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The storms blow in from the northwest at the State Line Cafe, a timeworn diner that since 1928 has stood like a sentry on the Colorado-Wyoming border. When the blizzards hit, it doesn't take long for the lone Wyoming state patrolman assigned to U.S. Highway 287 to come down and shut the gate to the Cowboy State, leaving travelers no place to go but into Dave Durst's parking lot.
They've been coming for years to the State Line, and not just to get in from the cold. During its heyday in the 1940s, the isolated roadhouse jumped to the beat of a live hillbilly band and lured cowhands and railroad workers with illicit slot machines concealed by a sliding panel. The cook had an incentive to make the best homemade pies for miles around: She used the baking proceeds for gambling money. For a time the State Line even served as the telephone exchange for ranchers who run cattle in the hill country northwest of Fort Collins; in between setting up bottles of beer, a bartender would put callers through to "central."
In the years since, the cafe has remained a popular pit stop for the long-haul truckers who use Route 287 as a shortcut from Denver to Salt Lake City. Its operators have played the role of Good Samaritan to dozens of stranded travelers. But thanks to recent roadwork that raised the highway and eliminated parking on the shoulder, fewer and fewer truck drivers make the stop these days. The snug dining room that once bustled with activity now sits empty for hours at a time. Proprietor Durst and his longtime manager, Jackie Gibson--"Mom" to the handful of truckers who still pull in--are left alone with their memories. And the State Line is nearing the end of the line.
Built before the art-deco craze of the 1930s, the State Line Cafe lacks the streamlined contours of the classic highway diner. More than anything, it looks like a house, plunked down incongruously by the side of the road.
Dave Durst bought the place in 1990 and enjoyed four years of relative peace and prosperity before the highway departments of Colorado and Wyoming got around to a construction project they'd been putting off since 1958. After finally agreeing on how to do the job, engineers straightened a dead man's curve that had plagued motorists for decades and caused truckers to spill loads of everything from live cattle to watermelons. The project has likely saved lives. But it's killing the State Line, which once stood at road level but now finds itself six feet under and accessible only by a sharp turn. "We used to get a lot of faithful truckers," says Durst. "Now we get maybe one a week."
The 66-year-old Durst pulls out a petition bearing the signatures of 174 customers, most of them truckers ticked off about the barbed-wire fence the highway department put up along the shoulder last year. Erected to protect grass seedlings the state had planted, the structure effectively prevents drivers from stopping by the side of the road and walking over to the cafe, as they have for years. "We quit having people sign [the petition] because we were getting so damn many of 'em," says Durst.
For the last two years, Durst has waged a running feud with the Colorado Department of Transportation's local road crew. "You could talk to people all up and down the highway," he complains, "and wouldn't one of them say a bad thing against us except those clowns running the road."
The highway department's crew boss won't even drink coffee at the State Line anymore. "I don't go in there, because Dave is not friendly and neither is his waitstaff," says Dutch Siefken, the man who put up the barbed-wire fence and recently raised Jackie Gibson's suspicions when he was spotted out on the road taking mysterious readings with a tape measure.
Says Durst of Siefken, "He's obsessed with this stupid situation." Responds Siefken, "I don't think it's on our part, I think it's on their part."
In a January letter to Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton, Durst accused the state of "intimidation and harassment" for putting up the fence. He also insisted that his property line extends sixteen feet into the middle of Route 287. "I am a Four Year Veteran and a law-abiding Tax Paying American Citizen," wrote Durst. "I should have some rights." The state denied both claims.
Doug Rames, regional transportation director in the highway department's Greeley office, acknowledges that last year's road construction cut off what was formerly "wide open" access to Durst's business. But, he says, "our primary concern is highway safety. Access to property is secondary." His department's dealings with Durst, adds Rames, have been "a long, ongoing discussion."
Things weren't always so testy between the state and the State Line. In December 1992 a senior highway-maintenance supervisor wrote a letter to Dave's daughter Janette, who briefly managed the restaurant and whose hand-drawn Betty Boop caricatures and chicken-and-dumpling soup are still missed by the truckers. ("The boys like it because I don't serve a wimpy bowl of soup," she said at the time.) In his letter, John F. Springer Jr. thanked the Dursts for notifying the highway department of dangerous winter weather conditions at the border crossing, which stands at 7,200 feet. "I am very sure you have been a major contributor to saving many lives," he wrote.