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.