An American Sunday

June 19, 2005

Riverton, Wyoming, is the largest town in the Wind River Valley, with a population just under 10,000. That makes it about the size of New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. But New Cumberland, which has a history as an independent small town, is separated from other small communities only by municipal boundaries that many people are not even aware of. One suburb of the capital city just flows into another. Riverton, on the other hand, stands alone, its nearest neighbors reached only by traversing miles of open country.

The guidebook was right about Riverton. Its commercial strip is unattractive, but then, so is every other town’s. At the Trailhead Family Restaurant  on Federal Boulevard I seemed to be the only customer in a sedan. Everyone else had a pickup truck or an SUV. (Gun racks and dogs, however, were not in evidence.)

I bought a copy of the local newspaper. The big story was about a man who had driven a stolen pickup at high speed into the Midvale Store, a popular general store and bar/gathering place about fifteen miles west of Riverton. Fortunately it was not a busy night, and the two patrons who had been sitting in the impact area escaped injury because they’d both gotten up to use the bathroom. The pickup plowed through the cement block wall of the bar (“the pool table must have slowed it down or something”), killing the driver, who had been eluding police.

It’s exactly the kind of story that feeds a fiction writer’s imagination. I saved that part of the paper and went to church.

St. John Lutheran Church is a small A-frame structure in a residential area well away from the commercial strip. The parking lot has two signs: “ENTER to worship” and “EXIT to serve.” It’s a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the same body my congregation at home belongs to, so I knew I would find the rituals and the underlying belief systems familiar.

It seems that I frequently arrive as a visitor to a congregation on some special day. This day turned out to feature the installation of the new pastor. They’ve been without a regular pastor for nearly five years. It’s a small congregation, less than one third the size of mine (and we’re still considered a small congregation). Their financial situation and their remote location had made it difficult to attract candidates. The newly-ordained, saddled with debt, need a larger income. More experienced pastors often have young families or spouses with established careers that make it hard to relocate.

But after a long process that tested the members’ faith and patience, they were finally able to call the Reverend Michael Johnson, a second career pastor (he’d been a pharmaceutical company executive) who had served congregations in Ohio and California and who was looking for a new challenge. He was willing to relocate to Riverton with his wife Joy and her mother.

In such a small congregation every new face is instantly noticed. Many people introduced themselves to me, and one woman urged me to stay for the “carry-in” dinner that was being set up to welcome the new pastor. That is exactly what we would have done in my home congregation, and the invitation would be sincere, so I decided to accept the offer.

I was there more than two hours. One woman introduced me to two others, both teachers, and the four of us spent most of the time talking about our careers, our families, the paths that had led us to Wyoming. I left feeling as if I had been in my own fellowship hall at home.

Afterward I drove north to the town of Shoshoni. The guidebook recommended a stop at the Yellowstone Drug Store for one of their famous malts or shakes.

To get to Shoshoni you have to drive through some territory with names that don’t evoke fabulous adventures in horse country – Badwater Creek, Poison Creek, Tough Creek. The land looks barren, with huge rock walls rising above the roadway. Travel through Wyoming is a lesson in natural history. The landscape is raw and new, geologically speaking. The Boysen Reservoir was created in 1951 to provide irrigation water to 100,000 acres of the Bighorn Basin. The Wind River flows north until it meets the dam, where it spreads into an enormous lake. It looks a lot like the Blue Marsh Lake area in Pennsylvania’s Berks County, created the same way and for the same purpose. Blue Marsh is a place I visit often, and I was thinking that when you’ve seen one dammed reservoir you’ve seen them all. Then I turned around and saw a slash of reddish rock 200 million years old towering over me.

The town of Shoshoni has a population of 497, and I think all of them were in the Yellowstone Drug Store when I visited. A relic of the 1950s, it was very much like Deibler’s at Sixth and Seneca, where my friends and I enjoyed five cent Cokes (an extra penny for a shot of lemon) served in paper cones dropped into metal holders. The Yellowstone still has a “Come on in, it’s KOOL inside” sign on the door. The mirror above the soda fountain reflects wooden apothecary cabinets. If you don’t want to sit on the blue vinyl-covered stools along the counter, you can chose a chair with a heart-shaped wrought iron back at a glass topped table.

Malts and milkshakes are the sepcialty of the house. A sign proclaims “In 2001 we dipped 15,339 gallons of ice cream. One Day Record, 5-29-00, 727 shakes and malts. As of 6/18/05, 20,241 shakes served since 1994.”

I ordered the special, a cheeseburger and fries with a vanilla shake. It came in a red plastic basket and bore no resemblance to the mass-produced fare offered at McDonald’s or Wendy’s. It was real American food prepared and served by small-town American teenagers wearing white paper hats and ice cream-stained aprons. It was delicious.

Before I left I used the bathroom, reached through a door into what appeared to be a storage area. As soon as I walked in an odor hit me that took me back fifty years — Judy Krueger’s basement. The block of houses I lived in on Fifth Street were all built over dirt basements. The walls were covered with plaster, but the area under the porches was left bare. These basements exuded an earthy aroma that was not unpleasant but which I seldom encounter these days. The proprietor of the Yellowstone explained that the building uses a swamp cooler (a device which forces air across wet pads of cedar shavings or cellulose), and that, combined with the dirt basement over which that portion of the building rests, produces the odor.

In his remarks at the pastor’s installation, the bishop talked about the ordeal of change. The process of calling a new pastor had required the members to give up some long-held attitudes and step with confidence into something new. And even though the new pastor had sought a change, uprooting himself and his family to move a thousand miles was still a profound experience of change.

I think that one reason I dreamed about this trip and talked about this trip for so long before actually undertaking it was that to actually do it would mean that I would no longer have it in my future. It would be a memory, and I would have to find another dream to pursue.

The visit to the Yellowstone Drug Store had taken me back to the time in my life when the desire to know Wyoming first hand was born. I’m standing at the doorway of something new. What that is remains to be seen.

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