Parted in the Center
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."
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!"
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."
Joni is a people person, and she didn't think she could handle the isolation of Punkin Center. Although it was only an hour and ten minutes from Kiowa, it might as well have been Siberia. But Larry was insistent: He was approaching retirement, and he wanted to spend that retirement in the country. So they asked how much Punkin Center's owners might want for the cafe complex and seventeen acres of land surrounding it.
"We looked at the price and thought, 'There's got to be a mistake,'" Joni recalls. "If you added a couple of zeros, it might have made more sense. We just couldn't believe it."
They couldn't ignore it, either. In October 1995, the Chesters became the proud owners of Punkin Center. They transformed part of the complex into a two-bedroom home with flowerpots out front, fancy gravel in the yard and a picnic area on the side. In what had been a storage room, they installed two large mirrors, a small sink, a tiny bathroom and an assortment of shelves and cubbyholes. The plan was for Joni to open a salon and Larry to run the service station for a few more years, then settle down to do whatever Larry does.
"He's a retired fat guy," Joni explains. "But don't write that because he'll want to read this and then I'll have to blind him."
"But he's a cute fat guy," adds one of the ladies.
"And he does keep busy," adds another.
"Yes," Joni admits. "I don't know what he does, but he's busy doing it."
At any rate, the couple was ready to launch their new business. All they needed was a name. Joni preferred something catchy like "The Hair Up There" ("You know, like, 'The air up there?'''), but Larry wanted something practical that mentioned the location. And so, on August 1, 1996, a new sign sprouted at the northwest corner of the intersection of highways 71 and 94: "The Hair Station at Punkin Center: Excellance in Family Hair Care."
"My boo boo," Joni says of the misspelling. "Forgot the 'e.'"
She printed a hundred fliers offering $8 haircuts for men and $10 haircuts for women, then sat back and watched motorists slow down and gawk. On the first day, they slowed but didn't stop, and Joni wondered if she'd made a "really huge boo-boo." But the next day, four cars pulled in. Today, Joni has more than 220 regulars: Workmen who get haircuts every six months whether they need them or not, 91-year-old widows who visit each week for a shampoo and set, seven-year-old boys who want extra "man stuff" gel.
"Some days, it seems like the whole world drops by," she says.
Cherry Stogsdill used to get her hair done in Karval, which boasts a population of seventy, "including the dogs." But she switched to the Hair Station after a warning from the "neck patrol." Cherry plays the organ in church every Sunday, sitting directly in front of her mother, who saw that Cherry's hair wasn't evenly cut at the neckline.
"She and her friends conferred about it quite a bit," Cherry recalls. "I never realized it was that bad, but they decided I'd better call Joni. But I don't think the woman in Karval would appreciate reading that in the newspaper."
"Want me to send her a copy?" Joni offers.
Joni and her straight necklines helped put Punkin Center on the map. In fact, it was even featured this past Thanksgiving on Good Morning America's weather report.
"I looked up and there it was," recalls one of the ladies. "Punkin Center: 35 degrees. But they spelled it wrong. They always spell it wrong."
Even so, word of mouth keeps the clients coming. A few years ago, that word had spread as far south as Alamosa, where a flamboyant art teacher booked an appointment.
"When he left a message on my machine, I almost didn't call him back," Joni recalls. "There was loud classical music in the background. And he spoke poetry, like, 'Is this Little Salon du Prairie?' But he drove all the way up here. After I finished, he held up the mirror and said, "I loooove it. I just loooove it.'"
And they loooove it, Joni says, because she gives customers what they want. If they're after a cut and a shampoo, they get a cut and a shampoo. If they bring a magazine clipping, she'll do her best to match it. And if they want a blue streak down the side, she'll give them that, too.
"How about it?" she asks a blond basketball player. "How about a little blue streak so you can have the school colors? Blue and gold?"
"I don't think so," he says. "Just do it so it sticks up in the front."
"Okay. I'll do it so it sticks up in the front. Just let me get the Elmer's. But when you're playing ball, don't put your head up or you'll put someone's eye out."
Joni keeps up with the current styles. She travels to hair shows, reads trade magazines and gives her customers regular reports from New York and Los Angeles. "The big thing is the shag and the Afro," she says. "In Punkin Center? I don't think so."
Like the fashions, the pace in Punkin Center is more serene. Excitement comes in the form of the occasional car accident: "We've had tons," Joni says. "I've been out in the ditch quite a few times holding heads in my hands. Sometimes you just sit here and watch semis catching air." Or power outages: "Once, the power went off for an hour and a half, and I had just wrapped a perm on a client," Joni recalls. "And I told her, 'If the water doesn't come on soon, we're in trouble. But then again, there's always water in the toilet.'" Or personal tragedies: "Never, ever talk to a hairdresser about her divorce when she's cutting your hair," warns Joni, who recently made that mistake with her own stylist.
Clients enjoy their Hair Station sessions so much that some got miffed when Joni added a second chair and an assistant to help handle appointments after her knee surgery.
"They liked it when it was just them and me," Joni explains. "They could come in here and tell me anything, and no one else would hear. And I've heard some juicy secrets, I'll tell you what. But I try not to spread gossip. I really do. It's just that I'm emotionally attached to my clients. I care about them. I really do."
And they care about her, too. When Joni "crashed and burned" with the ACL tear, she received a stack of get-well cards that touches her heart. Still, there are some days when it's just Joni and her blow-dryer, with nothing to do but watch the semis catch air.
"I hate it when it's quiet," she admits. "And believe it or not, sometimes I run out of things to say." But give her a few minutes, Joni adds: "I'll think of something."
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