Close Encounters with a Devil, a Cowboy and a Sheriff

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Day Eight and Nine

On day eight about mid morning, I left Sturgis in my rear view mirror and headed back to I-90  towards the last point of South Dakota’s golden triangle: Spearfish.

For the pass three days, I had shared roadways, sidewalks and sleeping space surrounded by thousands of people and bikes.  And on that day, I expected more of the same as I drove to my final stop in South Dakota. But to my surprise, only a handful of people were roaming the streets of downtown Spearfish, causing me to ease off the gas pedal, roll down my windows and soak in the quiet beauty of its quaint storefronts and hanging flower baskets lined streets.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to explore. Maybe another trip. Reservations and deadlines forced my return to the interstate, so I could make my way to cowboy country. Better known as our 44th state of the union: Wyoming, our least populous state. Home to the Continental Divide, Yellowstone and the Grand Teton Mountain Range.Oh, add to the list: Devil’s Tower. Okay, confession time, prior to this road trip, I really didn’t know a lot about Wyoming or this national monument. A group of riders at Buffalo Chip shared that it was a short detour off I-90 and would be worth my time. On both accounts, they were right. Thirty minutes off the interstate,  I got my first view of this igneous rock jutting out like a ‘sore thumb’ in the middle of sloping hills and a circle of evergreens.

 

I followed behind a steady line of bikers, cars and campers to a dirt parking lot just outside the visitor’s center to snag one of the few open spaces. While in the gift shop, looking for the official N.P. (National Park) passport station, I noticed the over abundance of alien souvenirs lining its walls and aisles. There was even a life-size alien standing guard at the check out counter.

 

Only after reading a park pamphlet did I get the connection with aliens, the tower and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounter of the Third Kind.  What can I say, treasure hunting and Indiana Jones are more my thing.

With my passport stamp secured, I crossed over the blacktop road cut between the park office and the path leading to the tower’s base.  Even without aliens, it’s hard to dismiss this amazing piece of rock with its deep lined “bear claw” markings.  While walking around its base, I had the good fortune of sharing the trail with a couple from Louisiana.  As we hiked we shared a few laughs about the craziness of Sturgis and the beauty of the west.

Later in the parking lot, alone and hot, I popped up the back of hatch of my car to take a rest and eat a quick snack. While I munched on a pack of crackers, I watched an oversize SUV with a black front bumper tag proclaiming in white cursive lettering “Shaggers”, squeeze itself into the parking space next to me. For those of you who maybe Anglophiles, I’m not talking about that kind of shagging. This vehicle was loaded with  dancers who like to shuffle their feet to Carolina beach music. In a brief conversation with the four Alabamians, they shared that they were annual attendees of shagging festivals throughout the Southeast and on this trip out West, I was the first person who knew what the tag meant.

Leaving the Devil and shaggers behind,  I made a quick stop at a town just inside the park. A prairie dog town that is.

Off  in a pull over area along the roadway, I played paparazzi to a family of dogs who seemed to enjoy the attention as they popped their heads in and out of holes to sniff the air for danger before leaving the small dirt mounds to mulch on the soft prairie grass.  They played an endless game of  “whack a mole until this celebrity watcher had to  move on.

Once again I hit I-90, following its lanes west until I exited off for the town of Buffalo. On this particular summer weekend, its population quadrupled as fans of the book and Netflix series, Longmire, gathered for  a chance to meet up with the television cast members and author Craig Johnson in the town’s annual “Longmire Days”.

Confession time again. Prior to my road trip, I had never heard of Longmire. I came across the festival  while looking for things to do while out west. This meant binge-watching six seasons of the show and reading the first two books in the series.

As excited as I was for the festival, there were two things that had a slight edge over it: sleeping in a bed and soaking in a tub. Five nights of tent living and six mornings of lukewarm showers had me keyed up for my overnight stay at the local hotel. From there I wish there were more exciting details about my  first night in the town of Buffalo. The only excitement of that evening came in the form of fast food, reality television, tub soaking and laundry.

Friday morning, I headed out for my first ticketed event – “An Autograph Session with Craig Johnson and Cast”. The doors opened at the local civil center at noon. Once inside, I exchanged my ticket stub for a half sheet of  paper with the number 163 written across it. From there, event volunteers shuffled us fans into a large auditorium where another group of volunteers gave the low down of how the event would unfold.  Two hundred and fifty of us snaked between rows of  folding chairs until each had claimed one to wait out the time until our row number would be waved over to the long line of plastic top tables that make up the  meet and greet area. Once we arrived at the area, each of us could have two items signed, take a selfie and hob-nob with Johnson and cast members.

Two things became clear very quickly. These volunteers knew a thing or two about taking care of Longmire fans.  There were skits, songs and trivia challenges that made fan participation a must and a lot of fun.

Ninety minutes in, it was announced fans could leave for bathroom break or a snack, but if the line moved without you in it, there was no getting back in. Counting at least seventy-five ahead of me, I told my new fan girl friend I was heading to the car for water and crackers. Clutching my paper ticket in my hand, I headed outside.

Less than five minutes later, I flashed my “163” to the volunteer manning the outside area and  made my way towards  the auditorium doors. Just before I entered, an older man in a white cowboy hat stopped me. He stepped towards me and told me with a wide smile, “This is your lucky day.”

“Really” I said as I glanced over at to the attractive blond standing next to him, who was also wearing a white hat. He flashed me another grin and he introduced himself as Harold. It seemed Cowboy Harold and his wife (the blond) had driven up from Florida for the Longmire Days. They were hoping to meet all the cast members, particularly Sheriff Walt. Unfortunately, they had been late getting to town and all the tickets were now gone.

Harold explained his love of the show was so great that he had built a replica of Sheriff Walt’s Ford Bronco complete with an Absaroka County Sheriff Department emblem on its side door panels. He even pulled out his phone to show me pictures of it.While he showed off the pictures, his wife held out a Wyoming license plate and a large tan car sun visor. He shared they had wanted to get both items autographed by the cast to make their Sheriff Walt Bronco replica complete. This was where my lucky day came into play. Harold asked if I could get them signed for him since I had a ticket. My “163” was like the golden ticket from Willie Wonka and  the Chocolate Factory.

Sure, I had enjoyed binge watching Longmire, but I realized then and there I was no where near the fan-level Harold was. Only two items were allowed per person for the autograph session I told Harold. Since I had only one myself, I could take one of their  in with me. Harold and his wife had a short discussion before handing over their one item. I took it, told them the line was moving slowly and it may be another hour or two before I would see them again. Harold pointed to an empty couch against the brick wall of the hallway, saying they would be there waiting for me.

With my back pack and my new second item,  I walked back to my seat. My Texas fan-girl took a look at  the large tan sun visor under my arm and asked if something had happen to my car. Laughing, I replied “No” and explained how a cowboy named Harold had made it my “lucky” day. I showed her a picture of a picture of Harold’s Sheriff Walt’s Bronco. This picture I hoped would explain why I needed a car sun visor autographed.

Less than an hour later, volunteers motioned us to the signing area. With my book, the visor and my phone in hand, I approached my first stop: Craig Johnson. As I pushed the book and visor across the table, I began my spiel about Cowboy Harold and his Bronco. Johnson listened, smiled and politely took a look at my phone. He then turned and snatched a flattened Rainer beer carton from a stack laying on the chair behind him. Rainer beer is Sheriff Wal’st beer of choice. Johnson said to make sure Cowboy Harold got his second item signed by everyone. From there, Sheriff Walt, Jacob, Bob, Ruby, Branch and Fergie listened to my story and signed all three items (book, visor and beer carton) . With each autograph and selfie, I turn from fan-girl into a card carrying Longmire groupie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

With my three autographed items, I exited the auditorium to look for Cowboy Harold and his wife. Just as they had promised, they sat waiting on the couch. Waving the signed visor in one hand and the flattened beer carton in the other, I beelined over to them. For the next few moments, I shared how Johnson, Sheriff Walt and the rest of the cast  loved hearing about his Bronco back in Florida and how they wanted him to have his second autographed item, the beer carton.

After a few selfies with Harold and the misses, I set off to explore the streets of Buffalo. To my surprise or more like destiny, I found Sheriff Walt’s bronco parked outside the historic Occidental Hotel.  So like the Longmire groupie I had become, I asked a stranger to take my picture with it.

 

Afterwards,  I headed to the outskirts of Buffalo to set camp for the night and take a quick nap before my next event at the local high school,“Q&A with the Longmire Cast”. What a great time. Each actor answered questions about anything and everything.  As good as the Q&A was, the genuine fun and camaraderie  shared between the cast and the fans was the highlight.

 

At dusk, I returned to the streets of downtown Buffalo to go and get a quick bit to eat. In the square, I met two sisters from Sheridan. One was a first timer, the other a  repeater. We weaved ourselves in and out of the  crowded streets to get into the Occidental Hotel’s saloon. More narrow than wide with its 25 foot long bar, fans were squeezed  into it.  Shoulder to shoulder, we witnessed the annual fundraiser auction of Longmire cast members’ items. Sheriff Walt’s wine bottle went for $5k. Other items came and went with similar bids until the auctioneer announced Sheriff Walt’s final item of the night up for bidding: an autographed Longmire coffee table photo book containing scenes from the show. I don’t remember the initial bid, but the winning one was hard to forget, $20k. Yea, that’s right, twenty thousands dollars. It made me wonder if the grandmother from Arizona was in the bar and realized what a deal she had gotten for her $20 “meet and greet”ticket.

Calling it a night, I headed back to the campground to unwind . It took a while as I laid in my sleeping bag under the soft breeze of my battery operated fan replaying my day’s close encounters with a devil, a cowboy and a sheriff.

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