ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD
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.
Durst and Gibson talk matter-of-factly about the people they've patched up and kept warm while waiting for the ambulance to make the drive from Fort Collins or Laramie. One winter morning Gibson interrupted preparations for the breakfast rush to wash the blood off a woman whose boyfriend had rolled the couple's car north of the cafe. Another time Durst summoned the Flight for Life helicopter to aid an injured motorcyclist. At least twice, he says, "people would have died if not for the place."
Colorado State Trooper Bill Elder has patrolled the distant stretches of Route 287 for 24 years. He knows the State Line well. "I've been known to go in there at 3 a.m. and get 'em out of bed to warm people up a little if they've been in a crash," says Elder. "If the road is closed, the truckers go in there and wait out the storms. And usually when there's a storm, they just kind of stay open."
In the winter months, from her vantage point behind the lunch counter, the 57-year-old Gibson listens to the truckers chatter on her CB radio and watches the cars slide off the road. She and Durst have loaned their vehicles to complete strangers to help them get to town, and they've served free meals to people down on their luck. In November 1993 they laid out an impromptu Thanksgiving spread for travelers waylaid by a holiday snowstorm. "Bless you for your hospitality today," a woman from Geneva, Nebraska, wrote in Gibson's dog-eared guest register that day. "Thank heaven for this place."
Once Durst loaned a woman an oil cap so she could make it to Laramie, 27 windswept miles to the north. When she got there, she cleaned up the cap and mailed it back. "We never got ripped off very much," says Durst. "And we never ripped anybody off."
Just north of the State Line, a historical marker commemorates the spot where the Overland Stage Line crossed into Wyoming "on its way to the West." Durst is under no obligation to maintain the monument, erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1917. But he mows the grass and pulls the weeds anyway. He figures it may help business.
It has never been easy attending to travelers in the punishing country between Fort Collins and Laramie. Joseph Slade, the division manager on the old stage route, got his job by kidnapping and slaying his predecessor and reportedly entertained himself during the long winters by shooting canned goods off the grocery shelves. Scratching out a living by the highwayside has remained a risky proposition ever since.
The Virginia Dale post office and cafe, five miles south, once competed with the State Line. Today it's boarded up. Over the years dozens of businesses have tried and failed on the Colorado side of the line. But through it all, the State Line Cafe has endured, passing between a series of owners (one of whom painted it purple with black spots for a brief time) but never succumbing to the economic elements.
The cafe's original proprietor was Jim George, a West Virginia native who in the late 1920s built the business from a tiny Conoco "oil room" into a community gathering place. He did it largely by telling stories. "He had an old beaver tail, and people would ask him what it was," remembers Robert Boyd, the foreman at Colorado State University's local Maxwell Ranch. "He'd tell 'em that when he was younger, he and the other guys would get on their horses and chase a buffalo around until its tongue was hanging out. Then they'd step on it and yank it off. The tourists would just gobble it up."
George, who also got a lot of mileage out of a bear's foot he kept chained to a steel pole, tried ranching, barbering and running a pool hall in the town of Niwot before settling in at the cafe. He was convinced that any business located on a state line would thrive. And for years, recalls his daughter, Waldene George, the State Line Cafe did.
"If you ever see movies about how people partied back then, they're true," says George, now an insurance agent in Hudson, New York. "I'll tell you, those ranchers just really enjoyed themselves."
The 58-year-old George remembers popping the tops off beer bottles for her father during the Saturday night dances that were a staple at the State Line through the 1940s and 1950s. The entertainment was provided by the Woosters, a "Jed Clampett kind of family" of banjo-and-guitar pickers who lived eight miles north, near the railroad town of Tie Siding, Wyoming. "When I'd go over there with my dad to see if they'd play for the dance, they had goats, and the goats lived in their cars," she says. "It was kind of an interesting thing, because if they had to play for dances, they had to remove those goats."
Jim George also wooed customers with a pair of slot machines built into the wall of the dance hall, an arrangement that was tolerated by the state troopers of the day. "When one of the patrolmen from Colorado would pull up, he'd toot the horn and take his time about parking," recalls Boyd. "The Wyoming side would do about the same." If a customer was feeding the one-armed bandits when the troopers arrived, says Boyd, "old Jim, he'd go back in and say, `I have to close you down for a little bit.' He had a board that would come down and hide it."
Then, as now, the troopers spent most of their time mopping up after traffic accidents. And the breakneck curve that swung down out of Wyoming inadvertently led to the creation of what may have been the State Line's most exotic conversation piece. After an Indian man from Tie Siding lost control of his car on the curve and plowed through Jim George's front window one morning, the proprietor allowed him to work off the damage by painting a series of wildlife murals around the inside of the dance hall. The folk art disappeared after her father sold the place, says Waldene George, who assumes the beer-glass menagerie remains buried under several coats of paint in what is now Dave Durst's dining room.
The State Line's other hidden treasure is a little easier to find. Around the corner from a buffalo head sits a primitive AT&T telephone switchboard, still in place though long since disconnected. "We were the local connection for the ranchers," says Waldene George--and, even then, a lifeline for the truckers. Drivers on their way to Salt Lake and Great Falls stopped in for beer, burgers and homemade pie. The profits from the latter provided betting money for Waldene's mother (maiden name: Walden) during the family's gambling jaunts to Las Vegas.
"The truckers were wonderful," says Waldene. "One year we were snowed in with about fifteen or twenty people, and [the storm] lasted for a good many days. We were just about to run out of food and a lady was just about to have a baby when some trucker got through with supplies."
When Jim George died in 1960, the memorial service held for him at the First United Presbyterian Church in Fort Collins was "probably the biggest funeral I was ever at," recalls Robert Boyd. The church hall was standing room only, and George's casket was borne by three Wyoming state troopers and three Colorado state troopers in full dress uniform. Says Boyd, "It was the prettiest bunch of pallbearers I've ever seen."
Like Jim George, Dave Durst took an indirect route to the State Line. A divorce with eight children, he came to Colorado from Minnesota in 1972 and bought into the Spencer Heights Resort, "the first place up over the pass" along the scenic Cache la Poudre River. After he and business partner Betty Van Amburg sold their small resort as part of a U.S. Forest Service land swap, they bought the State Line and set about restoring it to its former glory.
The owner at the time was a logger who kept the cafe open only intermittently and used the parking lot as a graveyard for cannibalized vehicles. "If you ran him through the car wash, he would have still looked dirty," says Durst of his predecessor. Durst gave the State Line its seventh remodeling since its inception, adding a new kitchen and bathrooms and turning Jim George's old barroom into a gift shop. He later bought out Van Amburg and kept Gibson, an area native who had also worked for the pair at Spencer Heights, as his waitress and manager.
Gibson's Dutch apple pie and chocolate cake brought back the truckers, and business was good until the roadwork slowed it to a trickle last year. Now, says rancher Keith Walden, one of the few loyal customers left, "you drive by and there's nobody there. Before, it seemed like they always had customers in the restaurant."
At the State Line, the homemade chili goes for $1.95 and a Sloppy Joe costs $2.50. The Navajo blankets in the corner are on sale for $11.75. They haven't been moving lately; neither have the tree-stump statues Durst buys from a local craftsman who carves them with a chainsaw. "The truck drivers used to buy them for gifts," Durst says. "Of course, sales of that went `pffftt.'"
Gibson, who lives in an apartment off the kitchen, keeps the cafe open every day except Tuesdays, when she goes for groceries. The slot machines were long ago removed from Jim George's hardwood dance floor, but the room has lost none of its charm. The five tables are covered with red-and-white-checkered tablecloths. Fresh-baked muffins sit on the counter across from the "Free Maps" sign, and an old Schaefer freezer advertises "Schwan's Delicious Ice Cream." And outside the bay window, trucks keep roaring by, grinding their way up into Wyoming.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Gibson's lunch rush consists of a tight-lipped businessman from Laramie who tells Durst he almost missed the turn coming in. "It's got atmosphere," he says of the place before leaving. Durst watches the day's sole customer pull back onto the highway. "When you're remote like this, you don't get a noon rush or a breakfast rush," he says. "It's staggered. And now it's really staggered."
Robert Boyd says he still comes by in the summertime, "when we have cattle up that way." He and Gibson always seem to have some catching up to do. "I've known Jackie for years," says the rancher. "And I'm just acquainted with the place."
But the State Line may not be around when Boyd starts running cows again next spring. The cafe and the ten-acre parcel on which it sits have been for sale for six months now, asking price $180,000. "There's been some interest, but nobody wants it without a second driveway," says Durst, who finagled a permit for a second entrance but gave up on building it when the state insisted he put in a culvert at his own expense--and then told him he might have to close the new driveway if it generated too much traffic flow.
Frustrated by the lack of interest, Durst says he has decided to put the State Line up for sale at public auction on October 20. It would make a good home for someone, says Durst. If the state had any sense, he adds, it could buy it for a year-round rest stop and tourist information center.
Gibson, who hasn't drawn a salary for months, says she doesn't know where she'll go if the State Line shuts down. The Conoco minimart 25 miles south has offered her a job, and the wife of the Wyoming state trooper who patrols the highway has offered her a room in the couple's Laramie home. Either way, she says, it won't be the same. Durst is spending most of his time in the farming town of Ault, where he's working on his latest restoration project, a historic hotel he plans to convert to apartments. "After this happened out here," he says, pointing to the realigned road, "I lost all interest in this place."
One of the people who initially considered buying the State Line was Waldene George, whose daughter now lives in Laporte. But in the end, George opted against it. "It's just probably the wrong time of my life to do that," she says. "It's too far away if you fell over and got hurt. But I would love to do it. I think I could run it the way my dad used to."
Truckers will miss the place in the winter if it does close, says State Trooper Elder. "But I don't see it being the end of the world to anybody," he adds. The Colorado State Patrol is careful these days to coordinate road closures with its Wyoming counterpart so travelers don't get stuck up at the state line, Elder says. If the State Line disappears, says the trooper, most people won't even know it's gone.
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