By Shawn Perich
We stopped at Smokey’s Place for dinner two nights in a row because we were in the vicinity, even though we drove nearly 20 miles to get there. The food was good, but that wasn’t the only reason we returned. When you are in the vicinity of Smokey’s Place, you’re a long way from anywhere else.
We were somewhere west of the 100th Meridian, in the land some call the Big Empty, where the grass is short, the sky is big and the Great Plains are sculpted with buttes and badlands. In places, you can find pheasants, which is what we were hunting. After a day outdoors, it felt good to sit down someplace warm and out of the wind. People have gone to Smokey’s Place to do just that for years and years.
Nailed to the wooden walls inside Smokey’s are dozens of wood placards etched with a cattle brand and the name of the ranch where it is used. Also on the wall are ancient mounts of deer and pronghorn, as well as an even more ancient bison skull. Looking around the room, you can’t help but wonder how long Smokey’s has been around.
We got a little history from the proprietor, a woman who took over the place from her father. It turns out Smokey’s first opened in a town that no longer exists. It was moved to the present location when the other town was flooded during the construction of a reservoir. She seemed less interested in the building’s history than its present and was trying to block a drafty door before the winter winds blew. We were her only customers, which was a little surprising even in the middle of nowhere.
“People don’t come out anymore,” she told us. “We used to have pool leagues and stuff going on. Now I have trouble getting them to come out once a week to play cards.”
It’s a common tavern keeper’s lament. These days, fewer people socialize by going out for dinner and drinks. Some are too busy with kids or other commitments. Some are counting calories and watching what they eat. And some are worried about getting pulled over by the police on their way home from the tavern. Her next customer was one of the latter, a local fellow who stopped in for a beer and some human company.
“It’s just me and the dog out at my place,” he said to no one in particular.
Soon enough, he was talking to us. We learned he was a commercial fisherman in Alaska, mostly working on a long liner for bottom fish.
“I’ve been everywhere from southeast Alaska to the tip of the Aleutian Islands,” he told us. “About the only thing I haven’t done in the last 30 years is fish for salmon in Bristol Bay.”
Our new found friend said in some years he was on the water from March to November on a boat that would catch more than a half-million pounds of bottom fish per season. When he wasn’t fishing, he came back to the Great Plains to “play at the farming game, driving tractors in big circles.” He also had a place in Yakima, Washington, but he didn’t like it there anymore.
“Washington has really gone downhill,” he said.
I asked if there was too much crime.
“No,” he replied, “too many immigrants and Democrats moving in.”
Our friend had spent his life in places where a man must be independent and as tough as nails just to survive. “Work hard, play hard,” isn’t a motto, but a way of life. For a guy like him, the kind of social changes that create the tavern keeper’s lament are especially difficult to accept.
“You just can’t do anything, even around here, without worrying about being pulled over,” he said.
While we didn’t go into specifics, we learned he had been ticketed for driving while under the influence. But he could remember a time when drinking and driving wasn’t the crime it has become.
“We used to run these highways late at night,” he said. “The old ranchers went to bed early and there wasn’t anyone on the road. We used to get out there in a ’69 Charger with a 440 and just go full out. We’d run a hundred miles. Hell, we’d run all the way to the Black Hills.”
He said they’d drive for miles without seeing another vehicle. When they saw the headlights of an oncoming vehicle, they’d slow down and play it safe. Then it was back to full out.
Growing up and living in northern Minnesota, I, too, knew the freedom of lonely places. But it fired my imagination to think about hurtling across the Big Empty in a powerful car with no destination other than the two-lane blacktop ahead of you. Talk about the freedom of the open road. But that was then and this is now.
“Times change,” I said.
“But not for the better,” he replied.
Perhaps he’s right. But old men have been nostalgic for their youthful good old days as long as there have been old men. In that respect, nothing has changed at all. Still, when you know from experience how it feels to go wide open, it’s easy to understand how someone like our friend feels a little less free these days.
As for me, I choose not to wallow in nostalgia like a dinosaur in a tar pit. The only way to deal with change is to land on your feet, keep moving forward and seek freedom wherever you can find it. I can pick up a shotgun and follow a bird dog across the Big Empty. The license in my pocket says I’m hunting pheasants. But out where the grass is short and the tumbleweeds blow, what I’m really after is something else.