Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Re-Bound for Lost Springs (Pop. 4)

06/17/2011

julianne and button RK Hansen Author Julianne Couch earned this souvenir of Lost Springs, Wyoming, and plans to obey it later this month. It is hard to find anyone at home in Lost Springs, Wyoming.

I should know – I’ve tried, on several occasions. A few years ago my motive to visit Lost Springs was to hang out at the Lost Bar as part of my “research project” to visit and document some of Wyoming’s remote watering holes-cum community centers. The Lost Bar was on a route, more or less, between the Western Saloon in Glendo and the Bill Yacht Club in Bill (population somewhere between 5 and 10, depending on the railroad schedule).

If the name Lost Springs sounds familiar, it may be because the town made national news of late. The victim of an egregious misapplication of arithmetic, Lost Springs was credited in the 2000 census with a population of only one, instead of the actual count of four. Many passing motorists’ heads have swiveled at the Population One sign on moderately busy U.S. Highway 18/20. And as goes the head, so goes the car, bewitching travelers into taking pictures of each other standing in front of the sign. Once they’ve stopped, they can’t resist the allure of the Lost Bar, the Lost Springs Post Office & Antique Store, the inviting grassy town park complete with swing set, and the pleasant public restroom. 

My first visit to town was on the bar tour with my husband, part of a meandering Wyoming vacation. We were driving our light-duty SUV and had brought along our canoe, blue and wide, better suited to floating Glendo Reservoir than being strapped keel-up to the roof of our vehicle. But one can’t just shrink a canoe once its usefulness is temporarily on hold, so along with us it came over dry land, along the back roads of eastern Wyoming’s grasslands and ranch country.

Our first stop upon reaching Lost Springs was the grassy park (for our dog) and the public restroom (for ourselves). We took in the sight of the imposing, bright-white Lost Bar, deserted looking on this early weekday summer afternoon. We decided to kill a bit of time in case the bar was set to open later and made our way to the store, run by who we supposed at the time was the town’s one resident, Art Stringham.

We learned from him, to our great disappointment, that the proprietor of the Lost Bar, Leda Price, mostly kept the place open during hunting season. That was still months away, so we mentally booked another trip to this area of the state and set our caps for Bill.

We needed back-road directions to get there, not wanting to risk our blue canoe against the turbulence of semi-trucks on the highway. We showed Stringham our state map and our Wyoming topographic atlas, which presented contrary evidence about what roads went where and what they were called. He gave us directions for the best route to Bill, complete with local place names and lots of red-herring warnings (“You’ll see a big barn: don’t turn there!”).

Feeling confident of our route, we politely browsed through the antiques, mostly the sorts of thing we already have at home and wonder how to dispose of.

Then I felt the tug of an object I was meant to have and let the strong current of fate pull me to a low glass case of salt-and-pepper shaker sets. There among the dog and cat, the penguins, and the twin Eiffel towers sat a china shaker set that appeared to have been dropped off somebody’s kitchen table once too often. It wasn’t the condition of the set that mattered, though. For the shakers presented the journey of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, specifically, a 100th anniversary commemoration of the event, as marked by the Portland Recon of 1905. The pepper shaker depicted a long low building featuring arched doorways and flagged turrets. The salt shaker portrayed the two captains being guided to a sunlit Pacific Ocean by none other than the flag-draped spirit of Columbia.

lewis and clark S&P RK Hansen A find at the Lost Spring Post Office and Antiques Store: Commemorative salt and pepper shakers for the 100th anniversary of Lewis and Clark's Corp of Discovery.

When I saw those 100-year old shakers I knew they were worth every bit of the eight dollars being asked for them, at least to this Lewis-n-Clarky gal. Stringham, in an act of good will, threw in a free button, yellow with a faded red cardinal, imprinted with the words “Get Lost in Lost Springs.”

Not realizing we were in danger of joining the ecologically misplaced cardinal in doing just that, we headed out of town north on the literally named Twentymile Road. About ten miles of gravel later we met the first passing vehicle, a pickup truck headed toward us. We were expecting the back road custom of an index-finger lift off the steering wheel wave.  Instead, the man driving the pickup slowed down to stop and appeared to be suppressing a laugh as he cranked down his driver’s side window. He took us in, with our out of county plates, our toy SUV, and our oversized bottom-up canoe, and said as seriously as he could manage, “You folks looking for Glendo?” He must have thought us a little off course, since the lake was about thirty miles to our south, as the crow flies, and we were headed north.

“Oh no,” we assured him, “We’ve already been to Glendo. Now we’re headed to the Yacht Club at Bill!” Then we merrily rolled up the window and motored on, thanking him for his concern.

We might have been premature in convincing him that we weren’t lost, for it wasn’t long before Twentymile Road shot off in an uncharted direction and the looked-for turn was either too subtle or non-existent. Soon we found ourselves bobbing on the surface of a lightly traveled gravel road through beautiful but seemingly unpeopled ranch land. I rarely use the phrase “middle of nowhere” because I figure if I can get there, it can’t be that inaccessible. I muttered the phrase here, because it was the literal truth about our position somewhere near the Middle Fork of the East Fork of the West Fork of Piney Creek. In the words of Capt. William Clark, we proceeded on.
     
About an hour of meandering later we did finally arrive in Bill and had a dandy time at the Yacht Club, so named for its outdoor tableau of wrecked carnival-ride boats. Still, I had in the back of my mind to try to find a way to visit Lost Springs again, and get to see the interior of the Lost Bar. My husband and I had since published a book of his Wyoming bar photos, but only the exterior of the Lost Bar was included. Then last fall when I was on my way to visit some friends on their ranch at Sundance, I decided to make a detour to drop off a copy of the book for Leda Price. And bonus: it was hunting season.

lost springs bar RK Hansen The Lost Bar has been closed each time Couch has traveled to Lost Springs. Proprietor Leda Price is also the town's mayor.

I planned a route to take me past Lost Springs, not thinking that I should have called ahead to the bar, because after all, where was she going to go? But when I swung down the road to town, past the misleading population sign and over the railroad tracks, I could see that the bar looked, once again, deserted. I parked in front and wandered the grounds, checking the various doors and hoping with a little apologetic window-tapping I could rouse someone, if only to hand off a book to them. Nothing.

Except there across the street, in the town park where rested an RV with out of state plates, some men in overalls were gutting and skinning a deer carcass they’d suspended from a frame near the swing set. One of them approached, introduced himself as Billy Ray “B.R.” Jones, and apologized for not shaking my offered hand. He said he was a regular visitor to the Lost Springs area from Tullahoma, Tennessee, spending a few weeks each year hunting, sleeping in his motor home, and socializing of an evening with Leda and the other visitors to the Lost Bar.

Billy Ray jones Courtesy of Billy Ray Jones Billy Ray Jones, a Tennessean who hunts annually near Lost Springs, took time out from deer skinning to give directions. Just now, he explained, Leda had gone into town and he wasn’t sure what time she’d return. But lucky for me, he had been entrusted with the whereabouts of a key to an outbuilding Leda used as a spare kitchen for her catering business. He let me in, and I wrote Leda a short note to accompany the book about Wyoming bars, hers included.
   
B.R. and I exchanged some more pleasantries and email addresses, and he promised to send me off a few photos of the bar interior. Those photos arrived in my email a few weeks later. As I look for them now to jog my memory about this encounter, they are unbelievably or perhaps predictably, lost. I never heard back from Leda, either, although I left my phone number on the note.

I don’t fault her for not calling. As mayor of Lost Springs, she was no doubt busy trying to correct what had all along been a bureaucratic error. Lost Springs has had four residents for many years, she recently told a reporter with the Casper Star-Tribune. Somehow the three people on the west side of the street had been overlooked, she speculated. At any rate, the town won’t be getting a whole new road sign noting the correct population -- just be getting a sort of aluminum patch to apply over the wrong number.

I hope I can swing back by toward the end of May, when the town commences its centennial celebration, and take some pictures of my own. Maybe this time I’ll call ahead.

Julianne Couch of Laramie, Wyoming, is the author of Jukeboxes & Jackalopes: A Wyoming Bar Journey. She'll be moving to eastern Iowa this summer, but not before visiting Lost Springs one more time.