Parted in the Center

Meet Punkin Center's hair apparent.

Somewhere between the anecdote about wiring the Christmas tree to the wall when her son was a baby ("And he still knocked that hummer down!") and the advice about properly styling a perm ("You can comb it through a dozen times and still find a snarl part"), Joni Chester has an epiphany.

"You know what?" she says, waving a comb at two ladies in swivel chairs. "I think I might have a stress fracture."

"Is that right?"

"Yeah. Last night, my leg was hurting so bad I told my husband, 'I wonder if I don't have a stress fracture?'"

"Is that right?"

"Yeah. The doctors say you're not supposed to have pain from a torn ACL, only the soft tissue around it, but the bone hurts in my lower leg. And it won't go away."

"Maybe you should see that doctor in California."

"You mean like Terrell Davis?"

"Yeah. Like T.D."

"Haw!"

Out here on the plains of southeastern Colorado, Joni often has epiphanies. Particularly if they involve the Broncos. "Or fishing," she says. "That's our other passion." When you live and work in a place named after a big orange gourd out "in the middle of nowhere," she explains, you tend to develop "a weird sense of humor."

But she's not complaining. Nor are the ladies in the swivel chairs. Joni's epiphanies provide entertainment while they're getting perms, shampoos or haircuts. Besides, they couldn't complain if they wanted to. Once Joni gets going, it's hard to get a word in.

"I've think I've hit a plateau," Joni continues. "I go back to the doctor on the 14th. Hopefully, he'll wave a magic wand and say, 'Okay. You're done. Run along, child.' But since I'm older than he is, he'll probably say, 'Run along, old lady.'''

"They do seem to be getting younger," the ladies concur.

"And the older I get, the younger they get!"

"Haw!"

Three days a week, from 9 a.m. until "whenever I'm done," Joni runs the Hair Station at Punkin Center, a one-room salon in a four-person outpost at the intersection of highways 71 and 94, 120 miles from Denver -- a part of the state better known for branding irons than curling irons. Joni is 46 years old, a mother of five, grandmother of twelve and great-grandmother of one. She has fluffy brown hair, a nice smile and remnants of a Minnesota accent. On this morning, she's wearing black sandals, black tights, a black turtleneck, a red sweater and a knee brace.

On Labor Day -- "laborious day" -- she tore her left anterior cruciate ligament playing volleyball. "I thought I was younger than I really was," she says. The injury forced her to close the salon for seven weeks, sending her regulars scrambling for appointments miles away. But now, thanks to pain pills, physical therapy and an assistant named Connie, Joni is working her way back to her peak of twelve haircuts per day.

"B.K. -- Before the Knee -- people had to book four weeks in advance," Joni says. "Now, I'm down to six cuts a day. And I still can't do perms. But I'm getting there."

"If Terrell can do it," one of the ladies says, "so can she."


Punkin Center was once known as Prairie Dream, although no one can remember why. Then in 1929, a pioneering businessman named Sears Stevens bought four scrubby acres at the intersection of two dirt roads, where he proceeded to build a general store, a gas station and a few cabins. Stevens, who owned another garage nine miles west, got a deal on orange paint that he slathered across his new complex. When his daughter stopped by for a visit, she remarked, "It looks just like a big punkin!"

The name stuck -- colloquial spelling and all -- and Punkin Center became an oasis for Dust Bowl refugees headed west along the old Farmer's Highway. But the outpost, seventeen miles from Karval, the nearest town, was also a target during those desperate times. Howard Stevens, who ran the store for his brother, was robbed, beaten and shot several times. And in August 1941, the 67-year-old bachelor was finally killed by two ex-cons from La Junta, Frank Madill and Alfred Madson, looking for an easy score ("Hard Time," October 5).

After Howard's murder, the Stevens family sold the compound, which later burned down, was resurrected as a dog kennel, changed hands several times and rebounded in the '70s as a service station and cafe. Again a haven for travelers, Punkin Center housed fifty people during the Christmas Eve blizzard of 1982 and 49 more during the Thanksgiving 1984 storm.

From time to time, Joni and her husband, Larry, would stop by for gas, pie, coffee and "the whole shooting match," she remembers. Larry ran an auto-repair shop in Kiowa; she styled hair at a Parker salon called Hairphernalia. Every other weekend, they'd head east to Larry's favorite fishing hole near Karval, where he'd sit for twelve hours waiting to haul out rainbow trout, and Joni would just wait. On the way home, they'd pass the crossroads cafe, prompting Larry to declare, "One day, I'm going to own Punkin Center." To which Joni always replied, "Well, you'll be alone. I'm not going there."

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