella.

I spend an hour or so in my room before heading to dinner, and on my way out I see that rain has fallen on my car. I hadn’t been paying much attention and I start to wonder if the storm has already come and gone.

I cozy up to the bar and order the Ten Sleep Saloon Burger, since I’m a sucker for anything that’s named after the establishment. My burger is pretty good considering it’s just bacon, cheese, and BBQ sauce. FOX News is on the TV and the two young people beside me laugh at the caption “A New Axis of Evil?” when it comes on the screen. I start to wonder how much the ideals of FOX News match the political climate in Ten Sleep when a man asks the bartender to change the channel. Two men play pool behind me. One of them seems to be a shoo-in for the win, until he scratches on the eight ball. A man smokes at the counter. Credit cards are not accepted.

Storm over the RoadIt’s still a nice night when I walk back to my room, though the wind is picking up. By the time I’ve crossed all three blocks, it’s strong enough to fight against. I’m in my room for only a few minutes when the lighting starts, then the rain. The Red Cross alarm app on my phone goes off, warning me that I’m about to experience severe thunderstorms. I peek out the window at the rain and wind, and I start to worry we’ll lose power.

I’m trying to go to sleep when I hear an incredible, loud bass noise. It’s a fast vibration, like someone running a jackhammer outside my door. I hop out of bed immediately, terrified of what’s going on. It’s the door to my room. The wind is so strong that it’s pushing against the door and causing it to shake ferociously against the frame. For the first time since I was seven I worry that the room I’m in can’t withstand the storm.

I take a wash cloth from the bathroom and shove it between the door and the frame. The noise stops and I can hear only the wind. I take a moment to settle back down. My worry serves no purpose. I’m in Ten Sleep, there’s no changing that. The storm is strong, and there’s no changing that either. I just have to get back to bed and hope nothing smashes through the window. I pull the covers over my head just in case, and fall asleep to the sound of howling.

The next morning the sky is clear and the ground is dry. I’ve become unaccustomed to the sudden changes in weather the rest of the country gets on a regular basis. On my way out of town I stop at the local bakery and order a breakfast sandwich. The bakery was recommended to me the night before by the hotel clerk. It is, after all, the only place that’s open for breakfast on Wednesdays.

Moonshine Gulch, Part Three

Snack BarA man walks into the Moonshine Gulch Saloon in bike shorts, and two friends quickly join him. I don’t know how long they’ve been riding, but I know Rochford isn’t near anywhere else so it must have been a while. All three men order a beer, which seems like a strange choice to me. I’m not a fan of beer anyway, but I can’t imagine having one in the middle of a long bike ride.

I sit and enjoy my Dr. Pepper as Betsy busies herself around the bar. The bicyclists have all opted to sit out front on the porch, but I think she still feels the need to get back to work now that she’s got more customers than just me. There’s a police scanner on in the background. I hear them say that a woman has been getting calls from a man in Deadwood. He’s claiming she owes him money on a car and is threatening to come down. She’s at the post office waiting to make a report.

Time passes and one by one the bicyclists come back inside, each ordering a second beer and returning to the porch. As Betsy gets their drinks I start to examine the wall behind the bar. In addition to being a saloon, Moonshine Gulch is something of a general store. At least, a general store for non-perishables. On one side there are tins of spam, bottles of ketchup, cans of fruit cocktail, and just-add-water chow mein. On the other side are snack-sized bags of chips and several rows of candy bars. There are sandwich bags full of in-shell peanuts that were clearly divvied up by Betsy herself. Of course you can also buy boxes of sandwich bags.

In addition to the food, the back of the bar is covered in pieces of paper spouting cliches and political opinions, like “Who you hang with in life is who you are,” and “I’ll keep my money, my freedom, and my guns and you can keep the CHANGE.” They’re the kind of thing the old man at the hardware store might repeat to you with a laugh. “We ain’t everybody’s cup of sunshine.” Maybe something you’d read in a chain email from 1998. “It’s not the edge of the world, but you can see it from here.” Nearly every phrase is hand-written, indicating these truisms are spouted nightly by the bar’s patrons.

A set of six bikers ride in from Minnesota. The first one walks up to the counter while the others are still removing their gear. He looks at the menu and the beers and decides to get an ice cream sandwich. Betsy walks around the front of the counter to get to the back room, and she emerges holding a single ice cream sandwich. As the first man pays two more enter. They see his sandwich and decide to order the same. Again Betsy walks around the counter to get to the back room, and comes out with two more sandwiches. Just as she’s arrived the last three bikers enter, and all opt for ice cream sandwiches. I am the only one who sees the humor as Betsy goes to the back room for a third time.

Everybody SmileThe bikers join the cyclists outside, and I say my goodbyes to Betsy. She tells me it’s a shame I couldn’t come by on a Sunday afternoon when people gather in town to play music. I tell her about Mountain View in Arkansas, where they play in the park every night. The bicyclists come back in briefly to order another round, and I walk out of the dingy darkness and into the bright South Dakota sun. I turn around to take a picture of the bar, and both sets of riders smile at me.

I recommend you stop by Moonshine Gulch when you have the chance, even if it’s not for many years. I imagine they’ll still be there. Like the scrap of paper says,

“Here today and probably tomorrow.”

Moonshine Gulch, Part Two

Betsy and the Mop GirlBetsy Harn is wearing three pairs of glasses. The frames on her face are pale pink, and propped up on her head are a set in dark, reddish brown. She has a third pair tucked into the front of her shirt. Her hair is curly and blonde, but turning equal parts grey and brown at the roots.

“Can I help you?” she asks, as though I must be lost. I tell her about the woman I met in Rapid City, and how she told me to visit Moonshine Gulch. Betsy is astonished.

“I didn’t know anyone told anyone to come here,” she says. “Well, what can I getcha?”

I order a Dr. Pepper so I’ll have a reason to hang around. I sit at the bar next to where Betsy has planted herself. The whole place is dark. It has that cold glow all bars have when the sun is bright outside. She gets my drink and we chat for awhile. She tells me she’s making some soup in the back for her own lunch, and asks if I’d like any. I suddenly realize it’s been hours since I’ve eaten, and I tell her I’d love some. As she’s getting the soup I notice that there are hundreds of baseball caps nailed to the ceiling directly above me, and a collection of dollar bills covering the ceiling a few feet away. The chandelier is made from an old wagon wheel, and there’s an upright piano in the corner. The walls are covered with photos and tin cans and leopard print bras. One side of the room has a fire place and the other side has a wood burning stove, though I can’t tell if they’re for use or for show. There’s an old border collie at my feet which is never acknowledged and never moves.

Dog in MoonshineBetsy comes out with my soup. Despite assuring me that it is just something she put together and not an item off the menu, she’s still dressed it up like a restaurant dish and added a side of crackers. The two of us sit together at the bar eating our soup while she runs through the phone book. Betsy has a property in Edgemont, a town 70 miles away. She recently got some squatters out of her building, but they broke a 6 ft window and she doesn’t think she can fix it herself. She’s going through the phone book and calling nearby towns, looking for someone who can handle a window that size. As I listen to her conversations I find out that the property is an old church, which she explains to people as being “across from the bar.” I flashback to my childhood vacations in Montana.

Betsy and I aren’t the only ones in Moonshine Gulch Saloon. There’s another woman who’s been moping the floor the entire time. She reminds me of Megan Cavanagh in A League of Their Own. She’s short, round, and quiet, with red hair pulled into a side braid. Her stature is slumped and her eyes are wide and beautiful. They’ve got that big, quiet brightness of eyes that don’t know their own worth.

“This mop’s about had it, Betsy,” she says, “I’m picking up strings.” She takes a few of the gray, old pieces of mop off the floor and sets them on the counter next to me. I finish my soup and Betsy still hasn’t found anyone who can replace a six foot window.

Piano in the Corner“It seems like there ought to be an easier way to look up businesses when you don’t know their name,” she sighs.

“I thought businesses in the phone book were already organized by type.” There’s uncertainty in my voice. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to use a phone book.

“Yeah, but not everyone can afford to be in the phone book,” she says. This is news to me.

Having given up on finding anyone for now, Betsy tells me more about life in Rochford. She says they get a lot of bikers driving through on day rides out of Sturgis. When they turn south out of town, the locals take bets on how long it will be before the riders come back, since the pavement ends just down the road. Betsy and her mop woman are the only two people I’ve seen in the last two hours, and I’m intrigued at the prospect of seeing other locals.

“How many people live in town?” I ask.

“In town? Nine,” she says, “And it’s three too many if you ask me.”

Moonshine Gulch, Part One

I’d only had a smart phone for two months before I left on my trip. I made the upgrade specifically to help with my travels, and it was a real lifesaver. After three months on the road, I had become confident in, and dependent on, my little iPhone to see me through the toughest times. It told me what to do in a thunderstorm and how long before the current traffic would break up. I could ask Siri where the nearest wifi was when I needed to stop and do some writing.

But there are still inhabited places in this country that no cell phone can reach. Case in point: Moonshine Gulch.

The recommendation had come from Barb, the friend of the mother of the girlfriend of my Couchsurfing host in Rapid City. She told me the wildflowers near Deerfield Lake were lovely, and that I should visit Moonshine Gulch. In hindsight I probably should have asked for specifics. For example, “What is Moonshine Gulch?” would have been a helpful inquiry. But in my mind I was sure it was a geographic feature, probably part of a state park.

Deerfield LakeI was about 20 minutes out of Hill City when the map on my phone stopped loading. I could still see the little dot representing where I was, but I could no longer zoom and I couldn’t pull up any new directions. I was smack dab in the center of Black Hills National Forest, and there was no signal. I managed to find Deerfield Lake without much trouble, mostly due to the fact that it sits right on Deerfield Road. After taking in the simple beauty of the lake, I pulled out my computer to look at the Google Maps screenshot I’d taken the day before. The screenshot was only meant to be a reminder of where to go next, not a replacement for real directions. It didn’t include any specific roads and was zoomed out too far to show details. I stared at the map on my computer, then at the roads leading away from the lake. Without directions on the computer or signs on the roads, all I had to go on was angle and proportion. I made a choice and started to drive. I made another choice and continued to follow the shape on the map. I ended up on a dirt road, which is my least favorite place to be when traveling alone. I kept going.

Rochford ChapelA half hour went by before I found pavement again. There were a couple of old houses and a lot of grass. By now I figured I had to be near my destination. I drove slowly past the houses, trying to find a sign that pointed to Moonshine Gulch. I turned the corner and came upon a spot where one road created a T-junction with another. There were about five buildings and it was the closest thing to a town I’d seen in miles. I saw a large sign on one of the buildings for the “Moonshine Gulch Saloon.” I figured I must be close to the gulch if there were businesses named after it. I started driving down one of the roads away from town and found a park. I figured it was the place I was looking for, but a brief exploration proved it was not. I went back towards town and took the only other road out. I passed by a chapel and not much else. I turned back.

Rochford AntlersIn the center of town there was a small building labeled the Rochford Mall, with the caption “The Small of America” on the side. I parked my car and walked up to it hoping for a friendly store owner, but the shop was closed. There didn’t seem to be anyone or anything around. The chapel sign had referred to Rochford as well, so I knew that’s where I had to be. I turned back to face the saloon again. It had the false front of an old-timey building and a soft drink machine on the porch with an outdated Dr. Pepper logo on it. A Miller Lite banner declared “Welcome Bikers.” I read the main sign again in my head: Moonshine Gulch Saloon.

This was the place I was looking for.

The Troll Capitol of the World

I’d like you to take a minute to consider the possibility of there being a Troll Capitol of the World. I’d like you to ask yourself where such a place might be, and why it might bear such a moniker.

While you’re considering that, I’d like you to also imagine the road out of Madison as it winds towards Dubuque. It’s a small highway cutting its way through the farmlands of Wisconsin. About 25 miles out there’s a point where highway 18 splits off from 151, becoming it’s own quiet main street. Before rejoining 151 a mere three miles later, it cuts a straight path through Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin: The Troll Capitol of the World.

Peddler TrollIt was late afternoon on a Sunday when I arrived at Mt. Horeb, and the Chamber of Commerce was expectedly closed. I took a picture of the female troll outside the Welcome Center. Two doors down I saw what looked to be a couple of shops with wood carvings out front. I took a few pictures of those trolls, too. I walked past the Peddler Troll to get to Open House Imports, the most Scandinavian store I’ve ever seen. There were clogs and viking paraphernalia and tiny figures of women with wreaths of candles on their heads. I saw a shirt that proclaimed “Leif Was First” and four shelves full of specialty beers and ciders. And of course there were the trolls – hundreds and hundreds of stuffed and ceramic and wooden and plastic trolls.

I picked up a postcard and stood in silence as the woman behind the counter rang me up. She had already handed me my change and told me to have a nice day when I finally managed to form the most polite version of the question I could.

“So, what’s with the trolls?”

Tooth Fairy TrollShe told me that traditionally trolls protect the farmland, and she gave some coded phrases to indicate that the area might have been settled by Norwegian emigrants. She gave me a magazine called “Southwest Wisconsin Uplands” and showed me the page with the “Trollway” map. The thoroughly not-to-scale map indicated ten official trolls, though I’d already seen several that we not officially marked. I thanked her and set out on my journey of troll discovery.

Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to live in one of these towns – one of these towns that has “a thing.” Mt. Horeb has trolls like Roswell has aliens. You see it everywhere. I found a tooth fairy troll in front of the dentist’s office, and a sign in the pub for the 11th Annual Thirty Troll Brew Fest. Does it ever become tiring? As a citizen, do you ever wish you could walk down the street without seeing a smiling but eerie face staring back at you? Do you ever wish you weren’t the Troll Capitol of the World?

Acordian Troll CloseupSuch questions go without answers in Mt. Horeb at 5PM on a Sunday. Everything was closed and few people were around. But if you ever find yourself on the way to Dubuque during regular business hours, do me a favor and stop by Mt. Horeb. Ask them if they like their trolls. Who knows, maybe they do. Or if they just keep them around for the sake of the kids, and the crops.